Providing Opportunities for Teacher Candidates to Understand Power, Privilege, and Oppression

Belinda Edwards, Kennesaw State U. & Kathleen Stoehr, Santa Clara U.

The Association of Mathematics Teacher Educators’ (AMTE, 2017) Standards for Preparing Teachers of Mathematics describes a set of proficiencies for well-prepared novice mathematics teachers. The AMTE indicator C.4.4. states: “Well-prepared beginning teachers of mathematics understand the roles of power, privilege, and oppression in the history of mathematics education and are equipped to question existing educational systems that produce inequitable educational experiences and outcomes for students.” As educator preparation programs (EPPs) across the country prepare beginning teachers of mathematics, it is critical that mathematics teacher educators (MTEs) focus on developing teacher candidates’ (TCs) understandings of the impact that power, privilege, and oppression have on the practice of teaching. 

As MTEs, in our mathematics methods courses we often design and engage TCs in discussions, activities, and assignments intended to enable a critical examination of power, White privilege, and social justice issues within society and educational systems that function to maintain social inequities. These learning experiences are thought to help TCs view teaching and learning mathematics through a lens of cultures different from their own, while potentially influencing a change in racist attitudes and deficiency beliefs about disadvantaged students. Our experiences have been that during these learning experiences, TCs express openness to disrupting the White normative view of teaching and learning mathematics. They often reject deficit ideology, embracing an asset view of disadvantaged students and their families. However, toward the end of the semester during their field experience, or when TCs are in classrooms, we have observed that they tend toward deficit views, assumptions, and understandings of underrepresented students of color and their families in ways that affect their teaching. We often ask ourselves—what happened? While the course’s intentional discussions, activities, and assignments bring greater awareness about power and White privilege, and how they disadvantage Black and Brown students, these methods cannot be the end-all and be-all to improving racist attitudes and deficit ideology. Moving assignments and activities beyond the theoretical into the contextual environment of classrooms where TCs are afforded opportunities to witness the ideology that underlies deficit perspectives and begin to confront their racist or deficit views about Black, Brown, or disadvantaged students is essential.

There are several ways MTEs may promote TCs’ understanding of power, privilege, and oppression, while developing their knowledge, skills, and dispositions to question inequities, advocate for students, and contribute to solving current challenges in education (AMTE, 2017).  A methods course intentionally integrated with field experiences designed to introduce TCs to a high-need school context, of which many are unfamiliar, may provide opportunities for TCs to examine their own biases and social positionality, notice inequities that exist in high-need school environments, and develop a deep understanding of these communities and school environments (Darling-Hammond, et al., 2020). TCs having multiple opportunities to work with students in high-need schools during their field experience, along with supportive administrators and mentor teachers, increases the likelihood of TCs choosing to teach in such schools (Boyd, et al., 2011; Ronfeldt, 2012). However, it is imperative that TCs receive appropriate training before they enter these communities so as to not perpetuate deficit thinking (Kitchen, 2005). EPPs can build transformative school-university partnerships with local underserved or high-need schools in an effort to co-design methods courses that focus on TCs’ learning culturally responsive core teaching practices. Such practices include building relationships with students, developing positive perspectives on parents and families, communicating high expectations for students, and designing and facilitating student-centered instruction. We highlight each of these practices below.

Building Relationships with Students

A disproportionate discipline rate for Black and Brown students is a form of oppression that may lead to an abuse of power. MTEs can support TCs during their field experience to challenge systems of oppression that privilege some and disadvantage others (Freire, 1970; Gurung & Prieto, 2009). This process begins with supporting TCs noticing of students’ strengths and building positive relationships with them. Positive relationships engage students in a safe community that supports them in defining who they are, what they become, and how and why they matter and are important to others (Parrett & Budge, 2012; Roffey, 2012). Because disciplinary actions within schools and classrooms often disadvantage underrepresented students (Gregory & Mosely, 2004), teachers and TCs must be open to sharing authority in the classroom. One way to address discipline disparities, while supporting TCs building positive relationships with students in the classroom, is to require TCs to develop a social contract with their students. The process of developing empathy and trust by building a social-contract together with students provides TCs and students with an opportunity to share their values and beliefs, while creating shared behavior expectations, which foster community and a safe classroom environment for ALL students, particularly Black and Brown students (Steele & Cohn-Vargas, 2013).

Developing Positive Perspectives on Parents and Families

It is critical that TCs have opportunities to learn about the rich mathematical resources that families and communities in high-need contexts hold. Previous research reveals the importance of parental engagement in schools, including listening to and honoring parents’ voices as related to mathematics. This work underscores the importance of creating a two-way dialog between home and school where parents are viewed as intellectual resources (Civil & Andrade 2003). Civil and Andrade’s (2002) work also reveals that having teachers conduct home visits with students’ families to learn first-hand about the rich mathematics experiences that exist often challenges their deficit-based views on students from high-need backgrounds. Therefore, having TCs engage in home visits before they begin their teaching career may offer this important opportunity earlier on. However, as previously discussed, great care must be taken so that TCs do not enter students’ homes with a deficit-thinking lens (Kitchen, 2005).

MTEs should also consider inviting parents into their courses as respected guest speakers to share the many ways that mathematics takes place in their homes. This offers parents the space to talk about their mathematical expertise and knowledge that occur in their homes on a day-to-day basis so TCs may see the highly esteemed knowledge base that parents hold. TCs learn first-hand about the rich mathematical assets that parents from high-need communities possess (Stoehr & Civil, 2019).

High Expectations and Student-Centered Instruction

Too often, Black and Brown students are overwhelmingly represented in low-level mathematics courses involving rote and low-cognitive demand learning activities. Such low expectations for students may be a form of oppression that privileges some students over others. Communicating high expectations for students involves establishing high academic standards while simultaneously attending to student needs through learning and academic language supports. Caring and supportive classroom environments that engage students in rigorous student-centered instruction promote autonomy and student voice, while embracing multiple meanings of intelligence, success, and the valuing of student thinking and knowledge contributions, which ultimately play an important role in shaping diverse students’ positive mathematics identity (Aguirre, et al., 2013; Allen & Schnell, 2016; Cohn-Vargas & Stelle, 2013).     

The above practices can be addressed in any mathematics methods course. However, university coursework with a focus on building transformative high-need school-university partnerships that emphasize collaboration with supportive administrators and mentor teachers may help TCs better connect theory and practice. Such clinical experiences contextualize learning to teach mathematics. Further, they afford TCs an opportunity to spend time in cultural and educational environments that might be different from their own, so they can build relationships with students and mentor teachers from other cultures and also an understanding of their own beliefs, values, and privilege and how these could negatively impact mathematics teaching and learning for underserved students. These transformative school-university partnerships could provide multiple opportunities for TCs to explore demographic trends in their school, become aware of and understand current school policies and practices that disenfranchise underserved students of high-quality learning experiences, and begin learning how to implement strategies that support and empower underserved students who have historically been denied quality mathematics education (AMTE, 2017; NCTM, 2014b).


We would like to acknowledge that we wrote this article as a result of our work and conversations that took place as members of the 2018 & 2019 AMTE Equity Committee. Committee members included Carlos López Leiva, Belinda Edwards, Anthony Fernandes, Nicole Joseph, Kathleen Stoehr, and Maria Zavala.


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