In today’s heated political environment, social studies educators across the nation are challenged with a far greater task than teaching students to remember the names of world leaders or the dates of important events. They are charged with demonstrating the power of civil discourse, affirming diverse histories and experiences, and building safe environments for students to share their opinions.
According to Tiffany Mitchell Patterson, PhD, CEHS’ new assistant professor of social studies education, this responsibility implores educators to teach students to understand and embrace viewpoints beyond their own.
“You have to take the time to teach students to value perspectives outside of their own,” Mitchell Patterson said. “People’s perspectives are shaped by their experiences, and it’s not until they have another experience that they see things differently.”
For Mitchell Patterson, who joins the CEHS faculty after working for two years as a fifth-grade teaching fellow, eight years as a middle school social studies teacher and completing her doctorate in multicultural education and education policy at George Mason University, this teaching philosophy has been shaped by her lived experiences.
“My journey really started in K-12 because I know what it’s like to not have your history affirmed in classrooms, as not only a black person, but also as a woman,” Mitchell Patterson said.
Fortunately for Mitchell Patterson, her mother presented her with the silenced narratives of history when she came home from school.
“My mother gave me a separate education filled with the histories of my people, women and other cultures. That was so fascinating and empowering for me,” Mitchell Patterson said. “I would carry that to school with me. I fell in love with learning history and government, and was equally critical of what I was and wasn’t being taught in school.”
Throughout her life, Mitchell Patterson carried a desire to exact change by raising awareness for social justice issues and shedding light on diverse histories. She didn’t, however, always know that she wanted to become an educator.
Mitchell Patterson started her academic career in political science at Norfolk State University and later transferred to Old Dominion University in pursuit of bringing about societal change through policy. Her studies focused on U.S. and international politics, black political representation in the African Diaspora, theories of revolution and social movements.
While working toward her undergraduate degree, Mitchell Patterson continually found herself in roles where she worked with young people – from parks and recreation, to military bases, to afterschool programs, she began to develop a niche. After exploring careers in public policy, she discovered that she could inspire the change she desired in the world as a teacher.
“I realized that I could bring diverse narratives and social justice into the classroom, and that’s what got me into education,” Mitchell Patterson said.
Through her work in preparing future educators and her research in introducing controversial topics in the classroom, Mitchell Patterson hopes to equip the next generation of social studies teachers to build classroom communities that allow for healthy discussions of complex issues. This runs counter to the popular argument that teachers should remain neutral on political topics.
“As social studies teachers, we are told that we shouldn’t share our personal opinions and I get that, but we should afford students an opportunity to voice their opinions and concerns in our classrooms. Dialogue, discussions and debates are integral to social studies and really all classrooms,” Mitchell Patterson said. “I tell my students ‘I don’t care what you think, I care that you think, and realize that other people might think differently than you. And that’s okay.’”
Mitchell Patterson’s scholarship and experience as an educator has shown that students, regardless of age or background, can thrive in an environment where they’re tasked with articulating personal opinions and deconstructing contentious topics.
“I’ve had students from all across the aisle – socially, politically, economically, racially, ethnically – and they’ve been able to grapple with these concepts,” Mitchell Patterson said. “They can handle it. They see these social issues all the time on social media, the news and in their lived experiences. I would rather them process these things in a classroom where they can get all the facts, hear other perspectives and formulate a reasoned opinion rather than to just dismiss the issues.”
For Mitchell Patterson, laying this groundwork with students is the start of a social movement in and of itself.
“I aspire to be a revolutionary in the field,” Mitchell Patterson said. “Education is my revolution.”