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What Teaching for Justice Means to Dr. Anjali Deshpande

Dr. Anjali Deshpande,  the Faculty Mentor in Mathematics at the Woodrow Wilson Graduate School of Teaching & Learning, believes strongly that numeracy—the ability to understand and work with numbers—is a crucial skill in today’s society,” she observes. “This is one of the only countries where people can still say, ‘Oh, I don’t do math.’ How silly would it sound if someone said, ‘No, I don’t do reading’? We have to begin to see numeracy the same way we see literacy. We need to think about numeracy as a civil right.”

Before earning her doctorate from New York University, Dr. Deshpande spent six years teaching in the South Bronx. Her experience teaching in a high-need school system motivated Dr. Deshpande to address public schools’ systemic and structural problems. At the WW Graduate School, Dr. Deshpande says she works with colleagues to  prepare future teachers, providing them with the best tools to combat educator burnout. “I want teachers to be able to socially and emotionally stay the course.”

Dr. Deshpande supports teacher candidates (TCs) as they progress through the Graduate School’s competency-based program. She is particularly passionate about coaching TCs on the intersection of math education and social justice through the Teaching for Justice core competency. 

“The most important part of merging math education and social justice,” says Dr. Deshpande, “is that we need both teachers and students to question where some of these rules came from—rules like defining what it means to be good at math, or why high school calculus is prioritized over learning to do taxes and understanding statistics in the media.” She believes that questioning these norms is the first step toward improving the education system.

At Practicum—weekly sessions where faculty members at the Graduate School coach TCs through coursework—Dr. Deshpande can address the Teaching for Justice competency in the context of instruction. She tries to call attention to incidences of bias in traditional math education and, with TCs, analyzes responses to problematic situations. For instance, Dr. Deshpande asks TCs to think about ways that race may factor into differential discipline or what might be going on for a student who is constantly tired at school. She believes that empathetic, educated teachers can build equitable classrooms.

Dr. Deshpande also integrates social justice into math teacher education in one-on-one meetings with TCs as a coach for the Teaching for Justice competency. During these meetings, Dr. Deshpande coaches TCs to reflect on this competency in the context of their academic work and clinical experiences. Beyond guiding TCs’ academic development, she cherishes the meetings because they afford her time to offer individualized advising, to provide research resources, and to learn more about TCs on a personal level.

She encourages TCs to question accepted systems, such as the sorting of students into leveled math classes and the conflation of problem-solving speed and problem-solving capacity in math. “Teachers need to constantly question their sources of privilege, and how that privilege affords them power over their students,” noted Dr. Deshpande. “To borrow from Paolo Freire, teachers need to think about how their students may experience them as oppressors, and the ways that they might oppress, even inadvertently.” Once math teachers do this, she said, they will be on their way to implementing the principles of the Teaching for Justice competency into their practice. 

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