Khalifa, M. A. (2012, Fall). Caught between theory and reality: positionality of a Black male teacher in urban Detroit. Vitae Scholasticae, 29(2), 5+.
“Over a century ago, John Dewey, and his contemporaries and critics, wrangled over the extent to which educators should focus on an intractable, static curriculum, or on a process that focused on the experiences and realities of students. This debate is still raging, and in recent years has been described as protean as student-centered (Gibbs 1981), culturally-relevant (Ladson-Billings 1995; Howard 2003) and even hip-hop pedagogies (Ginwright 2004). In this article, I reflect on several “scenes” or moments in my teaching career in urban Detroit, and in doing so, compare these experiences to the theories prevalent in my undergraduate teacher education program. As I reflect, I ask questions such as, “to what extent was I trained to work in urban schools?” “Were the theories I learned in college applicable to my work environment?” And perhaps most compelling, “Does my lack of appropriate college training act to further disadvantage students in an urban teaching environment?” The collective scenes that I share represent a broader dilemma—indeed, a dissonance—between how teaching practice is constructed by non-practicing, overly theoretical scholars and how it existentially occurs in urban schools. I served as a Detroit schoolteacher and administrator for nearly ten years throughout the city of Detroit. I started teaching at the city’s largest middle schools on the Detroit’s East Side—the part of Detroit that had a reputation for being violent and academically-challenged. I would eventually serve as science teacher at a total of five different Detroit middle-schools and would also gain valuable international teaching experiences in Cairo, Egypt and Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Following my service as a science teacher, I accepted an administrative position “Downtown,” at the district’s administrative offices. But it is precisely because of these collective experiences that by the end of my decade-long teaching and administrative career, I developed into what might be referred to as a critical culturally-relevant educator. In other words, through a process of self-reflection and self-critique, as well as with continuous critiques of the systems in which I lived and worked, I constantly refined what teaching meant, how it happened, and what would be most useful to my students. By the end of my time there, I refused to teach to a test or follow a pacing guide; I almost never assigned homework or in-class tests; I showed up unannounced at students’ homes; I overlooked students’ use of profanity in my classrooms; I tolerated hip-hop proclivity and urban street behavior; I assigned physical punishments for misbehaving students (usually squats, push-ups, or climbing stairs); and I engaged in a number of other unorthodox practices that I developed as a result of the contexts in which I found myself teaching. The pedagogical dissonance between the theory espoused in my university’s teacher education program and what I experienced in a racialized, impoverished urban context foreshadows my journey into criticality, and into constant self-reflecting about the relevance and effectiveness of my current researcher responsibilities.
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