The water where we swim

Caucusing offers University of Washington teacher candidates a rare challenge to dive into their own racial, sexual and gender identity — and to learn how it will impact kids.


It’s 2019 spring quarter orientation, and about 60 secondary education teacher candidates are gathered in Haggett Hall on the UW campus. They’re about to start a demanding exploration that is now an ongoing, mandatory part of every teacher candidate’s preparation at the College of Education.

Anne Beitlers, director of the College’s Secondary Teacher Education Program, introduces the process. It’s called caucusing, and its purpose is to strengthen candidates’ understanding of who they are and how their own identities around race, gender and sexuality intersect with the diverse identities of their students. 

Caucusing’s ultimate goal, Beitlers explains, is to equip candidates to better serve the rich diversity of kids they’ll be responsible for as teachers.

The large group splits into three smaller groups — white candidates in two groups, candidates of color in the third. For the next two hours, the groups will be introduced to what UW researchers Manka Varghese and Julia Daniels have called the “messy and challenging process” of caucusing, exploring their own racial identity through selected readings, reflective writing and facilitated discussion. 

Today is just the beginning. During the course of their program, candidates will meet nearly 30 times — first exploring their personal identities around race, then moving on to sexuality and gender.

Video spotlight

See what a caucusing session with teacher candidates looks like in a virtual reality video with commentary from Anne Beitlers, director of UW’s Secondary Teacher Education Program.

Digging deeper

Caucusing itself isn’t a novel idea — it’s been used for various purposes by universities and corporations for a long time, including other schools at UW — but deciding to make it a mandatory part of every candidate’s preservice teacher education is unique to the UW, Beitlers said. 

Prior to 2017, a limited form of caucusing took place in the secondary program for several years as part of various courses. It was introduced by bilingual education program coordinator Renee Shank, who saw something troubling when she was a teaching assistant for the course.

“I noticed that many white candidates were not engaging deeply with the material” about race and racism, Shank said. “Essentially, they were checking off boxes.”

“My desire was to get the candidates to dig more deeply than they had around who they were,” Shank said. “We found that caucusing was a way to get to that.

“What we were finding was that students of color were isolated. With caucusing we found we could increase support for them and the solidarity they had with each other. That alone was motivation enough for us to continue to do it — even though white candidates were often very angry.”

Messy and challenging

While most candidates move through their initial discomfort, Shank said that every cohort has candidates who begin the quarter “completely closed off” to discussions of race — and a few never come around to a belief that caucusing holds value.

There are multiple reasons for this, according to both Beitlers and Shank. One reason is that race and systemic racism is “the water in which we swim,” as one handout given to candidates explains. It’s so pervasive that it can be invisible to anyone who unquestioningly accepts the status quo.

“Some candidates really believe that this is an unnecessary conversation,” Shank said. “They believe trying to learn how to communicate is overly PC — that everybody’s worked hard and that there isn’t any reason to belabor the difference in privilege between white folks and folks of color. They feel the more we focus on that, the less time we’re spending on the really important thing — which is how to teach kids. 

“They completely miss the point — that this is something you absolutely need to know to engage well in diverse classrooms.”

Shank says that while those attitudes show up in a few members of nearly every cohort, “Over time, I really do think that caucusing has been effective in changing 95 percent of the cohort in terms of their thinking around teaching.”

UW teacher candidates in one of nearly 30 caucusing sessions that they’ll participate in during their preparation program.

Beitlers said much of candidates’ learning so far has centered around established power structures and how they fit into them. 

“Our white students, our straight students, they did learn how they were sometimes complicit in our system of oppression,” Beitlers said. “Our marginalized students, our students of color, our queer students, our trans students, our women did get some learning about internalized oppression and how they could start seeing their identities from more of a place of strength.”

In addition, research about the College’s experiences with caucusing is being shared with the broader field of teacher education. A paper by lead author Associate Professor Manka Varghese, recently published in the Teachers College Record, looked at successes and challenges of the College’s caucusing efforts with elementary candidates.

Another paper, by Beitlers and other instructors in the secondary program, looked at the potentials and pitfalls of institutionalizing the caucusing process.

The complexity of identity

One of the unique aspects of caucusing, Beitlers said, is that facilitators always participate in the process along with candidates (see sidebar), and constantly strive to use what they learn — including learning from mistakes — to make the process more effective.

“We’re all learning how to interrogate our own identity and our identity within the system,” Beitlers said. “Our candidates are really learning to interrogate who they are, how complex identity is and how each person brings with themselves experiences in multiple identities. 

“They’re learning that their students will also be very complex humans with multiple identities — and that those identities play out in really interesting ways in the classroom. It doesn’t matter what student is sitting in front of you — as a teacher you are responsible for that student and their learning. 

“We want our candidates to be good listeners, to not tell a single story about other people. So when people tell you about their lived experience you hear them. You don’t question them. You take it as a gift — as something that’s helped you learn.”

Why be separate?

One of the most common questions about caucusing is why teacher candidates are split into separate groups — white candidates separate from people of color and straight candidates separate from LGBTQ candidates.

The primary reason, according to Secondary Teacher Education Program Director Anne Beitlers, is that when everyone is grouped together, students from historically marginalized communities — people of color and LGBTQ people — almost always end up getting stuck with the “emotional labor” of explaining and justifying their experiences to the majority candidates. 

When this happens, Beitlers said, neither group gets to fully explore their own personal experiences, attitudes and relationship to systemic oppression.

Another reason Beitlers cites is that separate groups help candidates feel safer to talk freely about their own issues — including thorny issues of personal racism and homophobia.

Yet another reason is offered by Tina Gourd, an instructor who has extensive experience facilitating caucusing groups of people of color. 

“To me, centering the learning needs of candidates of color and LGBTQ candidates has become more pertinent than any other rationale,” Gourd said. 

“Most of candidates’ learning is how do you be a good white teacher of students of color — which is important,” Gourd said. “But the focus of a caucus group like ours is to remove some of those dominant voices so we can ask what do we need to learn to be the kinds of teachers we want to be? 

‘It’s about filtering out the dominant voices and learning from our peers — so we can make connections to the experiences of students of color and understand how to advocate in ways that are truly supportive of kids.”

Teachers as learners

One goal of caucusing is that everyone — including facilitators — learn from the process. For that reason, facilitators are often also full participants in the process.

Sooz Stahl, who has experience facilitating LGBTQ and white caucus groups and is a contributing author to the College’s research on caucusing with Beitlers, Shank and Gourd, said she regularly uses what she’s learned from caucusing in her classrooms as an instructor at UW Bothell.

“Caucusing has strongly influenced my own identity as a white, privileged person and my comfort level with being able to talk about that,” with her very diverse undergraduate students, Stahl said. “I was just talking about my privilege and my white identity to my undergrad class. I went to private school, I never had to pay for any of my schooling, I always had really great teachers. That kind of privilege is something that I need to name and be aware of.”

Tina Gourd, another College of Education caucusing facilitator for people of color, says this type of modeling helps students think about aspects of their own identity that might play out in classrooms. 

“We do the work, and it’s important that candidates see us doing the work,” Gourd said. “We are there not just to facilitate, but to model the ways we are learning how to understand our own strengths and challenges. It makes a difference when we invest as a program — when candidates see us do that work we can see results.”