In search of our mothers' gardens: Black women teachers and professional socialization

Adrienne D. Dixson, Jeannine E. Dingus

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background/Context: The current era of educational reform targets teacher education and aims to improve the performance of children who have traditionally underperformed and are underserved in public schools. Although educational policy has tried to address the ways in which "good teaching" contributes to improved student educational outcomes, research that examines such teaching must develop ways to make the tacit explicit. In doing so, the research and scholarship on teachers mask, ignore, and overlook the unique experiences of African American women teachers who bring a unique angle of vision to their work among historically underserved populations. The researchers argue that the pedagogy of Black women teachers provides much-needed insights that can inform the practices of all teachers. Focus of Study: This article integrates findings from two separate studies on Black women teachers. It examines reasons underlying the professional entry of Black women into teaching and uses a Black feminist/womanist framework to examine how the nexus of race, gender, and class impacts Black women's decisions to enter teaching while also informing their teaching missions. The article is situated in novelist Alice Walker's metaphorical gardens to examine the intergenerational connections of Black women teachers to teaching. Setting: Participants hailed from different geographic regions, including Southern California and the Midwest. All were teachers in urban districts serving primarily African American, Latino/Latina, and Asian American students. Participants: The participants were 5 Black women teachers from two separate studies. All participants were elementary teachers: a novice; experienced veteran teachers; and a semiretired teacher. Three of the teachers were members of the same family, representing three generations of Black women teachers. The remaining two teachers live, teach, and attend the same church in a medium-sized midwestern city. Research Design: The data for this article come from two separate qualitative studies on Black women teachers. Data Collection and Analysis: Both studies used ethnographic interviews. Dixson interviewed two participating teachers, the teachers' colleagues, principals, and parents of students. Dixson also conducted weekly classroom observations over 10 months. Dingus conducted two to three individual interviews with the participating family. She also conducted a group conversation with the family. Participants provided written reflections on their entry into teaching using metaphors of teaching. Dingus also collected documents including e-mail correspondence, newsletters, and print articles featuring the participants. Findings: Three convergent themes emerged that represent the teachers' views of why Black women enter teaching. The first finding, that teaching is tending our mothers' gardens, highlights the intergenerational encouragement of Black women, including mothers and community othermothers, as influential factors on their professional entry. Participants cited the teaching legacies of Black women in schools, families, and communities as inspirations to become teachers. The second finding, teaching as community work, highlights the ways in which the decision to enter teaching allowed them to remain connected to Black communities and students, function as cultural workers, and act as community othermothers. The third finding, that teaching is nurturing our mothers' spiritual gardens, illuminates how participants connected their professional entry to a larger spiritual mission. Participants perceived their teaching as a moral, communal, and ethical endeavor incorporating humanistic pedagogical approaches. Conclusions/Recommendations: The researchers argue that educational research, in keeping with a policy focus on quality instruction, must continue to examine the practices of Black women teachers, who have effective pedagogical practices with underserved populations. In doing so, we caution against operationalizing such pedagogical practices in ways that trivialize their teaching practices and render them invisible. Furthermore, we encourage researchers to examine how teacher education can make explicit the experiences, knowledge, wisdom and spiritual aspects of Black women's pedagogical practices. Research must also consider the ways in which Black women teachers draw on intergenerational networks in their teaching practices and how these relate to their conceptualizations of their roles as teachers.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)805-837
Number of pages33
JournalTeachers College Record
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2008
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education


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