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What should we teach teachers?

For Distinguished Teaching Professor Keffrelyn Brown, racial history and racial literacy should be essential elements of American teacher education.

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Professor Keffrelyn Brown. Photo by Marsha Miller. Illustration by Ryan Goeller.

Hard. Painful. Joyful. Astonishing. Mind-expanding. Life-changing. This is how former student David Barry described a journey through the history of black education in America as taught by UT professor Keffrelyn Brown. 

He added, “Some days I would leave class and feel like crying about how little I knew about the countless contributions of black intellectuals to the field of education. I wonder if I would have ever learned about these great scholars and thinkers if not for Dr. Brown. Other days we would laugh out loud in class, and I would leave feeling hopeful and a part of something larger than myself.”

This year, Keffrelyn Brown was inducted into the Academy of Distinguished Teachers at The University of Texas at Austin, adding to accolades that already included the Regents Outstanding Teaching Award. She is a professor of cultural studies in education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction and holds appointments in the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies, the Warfield Center for African and African American Studies, and the Center for Women and Gender Studies.

Growing up in Houston, the daughter of an electrical engineer and a homemaker, she remembers that her parents really allowed her to have a voice. “They allowed me to speak,” she says. “They always took my thoughts seriously.” Sunday afternoons found her sitting around the dining room table after church talking with her parents and grandparents, uncles and an aunt. “They never felt it wasn’t a place where I could participate.” 

“I was always a good student. I loved school,” she recalls. But as she became an adult, she realized there were experiences she should have had access to that she didn’t. One example she cites involves the process of tracking, whereby students receive a different curriculum based on the pathway they are presumed to be taking. In today’s parlance, these tracks are known as “on-level,” “college track,” and “advanced placement” or AP. “Sometimes I didn’t get to be in courses because at the time I didn’t even know they were an option,” she says.  

By the time she went to college, she says, “I realized there’s a lot of knowledge I didn’t have access to, like chances to study abroad. Learning how different and inequitable experiences can be for students made me want to learn more about teaching.”

Brown earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Houston in political science and psychology. She left Houston at age 25 for Long Beach, California, where she worked in various teaching and school administration jobs, all the while eyeing a career in political science.  

 In 1995, she came to a fork in the road. The path she was on led to a doctoral program in political science to which she had been accepted. The other path led to a two-year stint with the newly formed Teach for America corps. That road — education — is the one she has been on ever since. She followed Teach for America with a master’s degree from Harvard University, then a doctoral degree at the University of Wisconsin in curriculum and instruction. She joined the UT faculty in 2006.

Being in the public school teaching trenches (“I had 36 students.”) was an eye-opening, humbling and powerful experience, she says — “just watching children grow and develop, becoming excited to learn in some instances and not excited to learn in other instances.”

Now she began to understand the power of curriculum. Brown says when people in general are asked what teachers themselves should be taught, they will mention subject area, followed by classroom management, with some even giving a nod to child development. By contrast, she says, “I don’t meet a lot of people who say, ‘You need to know about sociocultural issues, how those big social categories that have come to define us and our cultural activities play a role in the classroom. Race, gender, class — all of those are social categories that our society recognizes. They’re markers for how we look at and make sense of the world, but often they’re not seen as integral to teaching.”

In the case of race, which is her particular focus, Brown is a strong voice in a growing chorus calling Americans not to ignore race because of its uncomfortable history or out of a desire to be color evasive or “color blind,” but rather, understand race as “foundational” in our history and thus in our economy, culture and politics. Only when that role is understood, she says, can there be more fulsome equity and justice around racialized issues from mass incarceration to funding for schooling “that is effective for all students, not just students who have more economic or social privilege.”

A prime example of her passion was launched just last month, the Teaching Texas Slavery Project. Funded through Humanities Texas, she along with UT professors Daina Berry and Anthony Brown, her husband, created a resource-rich website and set of workshops to help Texas teachers give students a robust knowledge of slavery in Texas. 

“Slavery in Texas has been downplayed. In many ways, slavery hasn’t figured into our official story.” Brown often speaks of “humanizing” the ways we teach about slavery, “so that we’re not ignoring it because it’s an uncomfortable topic but also not treating it as something that creates a dehumanized experience where students feel traumatized.” Nationwide, she says, slavery has been taught in a host of problematic ways, such as asking students to simulate slavery. “The desire was to help students feel what it was like, when the reality is that there’s no way to ever feel what it was like, and to even try to create that feeling is to somehow minimize the experience itself.” She says it also is important to try to “center the enslaved person in that narrative, where their perspectives are highlighted.”

Brown challenges her students to look deeper than race and culture — to how certain institutions have created or exacerbated social and economic gaps. One former student writes, “I can honestly say that I have never had a professor or teacher that inspired me to ‘keep going deeper’ in the way Dr. Brown has.”