New research by Jeanne Dyches asserts that teachers bring their own identities, background, and politics to the classroom when teaching. Photo by Ryan Riley.

Research finds that all teachers bring politics to the classroom

How a teacher teaches is never neutral or apolitical. Instead, educators bring their social and cultural identities into their classrooms — making it important to consider how those lessons and choices are received by students from marginalized groups.

That’s the premise of a new research article by Jeanne Dyches, an assistant professor in the Iowa State University School of Education, published in June by the Journal of Teacher Education, the top-tier journal in the field of teacher education.

“Everything we do as teachers is always influenced by who we are as sociocultural beings,” Dyches said. “We have to be mindful that we’re always making choices based on our own paradigm. It’s disingenuous and even dangerous to prepare our teachers to believe that their instructional choices aren’t inherently political in nature.”

Redesign of 30-year teacher education foundation

Dyches said her research is “a redesign of the very foundation that teacher education has rested on for over three decades.” That foundation, developed by Lee Schulman at Stanford University in 1986, is called “pedagogical content knowledge,” or PCK for short.

PCK is a type of knowledge that is unique to teachers, based on the manner in which teachers relate their pedagogical knowledge (what they know about teaching) to their subject-matter knowledge (what they know about what they teach). It differentiates teachers from scientists in how knowledge is organized by teachers and used to help students understand specific concepts.

Dyches’ research, co-authored with Ashley Boyd, an assistant professor of English at Washington State University, asserts that Schulman’s framework fails to account for the role of social justice in classroom practices and teacher preparation. As a result, educators don’t always learn how to offer culturally responsive instruction to students who don’t belong to the same sociocultural groups as them.

“When teacher educators and institutions treat our instructional choices as neutral, as apolitical, that orientation tends to almost always affirm our students from traditional, mainstream groups, while simultaneously polarizing our kids from marginalized communities,” Dyches said.  

New model includes social justice

Research by Dyches and Boyd advances the notion that social justice pulsates throughout every instructional maneuver — that everything teachers do is informed by who they are as sociocultural beings. The new model, called “social justice pedagogical and content knowledge” or SJPACK, would prepare teachers with social justice in mind. 

“Our model asks teachers to consider who they are and how they might be more mindful of acknowledging and responding to the needs and realities of students who don’t look like them, love like them, believe like them,” Dyches said. “SJPACK acknowledges how all of our instructional choices, both pedagogical and content decisions, are made based on and influenced by our social justice orientations.”

The model would situate teachers to work as change agents in their own spheres of social influence: their classrooms. Teachers could modify traditional approaches to content and pedagogy to be more culturally accessible, so classes engage more deeply in critical conversations about inequities.

“I always invite teachers and students to embrace discomfort,” Dyches said. “Any meaningful growth really comes from unsettling your own paradigm and modeling that for your students. We need to constantly reimagine how we’re seeing the world, how we’re teaching our students and acknowledging who they are. SJPACK gives us a theoretical foundation from which to create more equitable realities for all students.”