In each issue, Redbird Impact highlights an Illinois State faculty or staff member who exemplifies the University’s core value of civic engagement. The spring 2021 Campus Hero is Dr. Shamaine Bertrand, an assistant professor of Elementary Education.
Since arriving at Illinois State three years ago, Bertrand has become a nationally recognized advocate for diversity and equity in education. Bertrand has received the University’s Teaching Initiative Award; been named a Fellow of the Institute for Teachers of Color Committed to Racial Justice at the University of California, Riverside; and been chosen as a Clinical Practice Fellow for the Association of Teacher Educators.
In 2018 Bertrand and Assistant Professor Dr. Erin Quast formed the Equity and Diversity Cohort in the School of Teaching and Learning. Each semester, the professors partner with the Decatur Public Schools, and now District 87 public schools in Bloomington, to prepare 30 education majors to become culturally responsive teachers at racially and economically diverse urban schools.
It was at such an elementary school in Northern Virginia where Bertrand started teaching and decided to make an impact on future educators. “I just fell in love with teaching. It changed my life.”
Bertrand’s work extends beyond her professorship at Illinois State. She co-hosts the Black Gaze podcast with Dr. Kisha Porcher, an assistant professor at the University of Delaware, in which they examine higher education from a Black point of view. Bertrand also consults for school districts across the country about what it means to center Blackness, equity, and cultural responsiveness in the classroom.
The following Q&A with Bertrand was conducted last August. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
How did you end up at Illinois State, and why did you leave elementary school teaching to become a professor?
I was just happy to have a job and be a teacher. We were just thriving at that time. But what I realized was as teacher turnover began to happen, we started to get teachers who came in and were like, “I don’t know what to do with these kids.” And I was like, I can sit here and be pissed off because of the way that they’re talking about our students or I can figure out a way to make change. I’m teaching sometimes 30 or 35 elementary students in my classroom. What if I were able to teach preservice teachers? If I saw 30 preservice teachers and then those 30 preservice teachers had 30 students that they taught—bigger impact.
And so I decided to go into the multilingual-multicultural education Ph.D. program (at George Mason University). I had a specialization in ed policy. I also wanted to look at how policies could be systemically racist and how they perpetuate in different areas. And so I did all of that, I got on the job market, and then I came here.
Now, you’re at a predominantly white institution. And I’m guessing you are teaching predominantly white preservice teachers, but they’re going into classrooms in Decatur or Chicago where they may be in the minority. So how do you approach equity in education when teaching these education majors?
I ask my students at the beginning of the semester how many people have had a Black teacher before. Usually, less than 10 percent of my students will raise their hand. So I am their first Black teacher, educator, professor they’ve had in their whole lifetime. What I’ve grown to realize is that I need to not worry so much about how I present myself but help my students to understand that there are systemic factors that impact why I have to do what I do and how I have to think about how I show up.
We start the semester on building community. I tell them from day one, you are going to feel really uncomfortable. And this is why Dr. Quast and I named it the Equity and Diversity Cohort, because we want students who are well prepared to come into this space and feel very uncomfortable, who are ready for a transformation, who may actually have to sit with how they possibly perpetuate racism or white supremacy in spaces. We really do a great job of thinking about how do we show up in this world and how do we show up in our classroom.
And then with that, what we begin to do is we challenge stereotypes. It’s not that you’re going to know how to teach all Black children, because you’re not. I don’t know how to relate to all white children; I don’t know how to relate to all Black children. But what you can do is make sure that your mindset is open and you do what (author and Georgia State University Associate Professor) Dr. Gholdy Muhammad does, and elevate the genius of students. You begin to look at them as assets. If you’re going to a predominantly Black school, how are you going to use your privilege to make sure that you are opening a safe space where these students feel like they’re accepted and you’re cultivating them into becoming who they need to be?
Why did you start the Diversity and Equity Cohort in Decatur?
When I ended up going to Decatur for the first time for a clinical in fall 2017, I was shocked because I was at a predominantly Black elementary school. So I was like, “Oh my god, where were these people coming from?” Because I was so shocked living here in Normal (with its relative lack of racial and ethnic diversity). Spring 2018, I go back to Decatur for that same clinical. And one of the things that I struggled with is that a lot of teachers my first time there thought I was a parent. And I couldn’t get them to buy into having conversations with me.
So I said to Dr. Quast (who is white), “I really need you to come because this is a very unique space. Decatur is like a city in a rural context.” And so she came, and it was crazy because the way that students and the teachers interacted with her, it was like I was like her assistant. So I told her, “I think that we should create a cohort where we bring our students down here, so they can tap into that urban kind of setting.” And it helps prepare them because many of our students come from the suburbs or from Chicago, and we’ll prepare them to go back into those spaces. I said, “We should have a cohort that we bring in this year. We will talk about these topics of equity and racism and white supremacy. And we really dig into what this looks like.” And so the planning of the cohort started in spring 2018. Fall 2018 was our first time actually implementing it.
And what we were thinking is, if we are creating this cohort, let it become a reciprocal mentoring or teaching relationship with the teachers that are in the classroom. (The classroom teachers) are not necessarily looking at (the Illinois State students) as preservice teachers who are just starting out, but also at what can the preservice teachers give you as far as things that you can think about in your classroom regarding equity and social justice. Like getting them to think about, who do you call on a lot? If you’re seeing yourself calling on a particular student demographic, why is that? So we started to push that envelope.
Also, we created this project called “Teachers as Change Agents.“ And with this project, the preservice teachers were to talk to the principals and teachers and get an idea of what are the needs for your school, and how can we help with that. So our students have to create a project that they leave with that school. For example, they worked on ways for parents to help with their students with math and reading. There were several different things that they implemented down there for the schools..
Obviously, police violence against Black people did not begin in June with the death of George Floyd, but it’s come to the forefront since then. How has that affected the work you’re doing and the work that these preservice students are engaging in, in the community and in these schools?
We have to create a space where we can just have conversations, because these are things that are traumatic. On Monday in our discussion (with the cohort), we talked about how what has happened in our country recently has really become a traumatic experience for students. Because if they’re continuing to see Black people being shot or if they’re continuing to hear this narrative that the police doesn’t care about them, how do you begin as a teacher to bring those conversations into the forefront? You’re not necessarily giving your opinion, but you’re providing the space.
Why did you start the Black Gaze podcast?
We just want to create a space where there’s healing and liberation and a lesson on what it means to be Black, especially right now, but also in the past. And so that’s what the Black Gaze is about. It’s about centering Blackness; it’s about creating a space. And while it’s centering Blackness, we have a lot of white listeners and listeners of other races that also gain insight from our conversations and dialogue.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
One of the things that we want to add to the cohort is a community piece, where we’re actually helping our students to get into the communities and neighborhoods and start doing projects so that we can tie in school, university, and community partnerships. The partnerships that I am referring to are designed to be reciprocal relationships not just relationships where universities come in and take, do their research, and leave. But relationships where the schools and community are leading and teaching alongside the work that Erin and I are doing.
I’m just trying to help out as much as I can to provide spaces where we can have dialogues, so we can think about how we can best serve our students and make sure we are doing it in an equitable way.