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Core Competencies: Teaching for Justice

When you walk into the Woodrow Wilson Graduate School of Teaching & Learning, you’re greeted by a large decal of a school bus with the words “justice is the destination, education is the vehicle.” On the walls in the main space are posters, projects, and evidence of some of the work that faculty, staff, and students at the Graduate School have done to understand and define what it means to teach for justice.

The WW Graduate School has identified “Teaching for Justice” as a core competency. Teaching for Justice means that TCs develop the ability to incorporate considerations of equity and inclusion into every aspect of their teaching practice. Taught and assessed throughout the entire curriculum, Teaching for Justice at the Graduate School is not just a set of skills aspiring teachers learn, but also a disposition they continue to develop as teachers of record.

Some may wonder why Teaching for Justice is an emphasis at a school that is focused on preparing science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) teachers. “Our aim is to prepare teacher candidates who are able to help their students situate STEM as a human endeavor, and see themselves as capable of using those tools to create a better world, an orientation that has been shown to increase interest especially of traditionally underrepresented groups in STEM,” explains Dr. Deborah Hirsch, President of the WW Graduate School. “A lens towards Teaching for Justice invites teachers to examine and create curriculum and classroom environment that acknowledge historical and current issues and to engage their students in learning about these complex issues in context.”

The WW Grad School feels strongly that Teaching for Justice is something that should pervade every aspect of a teacher’s teaching, whether that teacher is in a STEM field or another. All teachers should constantly grapple with and practice what it means as educators to counteract inequalities and foster just learning environments for their students.

“For me, Teaching for Justice is kind of the foundation for everything that we do as educators,” said Dr. Anjali Deshpande, a faculty mentor in mathematics at the WW Graduate School. “It touches all aspects of the teaching and learning cycles that we all engage in.”

In the spirit of continuous improvement, the WW Graduate School assessed elements of their master’s degree program, and used what it learned to improve curriculum and competencies and better define guiding values. As a part of this work, Dr. Deshpande partnered with Dr. Meredith Moore of MIT’s Playful Journey Lab to rework the Teaching for Justice core competency. Together they dug into relevant literature and research to distill a set of learning objectives.

“Because our competencies need to be written in such a way that they are demonstrable and measurable, we’ve had to really clarify what we mean by [Teaching for Justice] and what it looks like,” Dr. Moore said. “So the fact that we have six learning objectives that fall under Teaching for Justice, and within each one of those, we have a list of criteria, provides an awful lot more clarity. That helps teacher candidates to be able to think much more specifically about Teaching for Justice and how it applies in their classrooms.”

The WW Graduate School considers Teaching for Justice a values-based competency, a competency that informs all aspects of a teacher’s practice and therefore should not be demonstrated in isolation. Rather, Teaching for Justice and other values-based competencies are exhibited only as teacher candidates (TCs) carry out the other tasks of teaching, whether it be delivering instruction, responding to students’ behaviors, or connecting with parents and guardians.

The Graduate School is working to both support and push its teacher candidates to make progress on Teaching for Justice and therefore, assessment of this competency looks a bit different. TCs are asked to reflect deeply on how they engaged with each of the Teaching for Justice learning objectives throughout the program. TCs also meet with and debrief their progress with faculty and staff to show how their thinking and practice has developed.

“It’s this ongoing process, and what we want to see is grappling and growth.” says Dr. Moore. “The way that we’ve framed it is you demonstrate this competency by showing real progress, not by showing specifically that you designed a perfect curriculum that made students from marginalized backgrounds feel affirmed.”

This is the first year that WW teacher candidates are engaging with this version of the Teaching for Justice core competency, but it is already a part of the DNA of the WW Graduate School. While iterations will surely follow, faculty and staff are enthusiastic about the work and how TCs are engaging with it throughout every facet of their learning.

“As a teacher educator, I can infuse some of these ideas early on in the trajectory of a teacher’s development, and my hope is that TCs think about Teaching for Justice at every phase of teaching and learning right from the beginning'” says Dr. Deshpande. Deshpande wants TCs to engage in the challenging work of investigating and questioning their sources of power and privilege while gaining critical skills to teach mathematics. “It’s not going to be perfect, and I realize that, but I think this is my contribution to the field.”

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