Social Justice in Teacher/Interpreter Education: A Necessary Component for Improving Deaf Education

What we know

In 2017, the University of Tennessee- Knoxville’s Deaf Education teacher preparation program embarked on a journey to transition from a comprehensive deaf education program to a bilingual Deaf education program with a social justice focus. Professors and doctoral students worked together to undergo training, revise course objectives and activities, revise student assignment expectations, and embed social justice throughout the program. The impact of these program changes have been documented in our students’ permanent products and our own reflections. This process gave us the opportunity to observe the impacts social justice can have when it is intentionally brought into higher education classrooms.

We were fortunate enough to be able to co-teach language development and language assessment courses using a social justice lens. Our students were future teachers of the deaf and future educational interpreters. They were a reflection of the Deaf education and interpreting fields in the United States in that almost all identified as women, White, heterosexual, and were learning American Sign Language as a second language in college. Additionally, none of them had experienced a teacher of color or a Deaf teacher until entering the program. With this as a common experience, it is important to recognize the clash of worldviews, contrast in life experiences, and a misalignment between what our students expected of their future jobs and what we knew to be the reality of their future professional experiences in K-12 with diverse Deaf, DeafBlind, DeafDisabled, Hard of Hearing and Cochlear Implant user populations. As a result, there was tension in the classroom in the disconnect between where they were in their life experiences and where we were trying to raise their consciousness levels. We found that exposing them to diverse Deaf, DeafBlind, DeafDisabled, Hard of Hearing and Cochlear Implant user populations within our class through video examples or guest presentations; revising lesson plans to address social justice considerations and bilingual considerations; taking social justice pauses within class to elaborate on how class topics may/may not appropriately apply to other populations based on race, gender, religion, hearing levels, ability, class, and sexual orientation; and modeling language use and behaviors that we expected of them were ways that we were able to positively impact their learning.

What we don’t know

As mentioned, tension in the classroom was part of the process as none of our students had ever explicitly addressed social justice-related issues. Therefore, bringing social justice to the forefront of our courses triggered many questions such as “why and how is this relevant to language development and language assessment?” What we realized in this experience is that we are still searching for a way to efficiently and effectively bridge the gap of helping our students raise their consciousness levels while also learning pedagogy and content-related information at the same time.

We also do not yet know what the long term impacts of being exposed to social justice in their teacher and interpreter preparation programs. We have had anecdotal comments from students who are now in the field who have shared how much the courses prepared them to more appropriately serve their students. However, more research is needed on what these students felt impacted their learning and ability to apply what they learned the most; what gaps they felt were filled with social justice strategies; and what helped them move beyond their tension and resistance into acceptance and application within their own classrooms.

Implications for Teacher and Interpreter Educators/Other Stakeholders

This topic is important for teacher and interpreter trainers/educators because we are increasingly documenting the negative impacts of social injustices. As a society, we are also beginning to recognize how these injustices can be perpetuated and/or left unaddressed within K-12 classrooms as well as in postsecondary contexts. Therefore, as teacher and interpreter educators we have a unique position to empower our teacher and interpreter candidates to become change agents to address unjust social conditions. One step in the process of becoming a change agent is to raise the consciousness of our candidates while they are enrolled in our programs. Though we believe social justice is a process rather than a checklist of steps, some concrete actions we have found to impact change in our students’ consciousnesses are:

  • exposing students to diverse representations even when they are not present in our classes through videos, books, readings by a variety of people from different backgrounds;
  • centering populations who are marginalized by disability, race, class, gender, and language background when planning for lessons;
  • requiring our students to address social justice as part of their own lesson plan development focusing on disability, race, class, gender, and language background among other points of marginality;
  • consistent communication among faculty and course instructors regarding areas where students need more support in consciousness raising so that all instructors can support student growth; and
  • continuing on our own journeys to becoming socially just as professionals.

Our moral obligation should be to view social justice as a part of the content and skill development we are required to impart to our candidates. When we take this approach, we better prepare our students to work with Deaf, DeafBlind, DeafDisabled, Hard of Hearing and Cochlear Implant user student populations that come from a variety of backgrounds in relation to ability, language, race, ethnicity, culture, gender, sexual orientation, class differences, and more.

Posted on December 18, 2020 by
Gloshanda Lawyer

Cheryl Shahan

Further reading

Darrow, A. (2015). Ableism and social justice: Rethinking disability in music education. In C. Benedict, P. Schmidt, G. Spruce, and P. Woodford, The oxford handbook of social justice in music education (pp. 204- 220). Oxford University Press. view details