Josephine Pham Honored with AERA Outstanding Dissertation Award

Doctoral student recognized for research on the “unofficial” duties of teachers of color that effect social change.

As a former language arts teacher, Josephine Pham (’19, PhD, Urban Schooling) spent a great deal of time “off-duty” with all of the unseen tasks that teachers do, such as connecting with families and developing culturally relevant and sustaining curriculum with her colleagues. At the time she wrote her dissertation, she had not foreseen the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic would have on her former teaching colleagues and the world over. 

“With shelter-in-place in effect, those who are deemed essential in a society during a time of national emergency and urgency – healthcare workers, educators, postal workers, social workers, grocery workers, etc. – are often overlooked, undervalued, and dismissed in everyday life,” says Pham, who is an assistant professor in the College of Education at CSU Fullerton. “This current moment really made me think more about what I’ve been trying to convey in my own work – challenging narrow views of labor and leadership for racial and intersectional justice.  While [educators and students] are scrambling to move learning to virtual spaces, teachersof color are also tending to students’ mental, social, emotional well-being and livelihood, [with] undervalued and usually dismissed ‘unofficial’ work as educators, as mentors, and community members.”

Pham has been honored with the Outstanding Dissertation Award from by Division K of the American Educational Research Association. Her research focuses on these often overlooked tasks that are regularly performed by teachers of color – tasks that are much more challenging in the face of the global pandemic. 

Pham, who taught middle and high school students in the Bay Area, says that the overall work of teachers is largely measured by academic performance and test scores. However, she posits that there is another layer in serving students of color, particularly for teachers of color.

“My political commitments to teaching are heavily influenced by my identities and experiences as a daughter of Vietnamese refugees, as an Asian American woman, and a woman of color,” Pham says. “As justice-oriented teachers of color, we recognize that traditional schooling was not designed with communities of color in mind. 

“Our racialized experiences influence how we navigate, negotiate, and transform the conditions of teaching and learning to serve the interests and reclaim the humanity of marginalized communities. I realized while I got a lot of credit for certain work as a teacher, like maintaining an ‘effective’ learning environment for students labeled as ‘struggling,’ there was a lot of other work that I did that wasn’t often recognized as leadership, like engaging in difficult conversations about race or collaboratively developing social justice-oriented curriculum in ways where my contributions weren’t necessarily understood or acknowledged.”  

Pham approached these unlauded aspects of teaching as part of the social justice work that educators do for and with marginalized student populations. 

“We don’t look too much at the relational aspects of what we do as teachers … or how we connect with and listen to families and communities in our daily work,” she says. “There are invisibilized forms of leadership that advance educational interests of students of color. This could be negotiating the ways we talk to and about students and their families. This could be the emotional labor needed to sustain the holistic well-being of our students and our colleagues. This could be incorporating the wisdom and practices of community members as part of our curriculum. These are critical and overlooked practices in terms of how social change is made in classrooms and schools.”

Pham notes that while the literature covers the need to recruit a diverse teaching workforce for diverse student populations, “… issues of retaining teachers of color persist because we don’t always recognize or value the racially transformative leadership that they embody.

“For example, when we have teachers of color who come in very passionately and want to support students of color, it is often recast as being ‘too emotional’ or ‘too angry’ in terms of that passion, and ‘not enough’ objectivity in terms of how we teach. Or maybe we might be seen as [more centered] on social justice and not enough on teaching the content, as if they are separate entities.” 

Pham focused primarily on schools serving low-income populations in Los Angeles. She says that while teachers of color make up approximately 18 percent of the teaching population in the entire United States, students of color are almost half of the overall student population. 

“Los Angeles and UCLA in particular really helped me refine how to think about the work of teachers of color from a place-based lens, specifically in a region where teachers of color make up over 60% of the local teaching profession,” Pham notes. “In a minority-majority context, Los Angeles is a unique place to understand racial justice issues. 

“Los Angeles is a historical site of marginalization and resistance led by communities of color, [which] offers the opportunity to study racial justice possibilities,” she says. “I can draw from my own personal experiences as a teacher of color in a predominantly white teaching [environment] when I was in the Bay Area. It wasn’t until I moved to Los Angeles and did the study here when I realized that the local community and the regional context greatly influences the dynamic experiences of teachers of color, and what racial hierarchies look like within a particular place.”

Pham continues to teach prerequisite and credentialing courses at CSU Fullerton to prepare prospective secondary teachers committed to just, equitable, inclusive education. She says that supporting her students’racial literacy has strengthened collective analyses of and approaches towards liberatory teaching practices during this pandemic, including her own.

“Of course, we consider practical strategies and resources for moving teaching to a virtual educational environment, but that is not where we start, nor is that the end goal,” says Pham. “In addition to identifying the struggles of observing and teaching in schools within this new reality, my students and I talked about the endurance of vulnerabilities for students from marginalized backgrounds, which exacerbates inequitable access to learning. 

“We grappled with issues of access to technology and its impact on students from low-income backgrounds and students with learning disabilities, the re-emergence of anti-Asian hate crimes and the persistence of anti-Blackness, the gendered labor for girls who may have to take on additional responsibilities at home during shelter-in-place, and first-generation students who may serve as caretakers for elderly, etc. We also talk about the brilliance and resistance of marginalized communities, such as contributing to pop culture and entertainment through viral videos on social media, as well as grassroots initiatives to raise funds and offer meals for displaced families.”

Pham emphasizes the importance of teachers’ understanding of these societal and cultural challenges to students of color in order to better serve them and to support teachers’ own self-care and self-validation.

“For many of the challenges and contributions that are talked about, they mirror the daily lives of future and current teachers of color,” she says. “These are the types of rigorous literacies and conceptual understandings that are essential for humanizing teaching and learning, prior to, during, and beyond this pandemic in our day-to-day work: how we renegotiate institutional requirements while prioritizing students’ holistic needs and strengths, and how we balance these responsibilities with our own capacities and political commitments.”

Pham earned her teaching credential and MA in Education at Stanford University; and her bachelor’s degree in English Education with a minor in Child and Adolescent Development at San Jose State University.

To read Pham’s dissertation, “The Multi-Faceted Nature of Racially Transformative Practices: Bringing to Light the Invisibilized Labor and Leadership of Teachers of Color,” visit this link

Above: Courtesy of Josephine Pham