Who I want you to be: Three portraits of culturally competent teachers improving the mental health of students

Wells, Jennifer
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There is a lack of critical research addressing racism as a dynamic of mental health in schools. In the critical view, US schools mirror a social system built on an ideology of white supremacy; the US school system may perpetuate racial trauma for students of color. Teachers who demonstrate culturally competent identities in practice have important roles to play in counteracting racial trauma and promoting the mental health of students of color.

This qualitative study explores how culturally competent teachers make sense of their identities, how they make sense of their students’ identities to build relationships, and how they understand student identities contributing to mental health. Extending Critical Race Theory (CRT) and Relational Cultural Theory (RCT), this dissertation proposes a new framework for understanding cultural competence at the intersection of racism and mental health, Critical School Mental Health Praxis (CrSMHP). CrSMHP challenges models of resiliency which put the onus on the victim to overcome circumstances. It instead targets the root cause of the traumas, oppressive social systems and their perpetuation in schools. Cultural competence in CrSMHP focuses on dismantling oppressive systems through systematic critical reflection and practice.

Using portraiture, this dissertation paints the stories of three culturally competent teachers in order to illustrate the lived experience of such critical reflection and practice. Common to the lived experience of each teacher are the following practices: the intentionality of relationship-building, the encouragement of a climate of critical questioning, and the embedded nature of activism. These practices help further define a 5-point implementation plan for CrSMHP as a profession-wide approach to confronting the mental health dimensions of racism-derived racial trauma in US schools.