In a new initiative, University of Chicago's Urban Teacher Education Program ( UChicago UTEP ) is adding gender identity and sexuality to its curriculum.
UTEP prepares teachers for Chicago Public Schools while testing a model for urban teacher preparation. While it is a two-year master's degree program, UTEP describes itself a five-year experience learning program, called Elementary and Middle Grades Pathways. The pathways meet Illinois' new licensure structure and standards for teaching. This includes all core-subjects in self-contained elementary grades 1-6; as well as specific core subjects in middle grades five to eight. According to UTEP's website, three free years of post-graduation supports are offered after this two-year master of arts in teaching and licensure program.
"Our program in general calls itself a social-justice teacher-education program, so it's definitely always been oriented toward justice and in the interest of preparing teachers to really work in solidarity with parents and kids living in low-income neighborhoods in Chicago," said UTEP Co-Director Bill Kennedy. "We consider ourselves to be a reflective program in that we are trying to prepare teachers to be reflective practitioners. What we mean by that is critical reflective practitioners, not reflection with the absence of a look toward justice. 'How is my teacher improving the lives of kids and families, but also myself, too?' As a teacher, how are we working toward a deeper, critical consciousness?"
In its 16 years of operation, Kennedy said, the program has always had a focus on racial justice. Issues of race, class, and culture have always been front and center.
"That justice has always included that intersectional lens, but I would say, in the process of doing that over the years, I think we've addressed some issues of oppression in ways that are better than others," Kennedy said.
Kennedy explained that issues within sexuality and gender have existed for years, and the issues have sped up socially in the last couple years, which was a piece leading to the new LGBTQ initiative.
The point of the new initiative is to prepare teacher candidates to better support LGBTQ students and their families. In designing this curriculum, UTEP partnered with LGBTQ education organizations, particularly Illinois Safe Schools Alliance, and the University of Chicago's LGBTQ Student Life office to learn more about curriculum, classroom practices that create more inclusivity and more representation, terminology, respectful norms and barriers that LGBTQ students experience.
"I think it goes with a larger philosophy that we share in the program, which is these issues can and should be talked about at all ages," said Kennedy, who is a parent of two children. "It goes with this idea that we're really trying to dispel for teachers that these are not conversations you can have until kids are older. You can and should have these conversations. It looks different when you're talking about it in first grade or fourth grade or 12th grade, but kids need to be able to have conversations and as a result teachers need to be prepared to have conversations at all ages. What is the right conversation at each age is a skill that teachers need to learn and the place to learn it is in a teacher ed program that is committed to those kinds of conversations."
Kennedy added that, while recognizing the great work done over the time of the program, LGBTQ studies is an area that has been neglected.
"We've been a little more attune in the way that I think our society has to improving that work," said Kennedy. "So, this year in particular, after a year last year where we had our first graduate student who was non-gender conforming and preferred gender-neutral pronouns, we realized we needed to do some work as staff and also, we realized our students in general coming through the program needed to do some work as well in terms of improving their classrooms toward making more inclusive and empowering classrooms, especially for kids and families beyond racial justice."
The initiative is in the process of being rolled out and is now for second-year students. Additionally, Kennedy said after fading out, an affinity group has been resurrected. The group welcomes people who are either currently in the program or graduates of the program who identity as LGBTQ to meet on a regular basis. The goal, Kennedy described, is to provide a safe space for them to work through issues, talk and provide support for themselves.
"We currently have no staff members who identify as LGBTQ and that seems like a real problem for us in general, but also as a social-justice teacher ed program, so we really feel like we needed to do more," said Kennedy of the new LGBTQ efforts. "It's a priority for us in terms of hiring for the future and it's also something that we think about and this crosses intersectional lines like when you're trying to prepare teachers to be working toward a multicultural critically conscious classroom. You are molding yourself as a teacher, you're molding your own identity, how do you be there for students who don't share those identities, marginalized identities but still need support?"
"It really is consistent with this idea that social justice and working toward justice as teachers means all issues of justice," Kennedy said about how the initiative fits in with UTEP's mission. "So in part, it is a recognition that we ourselves need to practice what we preach and we have to engage in those conversations and prepare teachers to have those conversations.
"To be truly, looking at power and oppression in its broadest forms. So, it's partially that but it also just goes with the belief that we're trying to have teachers create caring and inclusive classrooms and so if we have graduate classrooms that are not caring and inclusive of our LGBTQ students, which I would say last year, we did not do a good enough job of creating that, that we need to improve that work. we need to make our classrooms feel inclusive, feel empowering for all students and if we're not doing that, we can't expect our teachers to do that."
For more information on UChicago UTEP and its LGBTQ initiative, visit utep.uchicago.edu and uei.uchicago.edu/ .