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.”