Teacher educators and diversity

Mieke Lunenberg and Ainat Guberman

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Diversity is a broad theme in teaching and teacher education. Schools and teacher education institutions are supposed to give their attention not only to gender and ethnicity issues, but also to diversity issues that are less visible, but nevertheless have a huge influence on students’ learning. One of these issues is the different levels and types of intelligence among students, that teachers and teacher educators have to take into account, for example by organizing teaching in a way that meets different learning styles of students. Students also differ in their mental, physical, social and emotional development. The tendency in an increasing number of countries to try to keep students with special needs in regular schools also increases the need for teachers and teacher educators to keep updated with regard to knowledge of the various aspects of the development of children and youngsters. Finally, the diverse social-economic and cultural-religious backgrounds of students influences their visions on the value of learning and going to school, and of the learning support they receive at home. It is important to keep in mind that all these diversity issues play a role in schools and teacher education institutes and are not independent but rather influence each other.

Consequences for teacher educators

Looking at what the above means for teacher educators and their professional development, we firstly have to realize that in most countries there is a difference between diversity among teacher educators, teachers, and students in primary and secondary education with regard to at least a number of the issues mentioned above. We give two examples.


Israel’s public educational system is segregated into three sub-systems: Hebrew speaking pluralistic schools (42%), Hebrew speaking religious schools (13%) and Arabic speaking schools (27%). In addition to these, there are non-official ultra-orthodox schools teaching mostly religious studies (17%) (Central Bureau of Statistics, 2013). This highly diversified and segregated public system is rated as one of the most polarized in terms of achievement gaps between high and low performing students within and between schools. These achievement gaps are highly correlated with SES differences. (RAMA, 2016). From ethnic and religious perspectives, the Arabic speaking system has Muslim, Christian and Druze students. The Hebrew speaking system has absorbed waves of immigrants ever since the state was established, and now has to deal with “second generation” children born to parents who are non-conversant in Hebrew. The largest groups of immigrants arriving to Israel in the last decades are from Russia and Ethiopia. Israeli classrooms include students with special needs and are quite large: 40% of the classes have 35-40 students (Shafrir, Shavit and Blank, 2016).

Teacher education colleges in Israel are less segregated than schools. Although there are colleges that belong to each of the official sub-systems, some of the pluralistic colleges have Arabic speaking programs and all Hebrew speaking pluralistic colleges have individual Jewish religious and Arab students enrolled in their general programs. Teacher education programs at the universities (preparing teachers for secondary schools) are fully integrated. Teacher educators therefore need to prepare their students to deal with SES, language and achievement gaps, multicultural backgrounds and students with special needs in large and heterogeneous classrooms, and at the same time deal with many of the same challenges within their own classes. Educating for democratic values and human rights amid heated national, religious and political conflicts is extremely challenging.


The 800.000 inhabitants of the Dutch capital have 180 different nationalities. Most teachers in primary schools are female (85%) and in secondary schools the majority of teachers is also female (56%) (Stamos, 2015). Almost all children in Amsterdam (97%) go to regular schools (Annual Report SWV Amsterdam Diemen, 2015). Teachers are prepared to include children with special needs in classroom learning and additional support is available in each school. The students of most schools (80%) live in the neighborhood of the school, which means that the social-cultural and economic background of the inhabitants of a neighborhood is mirrored in the school. In Amsterdam approximately 50% of the students on primary and secondary schools have a non-western background and another 10 % has a western, but non-Dutch background. In secondary education schools for vocational education count more non-western students, while secondary schools that prepare for higher education count more western students (City of Amsterdam, OIS, 2015).

Some universities and colleges for higher education in the city – both have teacher education institutions – have developed an explicit diversity policy. Nevertheless, the interest of non-western student teachers for primary education is still low (less than 10% of the Amsterdam student teachers that got a diploma for primary education in 2014), but the number of student teachers that gets a diploma for the lower level of secondary education has increased in the same year to 40%, which is a promising development (Stamos, 2017). The number of students who get a teacher diploma for the upper secondary level, however, is quite low (and not well documented).

Most teacher educators in Amsterdam have a western background. Hence, the challenge for teacher educators is to learn not only how to better attract and teach non-western student teachers, but also how to prepare all student teachers for teaching diverse classrooms including children with special needs and often a majority of non-western students.

Main perspectives on diversity

In publications on diversity (see academic resources) five perspectives can be distinguished. In these studies often two or more of these perspectives are combined. The five perspectives are:

A. Teacher educators

B. Curriculum

C. Institutional context

D. Local/National context

E. Theoretical underpinning

A. Teacher educators

The first perspective for studying diversity is to start with the teacher educators themselves. Studies that take this perspective analyze what it means to teach diverse student teachers while being white, Jewish, or female. In addition, several assumptions that teacher educators can have are discussed, for example, whether it is important to treat all student equal (‘students are students’) or to promote that diversity should be taken into account (‘diversity advocates’). Another assumption that influences the way teacher educators teach student teachers is whether teacher educators view diversity primarily as an intellectual theme or they find it important to include emotions related to diversity into their teaching. Teacher educators who are conscious about their own heritage and assumptions may better understand student teachers’ perspectives on diversity and more able to help them to reconstruct how their background has shaped their visions and identities.

B. Curriculum

The second perspective is the design of the curriculum. Several studies point to the importance of paying attention to the hidden curriculum. For example, is there attention for diversity when learning material is selected? Even if messages about diversity are explicit in the curriculum, attention is still needed for what is actually communicated in lessons and materials. Another point of discussion is whether there are specific classes dedicated to diversity (often classes about social justice). Special classes can be an extra, but can also function as an excuse for not giving attention to diversity in other parts of the curriculum. Finally, attention is asked for the school-based part of the curriculum, more specific for tensions that can arise for student teachers if teacher education institutes and schools differ in their ideas about teaching and diversity. This means that when designing a teacher education curriculum local situations have to be taken into account.

C. Institutional context

The third perspective to study diversity is to look into the teacher education institutional context which, conscious or not, is often determined by social-cultural traditions. Functioning in such a context depends on knowing and being familiar with these traditions and the related culture of power. Race, gender, sexual orientation, and other characteristics influence whether or not one knows the “name of the game” and knows how to play it. This concerns teacher educators as well as student teachers. Several studies focus on what it means for teacher educators to be different from the majority of their students and how this influences the students’ view on their teaching. Some feel that students stereotype them, question their qualifications, and challenge their intellectual authority. Reforming social-cultural traditions request effort of all involved. An interesting small-scale example is the study of a teacher educator who introduced the theory of subjugated knowledge (Foucault, 1975) to confront her students from the white mainstream culture with the fact that there are multiple perspectives on all issues, which helped them to learn about and appreciate other perspectives.

D. Local/National context

The Israel and Amsterdam examples above show how a local or national context influences education and what the consequences of these contexts are for the work of teachers and teacher educators. The local situation and local schools should also be taken into account/be involved when developing a teacher education curriculum, especially the school based part (see also perspective B). This is even more important, because in many countries the school-based part of the curriculum becomes more important.

Studies from teacher educators who work abroad show the influence of the local context on their teaching too. These teacher educators do not only cross geographical borders, but also social-cultural borders which may lead to discomfort. It requires looking again to one’s ethics, beliefs, and practices through the eyes of different others and to find a way to relate to other views on justice, equity and diversity.
Finally, teacher educators have to take into account that different contexts influence the communication between students teachers and teacher educators and can lead to misunderstandings.

E. Theoretical underpinning

The fifth perspective is originated in theoretical choices. As already mentioned at perspective A, it has consequences whether a teacher educator chooses the theoretical perspective of equity or the theoretical perspective of social justice as a starting point for teaching teachers. In C we saw that the introduction of the theory of subjugated knowledge helped student teachers to understand other perspectives.

Another example of the influence of theoretically underpinning is the difference between teacher education tracks for regular and special education. In the USA these are often parallel tracks, while in European countries special education is often part of continuing professional development of teachers. Nevertheless, in both contexts, in tracks for regular education social-historical theory is dominant, while the underpinning in special education is often behavioristic. These differences can influence the integration of regular and special education.

In sum we can conclude that teacher educators’ knowledge and learning about diversity is growing, but that systematic professional development with regard to this theme is scarce. Looking at the literature it seems that teacher educators who have the opportunity to work in a diverse environment and who analyze how their personal background influences their conceptions of student diversity gain most insights in what drives them and how they can further improve their practice and more effectively prepare their students for the reality of diverse schools.


Adlers, S.M.(2011). Teacher epistemology and collective narratives: Interrogating teaching and diversity. Teaching and Teacher Education 27, 609-618

Cochran-Smith, M., Ell, F., Grudnoff, L., Haigh,M., Hill, M., & Ludlow, L. (2016). Initial teacher education: What does it take to put equity at the center? Teaching and Teacher Education 57, 67-78.

Poyas, Y. (2016) “Don’t Sell Me the Enemy’s Literature”: A Self-Study of Teaching Literature in Politically Fraught Contexts. Studying Teacher Education, 12(3), 267-283, DOI: 10.1080/17425964.2016.1237872

Key words: Diversity, equity, social justice, teacher educators.

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