Finding ways to connect the worlds of the teacher and the student is critical to cultivating positive learning spaces.
During her senior year of college, Raedell Cannie recalls the moment her academic path changed from journalism to education.
She was listening to a guest lecture from a journalist who described her research for a story on homelessness. The journalist got to know a homeless woman for the purposes of collecting information, but did not maintain the relationship after the story had been written.
“I remember asking, ‘Was that it? You got what you needed for the story and then cut off the communication?’” Cannie said. “I remember her response made sense professionally, but in my heart I knew I would get too attached to situations like that, especially with the type of journalism that I was interested in doing.”
The experience helped Cannie, now a doctoral student at the University of Washington College of Education, realize that she valued moving beyond surface-level relationships to forge deeper connections. She began exploring ways she could get involved in education and attended a few sessions with Teach For America. After working at daycare centers and summer camps, she felt that becoming a teacher would be a great fit.
Upon graduation, she joined Teach For America and was placed in Arizona, where she taught for the next four years. Cannie assumed that her identity as an African-American would make it easy for her to make personal connections with her students, who were predominantly Mexican and Mexican-American.
“I realized that there were not only differences in language and socioeconomics, but also that the experiences of my students were generally not the same as mine as an African-American. Through valuing and appreciating those cultural differences, I decided that was an important thing for me to understand as an educator.”
While teaching in Arizona, Cannie began thinking about going back to school to earn her PhD and better understand how those cultural difference influenced her teaching and her students’ learning. When a mentor gave her Geneva Gay’s book on culturally responsive teaching, Cannie felt a deep personal connection with the writing of the UW College of Education professor.
“When reading her [Gay’s] writing, I could see the experiences that I have had as a black woman in the U.S. education system,” Cannie said. “She felt like a kindred spirit. I never talked to her, but on my application I said that I would like to work with her. When I got accepted to the University of Washington, I was accepted with Dr. Gay as my advisor.”
Cannie is in the sixth year of her PhD program in multicultural education at the UW and is conducting an ethnographic self-study for her dissertation. Using her own perspectives as a teacher and as a student, Cannie is focusing on the impact of culturally and racially insensitive learning spaces on individuals, especially on African-American girls.
“It’s not just a story about me, but rather a case study for both pre-service and in-service teachers and really anyone who cares about the oppressive nature of our school system. It shows the psychological and emotional trauma caused by inherent racism in all institutions in the U.S. There aren’t many examples of experiences like this out there yet.”
Through her work, Cannie aims to transform the experience of education for children of color, and by better understanding the world of education through the lens of racial injustice, Cannie has found herself becoming more aware of the experiences of communities that have been marginalized in other ways as well.
“I believe that being anti-racist is being anti-oppression, period,” she said.
In the future, she hopes to turn her dissertation into a book, possibly in the form of a novel or memoir, that can help open up possibilities for others to build deeper relationships across social and cultural groups.
“I think that knowing who you are as a teacher and what you value is just as important as knowing your students and what they value. Finding ways to connect the worlds of the teacher and the student is critical to cultivating positive learning spaces. Sharing personal stories is one way we can do that.”
Dustin Wunderlich, Director of Marketing and Communications