Narratives of Inclusive Teaching

Stories of <i>Becoming</i> in the Field

by Srikala Naraian (Author) Sarah L. Schlessinger (Author)
Textbook XII, 166 Pages

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One A Male Teacher of Color: Filling the Void with Taiyo Ebato
  • Chapter Two Negotiating the Cruel Optimisms of Inclusivity with Molly Goodell
  • Chapter Three Recognizing Success, Deferring Competence with Peter Reitzfeld
  • Chapter Four Stories of a Feminist Killjoy Inclusive Educator with Harley Jones
  • Chapter Five A Dystopian Tale with Jessica Ewing
  • Chapter Six Searching for an Activist-Educator Self: Towards a DisCrit Classroom Ecology with Adam Kuranishi
  • Chapter Seven Absurdities and Contradictions: Teaching against Oneself with Rena Matsushita
  • Reflections on Agentive Maneuverings
  • Index

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Many people and places must share in the completion of this book. We are grateful that the institutional location of Teachers College was available as a convenient site to meet with our teacher-graduate-participants whose experiences we have narrated in this book. We appreciated the opportunity to welcome them back into this location where conversations about theory and practice could take new form in light of their recent experiences as certified teachers. Our professional roles (past and present) within the Department of Curriculum and Teaching and in the programs for Inclusive Education provided the opportunity to meet students with shared commitments to social justice for marginalized youth. Most importantly, we owe our heartfelt thanks to Taiyo, Rena, Peter, Molly, Jessica, Harley and Adam, without whose generous interest in our research and willing participation in the study, this book would not have been possible. Their words, emotions, musings, aspirations, and commitments have significantly shifted the ways we think about inclusion and teacher education for inclusion. We have been changed because of them.

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As I continue to build and grow my understandings and practices of inclusivity, I, Sarah, am grateful to the many teachers and students that I work with who continue to push me to stretch my theory and practice. My perspective grows through our conversations and shared experiences. I am particularly grateful to Celia Oyler for grounding me in the greater purpose of this work and mentoring me into the worlds of inclusivity and academia. Her mentorship and my membership in the inclusive education community at Teachers College allowed me to make some sense of the inequities in education I had seen as a classroom teacher. Within that community, I am particularly grateful to Srikala Naraian, a mentor, colleague, and a friend who, with unparalleled kindness and patience, continues to help me negotiate my work as a researcher in the field of Disability Studies in Education. I owe much of my understanding of the complexities of inclusive education to these two women. I would also like to thank my family for instilling in me a deep belief in the pursuit of knowledge. To my parents, thank you both for your own commitments to equity and social justice and your willingness to listen to me jabber on about inclusive education. Finally, to my amazing wife, Jamie, who chose to marry me in the midst of my writing anxiety for this book, thank you for partnering me with your perspective, knowledge, thoughtfulness, criticality, strength and unwavering support.

Research and writing is never a solitary endeavor. I, Srikala, am grateful for the numerous ways in which my students continually compel me to clarify my thinking and to seek opportunities alongside them to deepen what we know about inclusive education and how we come to know it. Additionally, I could not sustain my scholarly pursuits without the generous encouragement from colleagues and mentors both within and outside Teachers College, within and outside the US. Their faith in my scholarship has permitted, in significant measure, the risks I have been able to take when delivering some of the insights we have been able to include in this book. As always, I am grateful for the quietly proud support extended by my daughter, Maegha, and for the opportunity to live and work in a city which not only presents visceral challenges to inclusivity everyday but also demands real-time response(s) that must congeal with its aspirations.

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We thank the team at Peter Lang Publishing for supporting us in bringing this project to fruition and to Susan Gabel and Scot Danforth, editors of the Disability Studies in Education series, within which this book could find a ready home. Their commitments allows us to continue to pursue our own. Inclusive of Scot and Susan, we extend our gratitude to the Disability Studies in Education community and the platform we collectively create to question the system as it is.

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Many researchers in the field of disability studies in education, including ourselves, are engaged in teacher education programs that require both coursework and fieldwork (student teaching or practica). Such experiences generally call for ongoing relationships with practicing teachers, negotiation with school partners, encounters with state licensure systems, and familiarity with accountability procedures in schools. Preparing teachers for inclusion is embedded within this assemblage of social activity that has, for us, inevitably come to inform the conceptualization of inclusion itself. Our struggle as researchers and teacher educators has been to reconcile this process with our commitment to the equitable education of students with disabilities1 that we brought to this work in the first place. This book is our attempt to explore that struggle.

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As scholars situated within a disability studies tradition, we are first and foremost unequivocally committed to emancipatory modes of practice that understand disability not as a problem or a deficit within a person, but as emergent within the interactions of individuals with social, cultural, political and legal institutions in society. Our work as teacher educators is grounded in this fundamental commitment to the recognition of disability as a valued form of human variation that requires a vigilant monitoring of the ideology of ability which circulates within school systems, categorizing some populations as incompetent or deficient. Teachers, we remind our students and ourselves, must recognize how social, physical and attitudinal barriers produce disability, and should respond actively to mitigate their debilitating effects on individuals, in this case, students in schools. Yet, our experiences over the years with our own students (teacher candidates) as well as our investigations of teacher practices in schools have demanded that we articulate a more complex position. Repeatedly, our students and teacher-participants in our studies have shown us that the work of teaching for inclusion is complex, often contradictory, and sometimes defies the priorities brought by disability studies scholars (Naraian, 2017; Naraian & Schlessinger, 2017). We have found that there are few visible markers of practice that can be unequivocally asserted as necessary for inclusion at all times or everywhere.

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This poses particular dilemmas for us as we prepare new teachers for this work. While we now know that teaching for inclusion is a continuous, unfinished process (Booth, 2009), we simultaneously assert that there is much about becoming an inclusive educator that remains unknown. For instance, in what ways does a critical awareness of the ableist, racist, gendered and classist underpinnings of a school system come to inform the professional growth and development of an educator? How do teacher candidates draw on the idealized vision of schooling for equity and social justice to make decisions about what they will teach, to whom, how, and when? These questions are necessary not only to prepare candidates most effectively for this work, but also to continually monitor how we ourselves, as teacher educators, conceptualize inclusion. Our focus, in this book, therefore, is to document a segment of this process of becoming an inclusive educator, namely, the early stages of entry into the field. The question we have taken up in this book is: How do novice teachers prepared in higher education settings for inclusive practices begin to construct their professional identities within the context of their schools? We hope that this will ultimately deepen our understandings of inclusion and inclusive practice and our preparation and support of novice teachers.

(Re)storying Teachers, Recognizing Agency

The premise of this book, then, is that the stories that teachers tell are important both to understand the phenomenon of inclusion, as well as to conceptualize how teachers come to understand themselves. We expect that teachers’ sense-making efforts will give us deeper clues into the meanings of inclusion within schools. We simultaneously recognize such sense-making to be grounded in the material contexts of practice, indeed as inseparable from them. In that regard, we do not categorize these teachers as heroic, passive, compliant or negligent. Instead, we understand teachers’ agency for inclusion to be situated and as emergent from the interplay of biographical and material-discursive contextual elements that collectively create the conditions within which inclusive practice is enacted (Danforth & Naraian, 2015). As we navigate through different intellectual traditions (described later in this chapter) we find ourselves continually refining and demystifying such situatedness. We have gradually come to understand that our efforts to do so both preserve and challenge the centrality of the teacher figure in this phenomenon. While this has provoked some unease, it has also stimulated us to adopt a “jumping and straddling” of epistemological positions (Ellingson, 2011). We will explain this further in subsequent pages. But first, we begin with our primary commitment to teacher stories.

The Significance of Teachers’ Stories

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Teachers typically bring a continual, unending stream of stories to share about their students, their interactions with colleagues, with families and with community members. They share stories about curriculum-making and the texts that affect their students and their classroom communities. They overflow with stories about students’ interactions with each other, with texts and with other adults in the community. They are filled with stories about administrative and bureaucratic decisions that produce success or failure for their students and for themselves. Listening to teachers, we come to understand the beliefs and assumptions that animate their work, the struggles they uphold, the conditions they find supportive, the vulnerabilities they bear, and the successes and constraints they experience. “Exploring this multifaceted knowledge more fully through attention to the way that teachers’ stories are told, their language and imagery, their drama or repetitiveness, one can disclose the underlying conceptualizations and reconceptualizations of the educational situation and come to a better understanding of how teachers do their work and why” (Elbaz-Luwisch, 2005, p. ix). Understanding how and why teachers take up inclusive practices, we additionally argue, can help us refine our understandings of inclusion itself.

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The privileging of stories itself is premised on distinguishing between multiple modes of thinking. Narrative researchers Clandinin and Connelly (2000) describe a distinction between thinking narratively and thinking formalistically. Thinking narratively about the experiences of individuals and communities is to understand events as continuous with other experiences across time; to recognize people as engaged in a process of change; to perceive the meanings of action not as self-evident but as expression of other narrative histories; to remain cognizant that interpretations of actions/events are always subject to change, and are necessarily characterized by tentativeness rather than certainty; and, to recognize the centrality of context in interpreting people’s lives and the inevitable situatedness of actions and intentional states that are not readily predictable (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000; Stone-Mediatore, 2000). The formalistic approach, on the other hand, relies on the frameworks we bring to assess what things are and how they can be different. Conversely, “it is a view that things are never what they are but are rather what our framework or points of view or perspective or outlook makes of them” (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000, p. 39). Inevitably, for inclusive education researchers, these forms of thinking produce sites of significant tension. When we observe teachers engage in practice that, from a critical disability studies lens, suggests ableist norms, we are likely to interpret such teaching as problematic and as defeating the aims of inclusion. Narrative thinking, however, requires that we remain open to the possibility of other interpretations; we are called to monitor our own narrative histories when working at the site of these tensions.

Narrative knowing begins with the stories that are told by people. In doing thus, it upholds individual agency as significant for understanding experience. Some scholars argue that representations of experience that portray the subject as the primary agent are misleading because they obscure the discursive context that make available particular forms of actions and thought. Experience, they argue, cannot exist outside the discourses used to represent it (Scott, 2014). Others, however, have noted the power of narratives to disclose the historical-material conditions within which experiences are formed as well as the potential for alternative ways of being/thinking implicit within stories that may be unavailable in larger, widely circulating stories (Moya, 2000; Stone-Mediatore, 2000). We orient towards the latter position; in privileging experience via narrative, we recognize the narrative experience as epistemically significant for generating important theoretical knowledge.

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A narrative mode of inquiry does not presume that the stories people tell about their experiences are their own, though they do not simply make them up (Frank, 2010). Rather, stories are important not only for the construction of selves, but also in “making life social” (p.15). They perform important functions in guiding individuals to interpret experiences and to act in particular ways within social environments. In that regard, they are crucial for teachers’ ongoing identity work (Elbaz-Luwisch, 2005). If the primary work of stories is to make the earth habitable, then they simultaneously also teach people to understand who they are (Frank, 2010). Yet, the self that becomes articulated through these stories is not necessarily a stable, unitary self. On the contrary, stories shared by individuals are always partial, registering a particular constellation of social actors and events that are made visible and relevant at particular moments in time and which do not follow a linear progression. To surface these constellations more strongly in this book, we have, in many instances, emphasized the collectivities within which the teachers in this book found themselves. Doing this inevitably de-centered teacher agency, bumping up uneasily against our fundamentally narrative stance. Still, we found we could illustrate agency as an embodied, rather than a purely cerebral phenomenon when we paid greater attention to bodily attachments (Feely, 2016). In other words, teachers’ affective capacities and performances were important for our understanding of inclusive practice (Naraian & Khoja-Moolji, 2016).

Teachers, like the rest of us, enact multiple versions of themselves—in different places at different times, with different social partners. In that regard, while we are constrained by our data to pay particular attention to the period when the teachers in this book were just setting out to become teachers, we expect that their own written reflections five years later will illustrate the ways in which the work of storying actors moves through time in non-linear ways, capturing the multiplicity of selves that populate one’s experiences. Collectively, the narratives we present offer a provocative, albeit partial, window into the ongoing process of “becoming” teachers.

Preparing to Understand Teacher Agency

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Inasmuch as a narrative accounting of teachers as always already agentive is an important place to begin our work in understanding the journey of teachers, it may also be helpful to review how teacher agency has been traditionally investigated, and the assumptions within those approaches. Within inclusive education scholarship premised on disability studies in education, teachers are generally presumed to be agentive when they are able to recognize the deficit-based practices within schools, and work to disrupt them in ways that can benefit marginalized students, with a particular focus on students with disabilities. They are, in short, charged with being agents of change who can, within their own realms of experience work to dismantle ableist and exclusionary structures (Ashby, 2012; Oyler, 2011). Important as this trope may be for the development of liberatory practices that can benefit students with disabilities, it also assumes agency to be a stable, internal property that can be transported across contexts. Such a position, however, is contrary to a narrative approach described above, wherein experience remains bound to the places, people, events, and ideas that circulate within stories. Some scholars have offered ways of understanding teacher agency that support the premises of this book.

Priestly, Biesta, and Robinson (2015) offer an ecological model to understand teacher agency as a form of achievement. Encompassing three dimensions—the iterational (relating to life-histories and professional biographies), the practical-evaluative (enactment within concrete structural, cultural and material conditions) and the projective (referencing short-term and long-term futures)—this model suggests that teacher agency is always informed by past experiences, orientated in some way or the other towards the future and enacted in a particular situation that is subject to a set of affordances and constraints. This ecological model radically shifts conceptions of teacher agency away from individual bodies/minds to include a more expansive consideration of a wide range of influences that inform teacher enactment. Teachers, these authors suggest, can be said to achieve agency when they are able to choose between different options that are made available to them in different situations. They also caution against using notions of teacher capacity to understand teacher agency; while the former may be necessary, it is not sufficient.

The model offered by Priestly, Biesta, and Robinson (2015) bears some linkage to an understanding of teacher agency as always socioculturally mediated (Vygotsky, 1986). In other words, teachers’ exercise of agency does not emanate solely from within the individual but is in fact inseparable from the school structures and the particular cultural resources made available to them, including the policies and mandates of the school, norms of teacher professionalism and student achievement, their beliefs and commitments, and the larger sociopolitical context in which they carry out their work (Pantic, 2015; Priestly et al., 2015). Drawing collectively on the benefits of these approaches, we take up a situated notion of agency that is located within the cultural worlds in which it emerges, but which is not pre-determined by the discourses prevalent within them (Holland, Lachiotte, Skinner, & Cain, 1998).

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The above frameworks for understanding agency are generative for us in two important ways: firstly, they allow us to retain our narrative approach to teachers that privileges the stories they tell about their experiences as inclusive educators; secondly, they simultaneously permit us to remain deeply cognizant of the nature of the conditions within which teachers must enact inclusion. Collectively, they allow us to retain the commitments to students with disabilities and their families that animates our scholarly commitments, while continually remaining mindful of the complexity of teacher enactments of socially just pedagogy. It is this complexity in which both teachers and researchers are entangled, that draws us continually towards notions of agency that can “extend beyond the skin” of the individual (Puar, 2017). It is not surprising then that, we feel simultaneously compelled to pursue theorists who argue that agency is distributed across human and nonhuman actors (Barad, 2007, 2008; DeLanda, 2006). Still, we uphold the capacity of bodies to affect and be affected by others as an important element within such mixed collectivities (Ahmed, 2006; DeLanda, 2006; Postma, 2016. We therefore hold in some productive tension competing views of agency and competing ways of knowing; we are motivated by the hope that doing so can offer us important insights into how the becoming of novice teachers can be enabled/constrained.

Our Theoretical Attachments: Disability Studies in Education with a Critical Realism

As scholars who inhabit different locations within different (albeit intersecting) professional trajectories, we bring a range of theoretical commitments that collectively help us to set the stage for this book. For Kala, the search for a complex understanding of teacher work produced a scholarly journey that, while always rooted in the commitments of a disability studies in education, has entailed an exploration of multiple traditions including sociocultural anthropology, transnational feminisms, post-positivist realism, spatial theory and more recently, posthumanism. For Sarah, the investment in the education of forgotten or pushed-out students led to a belief in teacher capacity and a scholarly journey rooted in disability studies in education, critical race theory, and affect theory.

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The following description reflects our collective engagement with these bodies of work in the context of our shared commitment to understanding and improving inclusive practices in schools. For both of us, the place we begin is disability studies in education. For disability studies scholars, disablement is understood as produced through externally imposed barriers that oppress individuals with disabilities and prevent their access to, and inclusion within, all walks of life (Ware, 2010). Disability studies in education (DSE), shines a specific spotlight on the ways in which this disablement is enacted and reified through the practices of schooling for many groups and individuals (Danforth & Gabel, 2006; Gabel, 2005). Over the last decade, DSE scholars have produced a sophisticated critique of the epistemological foundations of schooling that delegitimize disability and disclosed the many ways in which schooling systems sort and categorize students to produce labels of incompetence and failure. Increasingly, scholars in this field have deepened such analyses to account for the ways in which different social identifiers such as race/ethnicity, class, gender, immigrant status, among others, intersect with disability (Connor, Ferri, & Annama, 2016). Steadily eschewing medicalized, individualized, deficit-oriented understandings of disability, such analyses have instead disclosed the complex workings of social and institutional structures that produce oppressive experiences for students and their families.

Critical race theory (CRT) similarly understands race as societally produced and calls for an interrogation of societal systems and structures that privilege Whiteness (Delgado & Stefancic, 2017). The scholars of CRT in education invite the use of storytelling to disrupt dominant narratives of schooling by foregrounding the narratives of those “who have experienced victimization by racism and ableism firsthand,” (Watts & Erevelles, 2004, p. 274). Even as these theoretical traditions have been collectively deployed to disrupt normative discourses of “Whiteness,” “Smartness,” and “Goodness” (Leonardo & Broderick, 2011), for the large part, they have remained relatively separate. This might be owed to their complicated histories of oppression; for instance, the use of disability to justify the subjugation of people of color (Watts & Erevelles, 2004). This intersection of “justified” discrimination, segregation, and oppression is a ripe ground for exploring the complex workings of systems of exclusion (Annamma, Connor, & Ferri, 2013; Watts & Erevelles, 2004). It also serves as a robust resource for various anti-oppressive tools forwarded by each scholarly community.

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These intersectional approaches offer new directions to understanding disability and difference. Looking retrospectively at the theoretical web that we have constructed over time, we begin this study of teachers from a more critical realist position (Maxwell, 2012). A critical realism is suspicious of a constructivism that is rooted in a material-discursive binary and which privileges language in the construction of experience. We are aware that the term realism instinctively arouses the concern of constructivists, including DSE scholars and some narrative inquirers, since it seems to imply that there is one correct description of that reality, or one “truth.” However, unlike the naive realism associated with positivism, critical realism acknowledges mental states, intentions, and concepts, as part of the real world that affords us a unique perspective or standpoint on reality. In other words, reality is socially constructed, but not only socially constructed (Moya, 2000). For critical realists, the intertwining of material embodiment with mental constructs in the constitution of experience creates room for both error and accuracy within our interpretations of our experiences that over time may be revised. It assumes that there are causally significant features in the world (e.g., racism, sexism, ableism, etc.) that account for systems of exploitation and which create politically salient social categories (Mohanty, 2000). For instance, disability studies scholar Tobin Siebers (2008) has argued that the ideology of ability that pervades the “built environment,” in society serves as a causally significant feature that marks the embodied experiences of people with disabilities in discriminatory ways.

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A realist position argues that the consequences of one’s social location exert particular constraints on our judgements and analysis (Hau, 2000). Such interpretations of experience may not simply reflect a naive appropriation of cultural stories but could actually have transformative effects. Third World feminist Chandra Mohanty takes up the affordance of this material-discursive nature of experience to argue for the significance of local narratives that can, through a historical-materialist lens produce important insights about marginalized experiences (Mohanty, 2003). In her exploration of the labor of Third World women, she acknowledges that these women’s understanding of experiences appeared to have appropriated capitalist ideologies, even as it had brought material improvement in their lives. Still, the types of agency that surfaced in their narratives could only be made visible by restorying their experience that could then counter essentialist understandings of Third World women produced through “western eyes” (Mohanty, 2003).

The importance attached to the subjective interpretation of experience, despite the possibility of error, attests to the fluid nature of any category, including disability, and the continual “becoming” implicit within its appropriation (Erevelles, 2011). A critical realist position emphasizes the “multiplicity” of one’s experience; the effects of one’s multiple social locations weave continually and unevenly through space and time to constitute one’s experience. Disability, then may be experienced in ways that are contingent on this “multi-locationality” (Brah, 2003) of persons along various dimensions of class, race, gender, etc. Said differently, meanings of disability are never self-evident. The significance of this for understanding teachers and schools lies in the contingent nature of inclusive enactments and the imperative to allow for the possibility of change within them. This also means that the practices of educators who claim an inclusive orientation, will, by necessity, look different in various sociocultural contexts. Additionally, for teacher educators, like ourselves, it not only calls for us to prepare teachers for uncertain outcomes but also for us to embrace such ambiguity as a salient feature of teacher preparation for inclusivity.

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As is evident, it is the recognition of the material-discursive nature of experience, or its “complex embodiment,” (Siebers, 2008), that has remained a continual thread in our efforts to straddle the competing commitments to students with disabilities and to educators charged with teaching for inclusion. In continuing to recognize the affordances of realism, the “agential realism” of Karen Barad, associated with new materialist scholarship, suggests other ways of understanding agency in schools. Specifically, Barad’s theory incorporates material and discursive, human and non-human and natural and cultural actors in the description of a phenomena to de-center the individual as the sole originator of agentic enactment. Human agency in this framing, is not the property of the individual, but one of many entangled agencies that produce the phenomena through intra-action. Unlike the critical realist position advanced by Maxwell (2012), for Barad, ontology (how something comes to be) and epistemology (how we come to know) are not separate, but mutually constituted. She seeks an onto-epistemology, where knowing is in being (2008). The process of coming to know agents-within-phenomena implicates not only how we come to know, but also the fact that how we come to know brings into being what we come to know.

This orientation of new materialist2 scholarship has implications for how we recognize (in)equity within schools. For instance, scholars in disability studies in education have questioned the epistemological foundations of special educational systems that are premised on notions of disability defined by non-disabled priorities and experiences. They have assumed an ontological stance that understands disability as fundamentally socially constructed. Even as these challenges have been critical for understandings of disability in schools that depart from traditional deficit-laden perspectives, new materialisms pose a challenge to these assumptions in requiring us to take up an onto-epistemological position. In invoking multiple human and non-human agencies, it compels consideration of how matter and meaning (the material and discursive) are mutually constituted.

The turn to reinvigorating materiality in our analyses simultaneously requires attending to the circulation of affects and teachers’ own affective attachments. Embodied and emotive reactions to the material and the discursive move individuals towards and away from objects and actions of pleasure and pain. As Ahmed (2010) explains, we become attached to objects or ideas through their affective projections. Objects and ideas gain meaning through our desires for happiness and its pursuit or avoidance, or through the fear of shame as well as its capacity to humble and humanize us. Happiness is anticipated from, for example, receiving praise or achieving success, while shame is often derived from feelings of fear, failure, and being an imposter (Probyn, 2010). These attachments as experienced through the body work to constitute meaning and direct movement of people and objects. The affective performances in the production of inclusive classrooms has not received significant attention in the literature on preparing teachers for inclusive pedagogy.

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Barad’s post-humanist stance as well as affect theories, may on first glance, work against the humanist approach to teachers that we have begun to articulate in this chapter. After all, we have committed to privilege the agency of teachers in the narration of their experiences. How can a narrative approach be reconciled with post-humanist frameworks that encompass human and non-human entities (Braidotti, 2018)? How can we attend to human agency if the unit of analysis is the phenomenon rather than the individual (Barad, 2007)? These are important dilemmas and we do not claim to have resolved them. Our efforts to navigate them, however, are themselves characteristic of the open-endedness of these approaches. The “diffractive” methodology that Barad proposes does not eliminate the significance of an interpretive approach that relies on storying teachers’ experiences. It requires that different texts and theories be read intra-actively through one another. It also compels us to recognize that even when we take an interpretive approach to teachers, we are obligated to implicate ourselves as researchers, that is, our theories, our experiences, our sociopolitical locations, as intra-acting with other agencies to produce the phenomenon of inclusion (Barad, 2007; Clandinin, 2013).

The significance of bringing together these different forms of knowing is that they allow us to explore multiple ways to accomplish the goal of storying the professional lives of new teachers. Collectively, our theoretical attachments afforded us the means to undertake nuanced descriptions of teacher practice that can reflect the complex nature of inclusive pedagogy.

Our Struggles

Even as we feel intellectually prepared to undertake the project of describing the work of novice teachers institutionally prepared to teach for inclusion, these frames simultaneously require that we, as researchers, engage in particular social and intellectual struggles. This work cannot be accomplished without such struggles and will undoubtedly surface in the descriptions of the teachers in the book. We categorize them in the following ways.

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The Threat to Our Commitments to Equity

As we acknowledged earlier, we straddle competing commitments, that is, to students with disabilities and their families as well as teachers in schools. While we remain mindful of the experiences that characterize the location of each of these groups within school systems, our efforts to understand teacher practice necessarily requires that we sometimes bracket our recognition of the ways in which disability is performed in schools. Such bracketing allows us to extend an asset-based focus on teachers as learners who require particular kinds of supports. This process also means that we are less able to take an overtly ideological stance in a way that unequivocally denounces the less-than-equitable practices in school. As we navigate through multiple ideological positions, we wonder—has our commitment to students with disabilities been diluted? How can we re-assert ourselves as advocates for students who have historically been dehumanized by ableist school systems, while we recognize the conditions within which teachers enact their own commitments to inclusion?

Scholarly Identities

The struggle to categorically align ourselves with one position rather than another has also complicated our own scholarly identities. If the intellectual tradition which we see as our scholarly “home,” that is, disability studies in education, calls for a clear and unequivocal critique of schooling systems and practices that are premised on ableist norms, can we truly characterize ourselves as “doing” disability studies? Much of our work has privileged the (re)articulation of teachers’ stories rather than a focus on the oppressive features of schooling even as we are deeply aware of the latter. Does an engagement with special education discourse, structure and practice automatically disqualify us from claiming to be scholars in the field of disability studies? Or, are we critical special education scholars? How does that matter, and to whom?

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In contemplating these identity dilemmas, we have taken courage from the work of Third World feminists who have spoken about the illusory nature of “home” or its continually shifting nature that disallows any certainty about one’s location, in this case our location as DSE scholars (Minh-Ha, 2011). We are strengthened by Anzaldúa’s notion of a mestiza consciousness (Anzaldúa, 1987) that understands that we must be “on both shores at once” in our struggles for equitable practice. The borderlands we inhabit as scholars engaging in this work are no different from the myriad borderlands that our own students, teacher candidates, and teachers encounter when they engage with the material conditions of inclusive practice. We recognize that ambiguity will necessarily characterize this journey we have undertaken. Admittedly, we struggle to always see this as empowering …

Struggles Produced Via Our Own “Multi-locationality”

These scholarly borderlands are even more complicated by our own identity work as we experience our life-narratives contextualized by the same structures and ideologies that we research. For example, for Sarah, experiencing the world as an able-bodied, white, queer, cisgender woman, from an upper-middle-class Jewish family, means a constant navigation of her own intersectional identities and the ways in which she experiences both privilege and oppression. It means continually considering the ways in which her own experiences inform her sense-making of other people’s experiences and recognizing the “epistemological racism” and ableism embedded in educational research (Roegman, 2018). What does it mean to be a White woman or an able-bodied woman researching systems that have historically excluded people of color and people with disabilities? How is that further complicated by focusing on other peoples’ stories?

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For Kala, an able-bodied, straight, cisgendered immigrant female of Asian (Indian) origin, reflections on diversity and equity are inseparable from the vastly different sociocultural contexts in which she has come to know herself. In other words, like Sarah, inequities of opportunity have assumed multiple forms and locations that do not in any self-evident way suggest privilege or oppression across any social identifier such as race, class, gender, ability, immigrant status, etc. She recognizes that even the title of “faculty of color” that she is assigned within the United States does not necessarily afford her the epistemic standpoint that other faculty of color, particularly African-American faculty, may claim. Perhaps the most significant identifier that has afforded her a unique lens to understanding disability and teacher preparation has been her claim to experiences that are more typical of Third World women and which has come to inform her personal and professional decision-making. In that regard, she struggles with taking up a race-consciousness that can bear fidelity to her life experiences while simultaneously understand its relations with other racialized histories in the United States.

The Context for This Book

In describing our own struggles and attachments that we bring as authors of this book, we do not seek to minimize the contributions of the teachers who have participated in the writing of this book. To the extent their authorial voices are necessary to produce, at this moment in time, the partial stories that we share about their becoming, they are key contributors to this book. We do not draw on their voices merely to “triangulate” what we have found in the data we have collected. We perceive their authorial presence as doing more than simply refuting or concurring with our statements. Instead, we offered our stories about them to them, in the hope that they would serve as a springboard for their own reflections on their process of becoming. In that regard, our goal is not to collapse our perspectives with theirs, or vice versa. Rather, it is to uphold the kind of reflective community that has typically characterized our relationships. We recognize that there are many other ways to accomplish this goal; still, each of the stories shared in this book offered an opportunity to learn about ourselves collectively, as teachers and teacher educators.

Teacher Candidates/Novice Teachers

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The origins of this book lie in our experiences as instructors of a cohort of students enrolled in a secondary inclusive education residency program. This cohort displayed an immediate and deep commitment to the counter-hegemonic praxis of inclusive education. They eagerly took up the ideas, constructs and perspectives we offered from a disability studies lens and sought to fold them into the goals for socially just pedagogy that they brought to their program of study. As part of a larger federally funded teacher residency program, they were embedded in schools throughout their preparatory period while simultaneously taking courses in the evening at the university. Even though we were not directly responsible for the administration of the program, they enrolled in four courses with us where we were the primary instructors. Despite what we perceived as their superior commitment to inclusion in their coursework with us, when they were required to perform their knowledge of teaching students with disabilities on the state certification performance test, all but one failed. Admittedly, the assessment for special education certification is premised on medical model notions of disability, while the coursework for our DSE driven inclusive education program is largely premised on a social model of disability and the disruption of a medical model.

Our initial impetus to investigate the experiences of this cohort, therefore, was to better understand the relevance of our own practice as teacher educators. We wondered if our students might be taking up inclusive education in ways that were perhaps too contrarian or dismissive to function within the reality of exclusionary schooling contexts. Even as we began to look for traces of their sense-making in their curricular projects (Naraian & Schlessinger, 2017) we invited them to participate in a study with us during their first year of teaching. The overwhelmingly affirmative response to our invitation confirmed for us that these teacher-participants valued the space for collaborative reflection with their peers. Additionally, by this time, they had congealed as a group in a way that allowed for animated yet respectful conversations where individuals expressed empathy for each other even as they might disagree with their positions. As their former instructors, we were simply awed by their commitment to collaborative reflective inquiry without any formal preparation for the same. We set out to design the study in ways that could benefit them as budding teachers as well as allow us a rich window into the process of their becoming.

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Research Design

It was late summer of 2014, when we invited this cohort of seven newly minted teachers who had been enrolled in the program at the same time (May 2013—August 2014) to participate in our study. On completion of program requirements, all procured employment as educators (with the exception of Adam, all assumed the role of special educators) in the local urban school system. The cohort comprised 4 women (Molly, Jessica, Rena and Harley) and 3 men (Adam, Taiyo and Peter), four of whom were white and three of Asian origin. The group included a former school paraprofessional, a community activist, an artist advocate, former AmeriCorps City Year corps members,3 and a student fresh from undergraduate studies. Their age ranged from early 20s to early 40s; Peter was the only parent in the group with young children in school at the time of the study.

We organized six meetings for the group during the 2014–2015 academic year. Meetings were held approximately four to six weeks apart, beginning in October 2014 and ending in June 2015. Each meeting followed a simple format—we posed one or two key questions; each person was given an opportunity to reflect and respond. We probed them further whenever necessary. Participants might also question each other during this process. The discussion at each meeting centered on two or three key questions or prompts that we had prepared based on the discussions from earlier meetings (and from separate interviews, discussed below). For example, in the third group session, we asked participants to discuss the idea of competence, what it meant to them and how they experienced that in their work. In at least three of the meetings we engaged them in creating/analyzing graphical representations of some of the ideas that surfaced during these meetings. They used this method to examine the big ideas from the program that surfaced as (ir)relevant during their everyday practice. Each of the meetings took place on the university premises. Except for two meetings, all meetings were attended by all teachers.

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During the course of the same year, we also conducted two interviews with each teacher, once during the Fall of 2014 and the other during the Spring of 2015. We either visited them at their schools or met at a local restaurant for these interviews. The purpose of these conversations was to deepen our understandings of their experiences and to probe more deeply on the events and ideas that they shared during the collective meetings.

Collectively, the data we gathered from course-related assignments during their pre-service year, and the collaborative meetings and separate interviews during their first year of teaching offered us an opportunity to imagine the evolution of their professional identities—turning slowly in a three dimensional space as they shifted their experiential focus from university to school, began to engage with the social world of schooling, and encountered the material realities of New York City schools (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000). The stories they shared disclosed how each participated in this process, the resources they brought to it, and how both were constructing this first year experience for them. Our stories of them seek to capture the complexity of this process while always leaving it open-ended to further evolve in ways we could not predict. The teachers’ stories in this book present another three-dimensional slice of that process, as it were, affording us another means to deepen our understanding of how teachers come to understand inclusion.

Special Education Reform in New York City Schools

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The sociopolitical educational context of inclusive teaching plays a significant role in shaping the experiences and stories of these novice teachers. Having graduated from a teacher education program in inclusive education based in New York City, these seven educators all went on to teach in New York City Schools that were in the midst of ongoing special education reform work. In the fall of 2005, in response to the updated legislation of IDEA in 2004, the New York City Department of Education commissioned a citywide analysis of its special education system and the services being provided to the over 1 million students in (at that time) 1,600 public schools in the largest school district in the United States. The Comprehensive Management Review and Evaluation of Special Education Report (Hehir, et al., 2005), commonly referred to as the Hehir Report, uncovered that a “medical model” of disability was guiding the provision of special education services and that consequently the focus of these services was student placement rather than supporting the learning strengths and needs of students. What is more, the placement of individual students was largely premised on the availability of “seats” in special education programs in individual schools rather than by the neighborhood community of the student and, again, the specific strengths and needs of the student.

In response to this comprehensive report, the New York City Department of Education began a new wave of special education reform for the city in 2010. This reform initiative called for New York City Public Schools to close the achievement gap between students with disabilities and their peers without disabilities; provide increased access to, and participation in, the general education curriculum; and create the flexibility to meet the diverse needs of students with disabilities (Citywide Council on Special Education, n.d.). Various actions were taken in pursuit of these goals. New funding formulas were written that incentivized schools to provide more diverse special education programming that would support students with disabilities in integrated co-teaching classrooms.4 With more schools offering more programming options to provide services to students with disabilities, the Department of Education also determined that they would fund professional development opportunities for educators in schools that undertook specific reforms to provide students with disabilities greater access to the general curriculum. As of the 2012–2013 school year, 18.1% of all NYC students were labeled as special education students with 50.2% of these students receiving special education services in integrated co-teaching classrooms or push-in services in general education classrooms in neighborhood schools. The teachers in this book worked primarily as special educators in these integrated co-teaching classrooms, although some also taught in segregated self-contained classrooms for portions of their day and one only taught in a general education classroom. These ongoing reform efforts and concerns over “seats” and placements continue to be controversial in NYC schools, setting the backdrop for configuring what it meant to be an inclusive educator for the teachers in this book.

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Organization of This Book

In the chapters that follow, we take up the narratives of each of the teachers who participated in this study. In each chapter, we first present our research story of their professional lives based on the data we collected. This is followed by a reflection from the teacher that looks retrospectively at the first four years of their teaching careers. This reflection may/may not directly address the themes/ideas from the research narrative. Our decision to place the teachers’ stories after our research narrative was made to reflect the particular research methodology we adopted. We did not undertake a collaborative research methodology that engaged the teachers in every aspect of design. This remained an investigation that was driven by our priorities as researchers. We recognize, therefore, the power differential that existed between our participants and us. So, even as we value the mutually respectful relationships we have come to share, we seek to take responsibility for the study with the expectation that its findings are enriched by the reflections of our participants.

In Chapter One, Taiyo’s commitments to social justice and the centrality of race and culture in his analysis of his school context moved us towards CRT to frame our exploration of his first year of teaching. Centering his meaning making and experience as a teacher of color, this narrative situates him in a schooling context comprising a predominantly White teaching staff largely unprepared to embrace students with disabilities. The strong connections he experienced with his students were paralleled by his outsider location both as a special educator and a person of color within the community of educators at his school. His practice, struggle, and growth lay in the ways he needed to variously position himself in relation to his students and his co-workers. The chapter surfaces the necessity for relational work with both students and colleagues in the pursuit of inclusive teaching.

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In Chapter Two we draw on affect theory to frame Molly’s story, one that is characterized by her commitment to doing what is best for all of her students, her responsibility to provide the “right” and “best” services to her students with labeled disabilities, and her anxiety and uncertainty about what any of that work actually looks like. We show how Molly’s inclusive commitment attached itself to objects and people (her students and colleagues) evoking a persistent anxiety that prompted particular trajectories of thought and action. Molly’s struggles surface the question of what counts as a service and what may be a disservice. In this first year of teaching, Molly’s relationship with the DSE-informed foundations of her pedagogy evoked a tension within in her about whose knowledge she should prioritize and whether she had a right to make those decisions. It provoked anxiety about her role as an advocate and educator. Speaking from within a model of inclusion in practice that clearly demarcated students “with” and “without” disabilities, Molly’s story interrogates meanings of ability/disability in the classroom.

In Chapter Three, we take up a “diffractive” methodology (Barad, 2007) to examine Peter’s experiences. After an initial interpretive approach that privileges Peter as a human agent, we read into and through that narrative to understand how he intra-acted with a range of human and cultural “agents” to produce varied meanings of inclusive teaching. Such a “diffractive” reading required us to explore the “storying” of Peter differently. Instead of asking “who is this person,” we asked instead: How was Peter constituted as an educator in the intra-activity between various entities that constituted the phenomenon of inclusion in his school? How, when, and with what intensities did Peter intra-act with the other entities implicated within the phenomenon of inclusion? What enactments of inclusion emerged in such intra-action? These questions in conjunction with a narrative approach disclosed Peter’s inclusive teacher-ness as emerging within his intra-activity with school norms to produce new understandings of teacher competence.

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Chapter Four takes a step back from the critical framing of inclusivity to explore personal growth as both new teacher and critical special educator in producing the phenomenon of inclusion. It describes Harley’s experience of being a young, female, novice, special educator finding her voice in co-teaching relationships with older, male, experienced, general educators. The chapter acknowledges a widely reported phenomenon in co-teaching relationships, that is, the second-class citizenship of special educators. It simultaneously affords an intriguing window into Harley’s own processing of this experience vis-a-vis her gender, age, and professional experience. The chapter invites us to consider how multiple ongoing and overlapping “scripts” (Ahmed, 2010) of the right or good way to be in the world inform the development of inclusive teacher identities and the production of inclusion.

Chapter Five is a return to a “diffractive” methodology (Barad, 2007), this time with Jessica as first the human agent and then one of many intra-acting agents. We take up a divergent reading of her experiences to assemble a range of material and discursive, human and non-human actors including school discourses of failure, co-teaching relationships, curricular practices and state-sponsored examinations, that produced inclusion in her context. The material-discursive context in which Jessica was required to display her inclusive teacher-ness was constituted through an apparatus of knowing premised on particular understandings of inclusion, teaching, and learning. Going beyond Jessica’s skin, as it were, to understand how she is produced by, and within, the intra-action of various agents, this chapter prioritizes the entanglements of inclusive practice to derive a material-discursive conceptualization of both inclusion and teacher agency for inclusion.

Using Annamma & Morrison’s (2018) tenets for a DisCrit ecology of a classroom as a framework, Chapter Six focuses on Adam’s attempts at and frustrations with working as an activist and an agent for change. The chapter highlights his curricular exploration of the multiple and intersectional markers of difference that have constituted historical and contemporary exclusion in schooling. Through analysis intended to “uncover the relationship between agency, structure, and critique,” (Malagon, Huber, & Velez, 2009, p.267) Adam’s story engages the complex intersectionality of race and disability, while disclosing his struggle to reframe his thinking to consider his omission of an anti-ableist stance. Ultimately, the chapter surfaces the power positioning of teachers (special and general) and the significance of the specific school context for the enactment inclusion.

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In Chapter Seven we draw on both affect theory and a theory of assemblage to help understand the absurdities that constituted the context within which Rena enacted her commitments. We draw on Rena’s laughter that accompanied her descriptions of her experiences to unravel the conditions of schooling over which she had little control. It served as a conduit for the pedagogical interruptions she initiated that could alter the affective dimensions of the teaching-learning context. Rena’s descriptions of her enactments disclose inclusivity as a material-discursive assemblage of elements, which included an administration soaked with volatility as well as progressive ambitions for students with disabilities in the building; co-teaching structures and relationships that both marked her own sense of incompetence as well as produced an orientation to them (co-teachers) as learners; and, students who pulled her towards them, compelling her determination to orient them to school in positive ways.

In the final chapter, we reflect on the journeys taken by the teachers described in the book and our own in making sense of their stories. We explore the significance of recognizing the complex material-discursive environments in which these teachers were required to develop their competencies as inclusive educators. We argue for teacher capacity for inclusion as lying at the interface of the personal and social. We emphasize the significance of understanding the relations between general, special and inclusive education to delineate teacher competency. We renew the argument for exploring the affective dimension of inclusive practice. Collectively, we call for inclusion to be recognized not as an abstract concept but as a material-discursive arrangement of people, practices and ideas that remains fluid and open-ended.


1We acknowledge that many positions may be adopted when selecting language to describe disability as an identifier. Briefly, some use “disabled” to celebrate disability as an identity category, while others have emphasized the assertion of person-first terminology as in “students with disabilities.” We support both positions and have ourselves used both these terms in our work. In this book, we have retained person-first terminology, in part to speak alongside our participants.

2We recognize that many scholars have challenged the “new” in new materialisms; however, we have elected to use the term for ease of distinction between the bodies of scholarship we have explored in this book.

3AmeriCorps City Year corps members work with the non-profit organization AmeriCorps to provide student, classroom and school-wide support in high-need schools in urban contexts in the US.

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4In New York City, integrated co-teaching classrooms comprise 40% students with disabilities and 60% students without disabilities and are collaboratively taught by a general education and a special education teacher.


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Chapter 1

A Male Teacher of Color:
Filling the Void

With Taiyo Ebato

“I really need justice, social justice in my mind, in my mindset, in order to go to work every dayas the [Special Education] teacher, as the one writing the IEPs1, as the one differentiating curriculum. That’s constantly what I’m trying to do -- ask the students and families, and [for] the parent’s voice and the student’s voice.”

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As a soft-spoken member of his cohort, Taiyo could generally be observed listening carefully to his colleagues, his expressive face moving alongside the remarks of his peers. When he spoke, however, it was clear that his restrained manner belied the intensity of his feelings towards inclusive teaching; his ongoing assessment of his own role and his responsibilities to his students were always readily apparent to us. Due to school-related matters, Taiyo was unable to attend two of the six group meetings, but he participated freely in two hour–long interviews during the course of the year. In the following pages, we sift and rummage through those carefully spoken words to surface some tentative narrative threads about Taiyo that can suggest his orientation to inclusive practice. We want to be cautious in our assertions; like the other teachers in this study, our stories about Taiyo are compiled without observing his practice. Even as his words hint at the complexities and struggles that preoccupied him, we do not want to suggest that our words in any way produce an account of him that is “true” in some fixed, eternal sense. Rather, we look for the ways in which his own sense-making, via his conversations with us, provokes us to imagine how inclusion may be understood. In other words, his words evoke images of social encounters, times and places that we have tried to assemble as a particular kind of orientation to inclusion that other teachers, and teachers of color, may be able to recognize.

Throughout his conversations with us, Taiyo invoked a commitment to his role as a male teacher of color working with significant numbers of students from Hispanic, Asian-American and African-American communities in a Title 1 high school filled with mostly white teachers. At the time of the study, he served as a special education teacher in this school, working in collaboratively taught classrooms with his general education counterparts. The school was bound by graduation requirements set by the district—namely, successful passage of state-sponsored examinations—which meant that teachers had less flexibility in designing curricular and instructional experiences for their students. Despite this constraint, Taiyo was satisfied, that it was a “progressive” public school that valued the learning of both students and teachers. He co-taught with general educators across ninth, tenth and eleventh grades in History. He was grateful for the school’s decision to assign special educators to content areas rather than to students or grade levels. This allowed him to work across grades in a content area he felt comfortable with—History—while other special educators did the same for Science, Math, and English. With the advent of citywide special education reforms, there were increasing numbers of students with disabilities entering this school; most of his students came with the “generic” label of Learning Disabled. Even as most students lived under the poverty line, he described them as “high functioning” and as collectively steering the school toward a competitive environment.

Taiyo was acutely conscious of his unique position in the school.

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I’m the only male teacher of color amongst a staff of 30. One of three teachers of color within a staff of 30. And then of course the students with IEPs are predominantly students of color, you know. And, then also me being the basketball coach for the JV team, which is the ninth and tenth graders, the majority of the basketball team are men of color, young men of color. So, all these things I feel like--I’m, you know, I see the void and I’m trying to fill it.

Recognizing that students lived in a “culturally segregated world”—borne out readily in the ways different groups gathered together separately for lunch at school—he took seriously his mission to advocate for the students, to serve as an exemplar for them and to “offer an alternative every day as an educator.” Taiyo’s expressed commitment to these students has been documented among justice-oriented teachers of color (Burciaga & Kohli, 2018; Kohli & Pizarro, 2016). Such work has been described as largely invisible. In situating our narrative of Taiyo as a first-year teacher within this important dimension, we want to avoid a similar oversight of the kinds of competencies brought by teachers of color. Simultaneously, and in keeping with this chapter’s focus on lived contradictions, we noticed that, just as much of the literature on Culturally Responsive Pedagogy has not attended sufficiently to the ableist underpinnings of monocultural schooling (Blanchett, Klinger, & Harry, 2009; Borrero, Flores, de la Cruz, 2016), Taiyo’s stories also surface this gap. Still, we recognize in his stories the intertwining of ableism and racism that DisCrit scholarship has unequivocally established (Annamma, Ferri, & Connor, 2018).

In the following pages, we trace some strands within the mission Taiyo set out for himself.


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Research has shown that the identities of teachers of color are inseparable from how they envision the role and responsibilities of teachers; “they see themselves and their families reflected in their students and feel a responsibility to support and serve them” (Kohli & Pizarro, 2016, p. 77). In the particular mix of race/ethnicities that comprised this school, Taiyo recognized his own status as a person of color, as being “valuable.” In fact, when considering this school as a potential site for employment, he hoped that this status would be recognized by the administration, too, as an asset. Taiyo’s determination to heighten his connection to his students (which might implicitly emphasize their disconnection from other teachers) was undoubtedly stimulated by a desire for his students to affirm their racial/ethnic identities and develop a healthy sense of themselves given their subordinate cultural position in the school. After all, “to be denied recognition—or to be ‘misrecog-nized’—is to suffer both a distortion of one’s relation to one’s self and an injury to one’s identity (Fraser, 2000). For Taiyo, the recognition of a shared cultural identity referenced a life-altering necessity that could not be fulfilled by a white teacher: “as great of a teacher that a white teacher can be, [many] students kind of need this other thing where they need to be reflected, you know?” Taiyo was noting the particular social context of this school where the routine appearance of a teacher which may otherwise be insignificant, could produce profound effects because of its capability to materialize other types of bodies.

Yet, such recognition also transcended the immediacy of place and time. “And, when they see me it’s like they also see a teacher, but they also see an older version of themselves. That kind of feeling happens often and it’s kind of this very almost palpable exchange that happens.” The viscerally experienced encounter with Taiyo who mirrored their “otherness,” fueled, for his students, the possibility of other ways of knowing themselves both at this moment and in the future. Such a generative movement in time that marked these “palpable exchange[s] ” was no less significant for Taiyo. His own memories of his racial/ethnic status surfaced in the significance he attached to these exchanges with his students. The memory of the significance of his own teacher’s receptivity to his desire for discussion around troubling political events intensified the shared recognition of “otherness” with his current students. He knew that the negative incarnations of such “otherness”—being “shut down” or “angered, embittered … and antagonistic about school and education”—could be mitigated by a teacher. Such memories drove the desire in him for the opportunity to mitigate that process for these students.

In these and other past events (he also recalled the dubious distinction of being the student of color on a scholarship at an elite private high school), he recognized his own life-experience as fostering the “asset perspective” that he brought to his practice as an educator.

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It fostered an awareness of the symbolic “intersectional space” that he embodied for his students straddling knowledges of both their school and home communities, while also serving as their springboard for their “next destination point.” Collectively, it allowed him to engage in a practice of “authentic caring” (Kohli & Pizarro, 2016) that was holistic in its outlook and which went beyond concern for the academic progress of his students. He saw his own well-being as inextricably linked with that of his students.

The experience of recognition also meant that students sometimes came to know him better than his colleagues. Despite his reticence—“I am not someone who talks about myself all the time”—he noted that within just a few weeks, his students came to learn about his own interest in art. He attributed their ability to glean this knowledge about him to that “intangible” shared connection between him and them; a connection that spanned both home and school communities. “Filling the void” of non-recognition for his students also meant filling the voids of mis-recognition that his colleagues might unintentionally create. For instance, when an overnight field trip was being planned, he was assigned to supervise two boys of color who had, at that time, developed “antagonistic relationships” with other students and teachers. Fully aware that he was “stuck” with these boys “for a reason,” Taiyo was not critical of such moves. On the contrary, he spoke glowingly of how the students “shined” and “blossomed” on the trip. Recognition transformed the bodies of his students, as it did his. His recognition that students of color were some of the students in the school that “teachers and schools have the hardest time with” attached itself firmly to his own mission as a male teacher of color in this context, deepening his commitments to being a particular kind of teacher.

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“Filling in the voids” for his students also meant that he had to manage the absence of recognition he experienced within this community. Inasmuch as the recognition he shared with his students produced an embodied sense of connection, the absence of such recognition with his mostly white colleagues, produced an equally embodied sense of discomfort. Having lived among diverse communities for most of his life, finding himself in a space now which was mostly white, was different this time: “It’s not like I’m sweating my palms about it but it’s something that’s a little out of my comfort zone.” The racially marked social distance between his colleagues and himself, coupled with his zeal to fill in the void for his students of color exerted a particular weight on him that could materialize physically.

Taiyo expressed a stance of relational accountability (Kohli & Pizarro, 2016) to his students and their communities. He understood students’ lives as grounded in community cultural wealth (Yosso, 2005) and sought to affirm that in as many ways as he could. As the following section discloses, this commitment to his students simultaneously invoked a recognition of community as a form of living. It was this which prompted him to determinedly join his colleagues on social occasions such as “happy hour,” even if he felt experientially disconnected from them. In this and other instances where he acknowledged the difficult or uncomfortable steps one must take to the “to get through to the other side,” we see Taiyo inhabiting the borderland spaces that mark the tensions between upholding commitments to equity and engaging with dominant systems to move towards change (Anzaldúa, 1987).

Inclusion, Community and Change

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Though he did not differentiate among the racial/ethnic groups of students he served, Taiyo’s unabashed preoccupation with his identity as a person of color within this setting did not resemble an unrefined identity politics. We have suggested that Taiyo’s orientation to his students was interwoven with his orientation to community. Burciaga and Kohli (2018) illustrated that teachers of Color struggled to enact a stance of community relationality with their students because of a deficit-oriented school culture that was expressed in mainstream ways of understanding racial/ethnic differences or via an ethos of standardization. Unlike those participants, Taiyo was not unaware of the mis-recognition (Fraser, 2000) extended by other teachers. He deployed his awareness of these gaps in the school to enrich the school community. In other words, his affirmative orientation to the students of color in this school operated simultaneously as an orientation of positivity to the larger school community itself. In this section, we document the particular ways Taiyo’s location within communities of Color allowed him to imagine and enact an inclusive community.

Notwithstanding the lack of diversity in its staff, Taiyo was still drawn by the intensely positive environment at the school. Its “positive staff culture” where members loved teaching, and where the ethos bespoke a “passion” for “intellectualism,” induced him to remain, even as he worried about the disconnect between himself and his colleagues. His appreciation of its positive culture transferred to how he understood the work of inclusion happening in the school. He could describe the school approvingly as “transitioning to be more inclusive” and as sincerely taking up the directives via the district-wide special education reforms to produce meaningful outcomes. Clearly, there were different understandings of inclusion at the school, but for the large part, he felt convinced that people were making genuine attempts to support students.

Taiyo’s generous orientation to the school’s efforts towards inclusion may owe in some part to his own acknowledgement of it as a process of change and transformation. The district-wide special education reforms that called for more students with disabilities to be educated alongside their general education peers had set the process irrevocably in motion. Yet, in Taiyo’s account, the fundamental changes that were being wrought owed not only to district mandates but to the students themselves. As he remarked: “If you look at it in a dialectical way, they’re actually the ones who are changing the group. They’re actually the ones who are changing public education because the curriculum doesn’t always fit them.” This unrecognized agentic capability of the students (typically students with labeled disabilities) to bring about change in the system further fueled his excitement about being a special education teacher at this time.

Taiyo’s faith in the capability of students with disabilities to shift the culture and practice of education traveled alongside his recognition of historically-mediated understandings that inevitably characterize processes of change. Like other schools in the district, this school was co-located with another in the same building. In the collective memory of building personnel, comparisons that worked to the disadvantage of some students marked how inclusion came to be understood in this school.

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And the security guards and the janitorial staff, they’ve been there for all 15 years or so [since] it’s been open. And so, apparently there’s this joke amongst them, one of the head custodians, that, that Baron Hill Prep is becoming more like the last school.

This cautionary, even dismissive stance of the building workers portended a negative process of “becoming” that took its form via both uncharitable jokes and more serious observations from the current principal about “a lot more behavior issues and disciplinary issues because of the newer population.” When recounting these stories, Taiyo was clearly uncomfortable, but he could also see that some of the struggles for inclusion originated in a “fear and panic” in teachers, alongside other more “legitimate” struggles that had to do with the ways in which some teachers remained unsupported by the school structure. Other fears that the school was “regressing” because of these students, were simply too irrational to be admissible and Taiyo laughingly dismissed them: “I don’t know what to say to all of that.” Taiyo’s view of these struggles for inclusion was unfinalized and open-ended. Between ludicrous arguments and other excessively broad claims that students with learning differences had always been part of the school, he recognized that “somewhere in there, is the truth.”

Taiyo’s orientation to the possibility of sincerity in the school’s efforts towards inclusion carried forward his understanding of change as fundamental to inclusion. In the following excerpt, he described the shift in his colleague’s thinking. This teacher had likely taught for 20 years and served at Baron Hill Prep for about 11 years. At the beginning of the year, he spoke “very critically, almost in a kind of mean way” about a student with a labeled disability whose literacy levels compared poorly with that of her grade-level peers.

But, you know, [given] the environment of the school and the classes, by midway to the end of the year, I mean he really loved this student because even though this student really struggled with basic literacy skills, she was such a critical thinker. And especially in discussions, and in class, she was just so brilliant and bright that, you know, by midway of the year it’s like this student helped change the way he thought about students like her.

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Characteristically missing in Taiyo’s description was his own intervention in bringing about the shift. Instead, Taiyo presented the change as being wrought by a particular kind of environment and by the student herself. In fact, the glow from the transformative impact on the teacher, attached itself to the student whose “brilliance” and “brightness” far exceeded the value of proficiency in basic academic skills. Taiyo affirmed the value and necessity of his colleagues’ growth as well as the capability of students to participate actively in that process. In his account, the school, the student and the teacher were all agentic in the process of change (DeLanda, 2006)

Although Taiyo rarely attached praise to his own efforts, he did recognize himself as similarly enmeshed within that process of change, particularly through the tools that could serve him. One tool that he recognized as facilitating his change-making efforts was the language acquired through his teacher preparation program which allowed him to articulate his ideas about learning in ways that could raise his credibility with the administration and his colleagues. As change-maker on a large scale, Taiyo ultimately sought more collective organizing around issues that could produce broader changes in schools, such as the focus on standardization imposed on schools via mandated high-stakes state-sponsored examinations. In desiring to organize around broader issues of accountability that can bring together multiple groups of like-minded educators, Taiyo disclosed a coalitional stance (Sandoval, 2000; Mohanty, 2003) that readily resembled Third Space practitioners (English, 2005). His orientation surfaced the complexities of relationships in school, where commitments rarely operate separately, but which are instead, entangled with each other.

Enacting a Colleague of Color: “Just Have People’s Good Intentions First.”

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As suggested in the preceding pages, Taiyo’s appropriation of his role as a teacher of color surfaced particular orientations to knowing his community. It afforded him a vantage point to “notice the ways in which a lot of teachers just connect[ed] with each other automatically.” He tried conscientiously to deepen his connections with colleagues who appeared to move in worlds different from his own, as they lived their “white picket suburban lives,” coming into the city to teach urban youth. He recognized them as “well-meaning” even as he simultaneously wondered about the “long-term sustainability of being in a place where I may not always connect with my colleagues.” The ambivalence inherent in Taiyo’s dilemma of belonging within this professional community—his connection to students but not to teachers, could not ultimately be generative professionally—grew into a determination to strengthen his students’ understanding of race relations.

Scholars have noted the affordances of a position of marginality that allows a unique and often unexplored perspective on mainstream experiences (Collins, 2000; Mohanty, 2003). Being “the only one in mostly white circles, or the only one in mostly black and Latino circles,” for much of his life, conferred particular advantages, because by the time he became an adult, he “felt very equipped to be in whatever circle.” Perhaps it was this familiarity with being an “outsider within” (Collins, 2000) that permitted Taiyo to extend an empathetic orientation to his colleagues, understanding their efforts towards inclusion as well-meaning and sincere. In other words, in Taiyo’s description of the ongoing work of inclusion within his school, his commitment to equity moved alongside an affinity with his colleagues, even if they might sometimes be at odds with each other. He was not unaware of the ableism that permeated some of their practices; still, he also seemed to keep open the possibility of change. The “myths” or “weird habits” that seemed to circulate among his colleagues—usually pertaining to student capability—did not prevent him from acknowledging them as generally caring and “reflective” teachers who were “super dedicated in their own ways.” His orientation to teachers presumed good intentions and acknowledged their misses or slips as stemming from ignorance.

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A positive orientation to his colleagues’ good intentions freed Taiyo to take his own risks as a first-year teacher in approaching the largely white faculty on matters of race. His recognition of students’ need to engage in conversation about recent racially charged events prompted him to initiate a conversation with the faculty about this issue and to share curricular resources that his colleagues might find useful. Taiyo reported that his action produced a “whole chain” of events/conversation that generated thanks and greater collegiality. Emboldened by the response, he continued to initiate such conversations, discovering that his colleagues welcomed them and may have themselves been inhibited by some “element of fear” in engaging such conversations. Characteristically, he remained conscious of his obligations to both: “I’m conscious of not being so student-centered that I completely share all of the connections with the students, and not empathize equally with the adults in the building as well.” Taiyo’s orientations to his students and to teachers deposited him in an in-between space, (Minh-Ha, 2011) between two extremes as he illustrates above, that still did not appear to have compromised his understanding of his role as a critically conscious teacher, but rather, seemed to flow from it.

It also meant that that he needed to use his own relationships with students in measured ways. Supremely aware of the power he wielded as a favored teacher to whom students freely expressed attachment, he felt compelled to check their public displays of favoritism towards him in the interest of squelching negative feelings from his colleagues. Yet, the strength derived from those relationships also afforded him a comfortable location from which to mentor a new co-teacher who, arriving from an affluent suburban location, expressed little understanding of the lives of majority of the students in this building. The latter’s militaristic approach to relationships with students quickly resulted in instability in the classroom. Taiyo’s positive orientation to his school community transferred to his mentoring style, enabling him to express care for his new co-teacher’s progress, despite the unusual power dynamics that structured their work relations (both were new teachers at the school). His biases towards his students clearly evident, he could characterize his new colleague thus: “Even though he comes from that kind of culture, he definitely wants to improve. He really wants to grow.” Taiyo’s efforts on behalf of his students required that he understand teachers also as learners.

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Diversity Pedagogy

Whether with teachers or with students, the political nature of his work was always evident to us, and we suspect, to Taiyo himself. This is hardly surprising given the professional identity that he had taken up in this particular school. The following threads of practice that we gleaned from his work are all grounded in his particular attachments to the students in this school as students from minoritized communities learning with/from a predominantly white faculty.

Taiyo sought a pedagogy of community that could account for the myriad states of health, learning and needs expressed by the student body. In that regard, he could not emphasize enough the importance of circles as a routine practice in schools. Understanding it as an “ancient” practice, he believed there was something “profound” and “powerful” about doing circles. While on a pragmatic level the practice of circles inculcated skills of empathy, for him, its real power stemmed from its capability to heal a community. Taiyo’s history with the practice of circles was rooted in his own beginnings as a teacher—when he taught poetry as an 18-year-old to urban youth. It was the affective possibilities invoked by the practice of circles via poems, songs, stories, etc. that materialized its power to heal and hold a community together.

When we all learned that our student was found dead, and we shared that news, it was the circles that saved us. It was telling them I love them that saved us. It was talking openly about healing trauma that saved us. It was sharing poems and songs and stories, testimonies, that saved us.

Taiyo’s reliance on circles as a routine practice to “save” his community renders the mental health of his students (and by extension the school community) as existing in a fragile state and as requiring a deliberate and intentional effort to preserve it. But he, too, was not separable from such an existential condition of fragility and referred to the circles, as “my therapy.” The restorative effects of this practices were no less relevant for his own state of being within the school. It was no wonder then that, if he was unable to do this every Friday with his students, it just “didn’t feel right.”

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Implicitly, the practice of circles permitted Taiyo to practice a pedagogy of love with his students. A natural extension of this could be found in his attachment to coaching as an additional way to reach his students. A practice that he had always wanted to try, coaching offered a space freed from the constraints of classroom cultural dynamics allowing him to do the work of relationship-building. Coaching, however, was not quite a neutral terrain and Taiyo was aware of its political force in this particular racialized context. It presented as an additional opportunity to mentor students, mostly boys of color, many of whom connected poorly with their other teachers in school. Importantly, there were also material successes; under his mentorship, the school won more games than they ever had in its history.

Taiyo prioritized methods in his classes that departed from traditional text-heavy approaches that made it monotonous both for himself and the students. Instead, he paid particular attention to drawing on multiple modalities—“a work of art or, you know, a film clip or a piece of music”—that might allow students different routes to entering the same content. He cared about holistic assessments that could be meaningful for students and called for structures to be put in place to facilitate immediate and thoughtful feedback as a component of grading practices.


XII, 166
ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2021 (April)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2021. XII, 166 pp.

Biographical notes

Srikala Naraian (Author) Sarah L. Schlessinger (Author)

Srikala Naraian is Associate Professor in the Department of Curriculum and Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University and Program Director of the Elementary Inclusive Education Program. She is the author of Teaching for Inclusion: Eight Principles for Effective and Equitable Practice. Sarah L. Schlessinger is Assistant Professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning in the School of Education Long Island University–Brooklyn and Program Coordinator of the Adolescent and Childhood Special Education Programs.


Title: Narratives of Inclusive Teaching