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Where All the Good Teachers are Cape Verdean Americans: A White Teacher’s Identity Positionings in an Urban Elementary School

Abstract

This study examines how a white language teacher’s understanding of race affected her teaching practice in an urban elementary language classroom with predominantly Cape Verdean immigrant students. The teacher relied on her experiences teaching English in Namibia and her experiences learning Spanish in the United States and Afrikaans in Namibia to ground her practice, which focused on cultural difference and standard English language teaching without specific reference to race in the context of the United States. I adopt the theory of LangCrit, an intersection between Critical Race Theory, Critical Language Studies, and Positioning Theory, to first demonstrate that the teacher’s justifications of her teaching practices were contradictory and conflicting, and in fact shows how, despite her good intentions, whiteness is imposed, assumed, or negotiated in the context of urban language classrooms. Based on these findings, I suggest possibilities for and constraints on using critical theory-oriented praxis in the classroom grounded in teachers’ personal experiences to help teachers interrogate and disrupt whiteness in language classrooms. Without greater support from critically-oriented urban teacher educators, many white teachers with the best of intentions will continue to struggle in their search for culturally responsive and empowering pedagogies for immigrant English learners of color in urban school settings.

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Correspondence to Jihea Maddamsetti.

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Appendices

Appendix 1: Sample Interview Questions

  1. 1.

    Could you share your educational backgrounds and intercultural experiences, if any?

  2. 2.

    How would you describe your students in class and school?

  3. 3.

    How would you describe your role as a teacher?

  4. 4.

    How do you engage your students in topics of cultural and linguistic diversity in general in your class?

  5. 5.

    How do you find it hard to talk about issues of students’ racialized experiences? Could you describe the challenge?

  6. 6.

    If you could change the structural system at school (e.g., the time of meeting your students; curriculum choices; faculty meetings, etc.) to respond to and sustain your students’ cultural, linguistic, ethnic/racial identities, what would you strive to change?

  7. 7.

    Could you describe your goals in class today, and your role?

  8. 8.

    Could you describe why you chose _______ activities (e.g., leading book discussions, small group workshops, raising certain questions, etc.) in class today?

  9. 9.

    How have your ideas about culture, language, and race motivate you to teach your students? What do you see your role in teaching these topics in class? Are there any specific strategies?

Appendix 2: Examples of Coding Categories and Themes, and Data Analysis

  Race identification Language identification Intersected identification of race and language
Self-other positioning Oppositional positioning in relation to “those” white teachers at school Centering cultural and linguistic diversity to connect with her students
Positioning as an intercultural-self due to extensive intercultural experiences
(assumed & negotiated intercultural self-positioning)
Understanding the race and language as ideologies embedded in the fabric of English teaching in Cape Verde, Namibia, and the U.S.
Avoiding race-related discussions in teaching the English language
First order positioning Centering issues of race as individual-level treatment Teaching standard English to prevent students’ discrimination and promote their social mobility (assumed white intellectual alibis; imposed standard English practice) Avoiding race dialogues, but emphasizing the importance of learning standard English as a code
Positioning as a professional, legitimate, and credible teacher who speaks standard English
Re-positioning See the race in the lives and bodies of teachers of color and responsibility transfers (imposed and negotiated) Exploring her linguistic positioning as a majority and dominant group Expressing the needs and wants to engage in race discussions with colleagues at school; expressing feelings of uncertainty and ambivalence
(negotiated and assumed)
Wondering how to connect with her students and their communities by engaging in race discussions intersected with language
(assumed and negotiated)

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Maddamsetti, J. Where All the Good Teachers are Cape Verdean Americans: A White Teacher’s Identity Positionings in an Urban Elementary School. Urban Rev 52, 100–126 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11256-019-00514-5

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Keywords

  • Urban teacher education
  • Whiteness
  • Identity positioning
  • White teachers
  • English language learners