University of Illinois at Chicago

White Urban Special Educators: Making Sense of Culturally Relevant Teaching

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posted on 2021-12-01, 00:00 authored by Abisola I Bakare
The consistency of a predominantly White special education teaching workforce in urban classrooms and the significant increase in the enrollment of culturally diverse students have fueled concerns about equity and access in special education(Artiles et al., 2010; Zion & Blanchett, 2017). Scholars advocate that all teachers need to understand culturally relevant teaching practices to promote student learning and to facilitate positive post-school outcomes (Gay, 2010/2018; Ladson-Billings, 1994/1995a/1995b). Many argue that utilizing culturally relevant teaching practices can help provide more equitable learning experiences to many Black and Brown students in urban schools (Gay, 2010; Grant & Sleeter, 2011; Ladson-Billings, 2009; Milner, 2010). However, little empirical literature exists regarding how White special educators perceive culturally relevant teaching and utilize it in urban classrooms (Banks & Banks, 2012; Blanchett, 2006; Blanchett et al., 2009; Gay, 2002; Ladson-Billings, 2009). The purpose of this study was to explore how White special educators described and practiced culturally relevant teaching with their Black and Brown urban high school students with disabilities. I drew upon a theoretical framework that linked culturally relevant teaching as defined and studied by Ladson-Billings (1994/1995a/1995b/2009) and critical race theory. To study the phenomenon, I designed a qualitative study with a multiple-case design. I developed five case studies involving special educators who self-identified as White and who practiced culturally relevant teaching in urban high schools. Each of the teachers taught for more than five years. As part of the design, I conducted semi-structured interviews with each participant delving into their background and family experiences. Participants recorded and presented three episodes of their teaching. We discussed the learning objectives and outcomes, topics, and resources used during their teaching. We discussed behaviors that they believed indicate culturally relevant practices. Using both thematic and theoretical analysis, I identified three themes within each case. I also used frequency analysis to investigate key aspects of participants’ enactment of culturally relevant teaching. After developing individual case studies for each participant, I conducted a cross-case analysis to respond to the research questions. From the cross-case analysis, three themes also emerged. Three major findings were identified. First, a connection between participants’ perceptions of themselves as culturally relevant teachers and their identity awareness exists. Second, while all participants acknowledged the importance of knowing about their students’ lives, participants varied in terms of what they chose to know and how they folded that into their teaching. The third theme related to participants’ involvement and participation in their students’ communities outside school. Participants varied in what they knew about communities and how they linked communities into students’ learning opportunities; the differences found related to the participants’ self-awareness and self-reflection. Participants’ awareness of their racial identity and positionality influenced how willing they were to be involved in their students’ communities. The varying degrees of participants’ racial awareness impacted their perception and implementation of culturally relevant teaching. Additional research could shed light on how culturally relevant teaching as enacted by White special educators could influence individual education plan goals and accommodations, development of wrap-around services, and positive transition outcomes.



Parker-Katz, Michelle


Parker-Katz, Michelle


Special Education

Degree Grantor

University of Illinois at Chicago

Degree Level

  • Doctoral

Degree name

PhD, Doctor of Philosophy

Committee Member

Hughes, Marie Tejero Hall, Vinni Maggin, Daniel Podsiadlik, Edward

Submitted date

December 2021

Thesis type



  • en

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