Cultivating Critical Consciousness in Teacher Candidates within a Community-based English Language Program

Dr. Sarina Chugani Molina serves as the Associate Dean of the School of Leadership and Education Sciences and Associate Professor of Education in the Department of Learning and Teaching at the University of San Diego. She has over 25 year’s experience working with marginalized and under-served communities of students including migrant, immigrant, refugee, language learners, and international students in multiple settings. Sarina shared her recent work with us, blending theory with practice to create a sense of critical consciousness in teacher candidates through the creation of a community-based English language program.

The field of English language teaching has always been traversing a fine line between promoting equity and access through supporting social and economic mobility on the one hand, and reinforcing persistent colonial power dynamics and racial inequalities as well as linguicide or language loss on the other. Understanding and managing these polarizing tensions is inherent to our work as language teachers.

As such, English as a Second or Additional Language teachers often play the role of advocating on behalf of their students, while considering cultural and linguistic oppression as well as social and economic opportunity. Since what language teachers decide to teach and how we use language has societal and political implications, it is crucial that educators critically reflect on the mindset and toolkit they bring to the classroom. My vision for our University of San Diego TESOL program is to raise this critical consciousness of our teacher candidates and cultivate their sense of responsibility towards communities that they serve. To achieve this, we needed to give them an authentic context in which they could engage in teaching while simultaneously reflecting upon their role as advocates.

 In 2015, I worked alongside stakeholders to develop an English language program for the vibrant and culturally and linguistically diverse community surrounding the university. Our neighborhood also happens to be the home to some of San Diego’s most vulnerable residents, providing our teacher candidates with an important context to engage in 1) critical reflections upon their role as language teachers, 2) enriching dialogue with their students about their contexts and 3) curriculum design informed by best practices that empowers students to develop their advocacy capacities (Molina, 2019a). To date some of the communities we have served include Kenyan youth who were part of an organization seeking to provide professional development opportunities as a means out of poverty, parents and grandparents in a community-based English language program, refugee-background students in collaboration with the San Diego International Rescue Committee, and adult immigrant and migrant students in the community college sector.

In our community language program for example, we held our TESOL classes with teacher candidates once a week at a centrally located middle school and divided each session into three segments. In the first segment, teacher candidates discuss course readings related to teaching within similar contexts. In the second segment, the candidates work in teaching teams with groups of adult learners from the community, which provided them with an opportunity to adapt with their living syllabi and lesson plans to their students’ emerging needs. Some of the issues that have come up included whether or not to be flexible with the attendance policy, what norms to put in place surrounding language use in the classroom, and how to appropriately plan and design curriculum based on the students’ individual needs, goals and motivations. In the final segment, I facilitate a debriefing session where the candidates discuss artifacts and experiences from that day, allowing them to engage in critical dialogue as they make connections between theory, practice, and advocacy.

Through our discussions and debriefing sessions, teacher candidates start to understand how the political, social, and environmental characteristics of their students’ lives manifest in the classroom. They also start reflecting on their own positionality and identity as teachers, given their power, privilege, and beliefs through a reflexive journal. It is when teacher candidates question their own assumptions about their students and community and it becomes clear that their current systems of knowledge are not working for them, that an opportunity for transformative learning emerges for which professor facilitation is key (Molina, 2019a). I utilize constructive-developmental theory (Kegan, 1982) and socio-cultural theory (Vygotsky, 1978) as frameworks for my feedback practice. Through this approach, I simultaneously provide support and challenge that aims at their growing edges (Drago-Severson & Blum-DeStafano, 2016) or growth points (Johnson & Golombek, 2016, p. 45). These growing edges and growth points are identified through classroom artifacts and assignments they submit that reveal their cognitive understanding and their accompanying reflection journals where I can access their affective dimensions (See Molina forthcoming). Roger’s (1961) person-centered approach highlights the necessity for us to be conscious of both the cognitive and affective dimensions of those we counsel.  

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have encountered challenges arranging research practicum placements as schools pivoted to remote learning. As schools began to close their doors in mid-March, our teacher candidates faced anxiety and frustration as this limited their ability to complete their required research projects as originally conceptualized. While many were able to continue their data collection processes online with adjustments and creative adaptations, others had to abandon their projects or shift to a curriculum research project which did not require site visits. Our partners in the community college sectors and at the campus language academy were gracious to allow our students to continue their classroom fieldwork with veteran teachers as they moved to online platforms. This was an opportunity for our teacher candidates to gain experience in online, asynchronous instruction as well as remote, synchronous instruction. Our practicum instructor modified assignments and activities to continue to facilitate meaningful student engagement.  Overall, the transition demanded a lot of support, mentoring, and adjustments on multiple levels, but I believe our candidates emerged stronger in their understanding of educational practice and the importance of being flexible and adapting quickly to evolving circumstances and emerging needs.

What I have learned through these experiences is that leadership is a complex, multi-faced phenomenon and there is no one way to approach a truly dynamic and evolving role. I find it critical to listen to conversations and attend to policies formed at multiple levels to ensure that I can properly advocate for our students in terms of funding, learning, and future prospects in the field. I pay careful attention to my students’ experiences and identify gaps through course evaluations, post-graduation surveys, and dialogues with veteran teachers in the field who host our students in their classrooms. As I begin to identify needs, I implement changes in our program and continue to collect and disseminate this research on innovative practices as a teacher scholar (See Molina, 2015, 2016; Spencer & Molina, 2018; Molina & Spencer, 2019).

As a leader, I am also always working to deconstruct the various intersections of my identity; seeing these pieces for what they are–as painful as some of it has been–has actually allowed this process to serve as both a healing and empowering experience. This act allows perceived barriers between myself and my students and colleagues to be lowered for us to construct collective understandings of our lived experiences. By demonstrating my own exploration, students may feel less hesitant to expose their own vulnerabilities as they navigate their identity as language learners and as future language teachers in this increasingly transnational world (See Molina, forthcoming). With my colleagues, it is a way in which to bridge understanding.  As Kahlil Gibran’s (1982) states, “How unjust to themselves are those who turn their backs to the sun, and see naught except the shadows of their physical selves upon the earth!” (p. 882).

We thank Dr. Molina for sharing her experiences with us and look forward to learning more about this transition in teacher education to online learning. To follow her journey and that of the TESOL, Literacy, and Culture Teacher Education Master’s program at the University of San Diego, please visit their site here.

Meet Dr. Molina Sarina Chugani Molina


Kegan, R. (1982). The evolving self: Problem and process in human development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,   

Molina, S. C. (forthcoming). “I’m from foreign”: Reconstructing transnational identity and positionality as an ESOL educator.  In S. Canagarajah, B. Yazan & R. Jain (Eds.) Transnational Identities, Pedagogies, and Practices in English Language Teaching: Critical Inquiries from Diverse Practitioners. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Molina, S. C. (forthcoming). Growing emerging researchers in a TESOL teacher education program: Implications for feedback practice. CATESOL Journal.

Molina, S. C. (2015).  Transnational English language teaching: Opportunities for teacher learning and development.  English Language Teacher Education and Development, 18, pp. 20-28.

Molina, S. C. (2016).  The complexity of providing feedback when teachers and students speak different varieties of English: A case study.  Journal of Teaching and Teacher Education, 4 (1), pp. 61-69.

Molina, S. C. (2019a). Cultivating a sense of critical consciousness in teacher candidates within a community-based adult ESL program.  In H. Linville & J. Whiting (Eds.) Advocacy in English Language Teaching and Learning (pp. 57-70). New York, NY: Routledge.

Molina, S. C. (2019b).  Mediating teacher candidates sense of agency in response to policy and curricula planning in a community-based English language program.  In G. Glasgow & J. Bouchard (Eds.) Agentive Responses to Language Planning and Policy (pp. 125-146). New York, NY: Routledge Critical Studies in Multilingualism.

Molina, S. & Spencer, J. (2019). Feedback sessions as mediation spaces: Empowering teacher candidates to deepen instructional knowledge and engage in the construction and transformation of theory in practice. Educational Action Research.


Rogers, C. R. (1961). On becoming a person: A therapist’s view of psychotherapy. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Spencer, J. & Molina, S. (2018) Mentoring graduate students through the action research journey using guiding principles.  Educational Action Research, 26 (1), 144-165.

DOI: 10.1080/09650792.2017.1284013                                                        

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.         

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