The teachers of poor, urban schoolchildren of color are currently at the center of an ideological battle over educational inequality in the US. The popular media and political rhetoric dichotomize teachers as heroes or villains and blame them for persistent achievement gaps related to race and class. Although teachers are indeed central to educational processes, this scapegoating elides the ways in which inherently unequal schooling conditions constrain teachers' ability to engage their students. To move beyond reductive accounts of teaching, my research examines the institutional and interpersonal factors that shape teachers' experiences and practices of caregiving. I provide critical insights into connections between student needs, school resources, and teachers' care and ways in which these are implicated in the reproduction of inequality. Theoretically, these findings illustrate the importance of connecting structural inequalities to lived human experience. Practically, my research suggests new approaches to supporting teachers' work and challenging the intergenerational transmission of socioeconomic inequality.
This dissertation explores teachers' experiences of unequal schooling conditions through in-depth interviews with 60 teachers in three public high schools located in different school districts of Los Angeles County. The schools I selected were de facto segregated in terms of race and class demographics: One served a student population that was wealthy and majority white with a large Asian American minority; the other two schools served populations that were low-income, majority Latino and African American. Each school had a historical relationship to white flight and distinctive connections between the school and the community. The site selection makes a critical contribution to the study of segregated schools by opening up the Black-white binary to understand shifting demographics and by examining the ongoing preservation of white privilege. I coined the term "quarantined disadvantage" to describe the current, unequal conditions of schooling in Los Angeles suburban schools.
To examine the effects of three unequal school contexts on teachers' subjective experiences, I conducted in-depth, open-ended interviews with teachers, covering topics such as the teachers' personal background, significant school-based relationships, and their work context. Drawing on these interviews, I demonstrate that inequality is reproduced through circumscribing teachers' ability to meet students' diverse needs through the provision of care; however, teachers' care also provides fertile ground for radical challenges to institutional inequality. This dissertation intervenes in the study of school inequality by shifting the focus from the material conditions of segregated schools and their effects on student outcomes to the social conditions of segregated schools and their effects on teacher emotions. I explain how the adults most intimately connected with unequal educational conditions and student disadvantage: (1) bear the psychic weight of racist social policies and processes; (2) reap particular psychic rewards from relationships with various populations of students and parents; and (3) cognitively support working within a system of schooling that systematically privileges some students while disadvantaging others. This research interrogates how race and class inequality that appears prima facie shocking to outsiders is lived, reproduced, and sometimes challenged through the daily experience of caring and dedicated teachers.