Federico Waitoller with Tran Templeton

Dr. Federico Waitoller

Dr. Federico Waitoller

Dr. Federico Waitoller is an Assistant Professor of Special Education at the University of Illinois, Chicago. His work focuses on multiple yet intersecting strands of research: teacher learning for inclusive education, and the disproportionate numbers of students of color in special education settings. Over “a shot of espresso with a drop of milk” (Dr. Waitoller’s preferred beverage at the café), he visits with Tran Templeton, an old friend and colleague. Waitoller and Templeton attended the University of Washington at Seattle together from 2005 to 2007. In this discussion, the two friends talk about a new project Dr. Waitoller is working on, and his life as an Assistant Professor.   

TRAN TEMPLETON

So it’s been six years since we studied and worked together at the University of Washington. You finished your doctorate as I was returning to the U.S. from Guatemala, which is a little funny because I had been on track to complete mine at, or before, the same time. It just goes to show that everyone has their own path to take. Now that I’m a doctoral student again I’m interested in individuals in their early academic careers, and who better to ask than my friends who have completed their programs and are in their first years of life in the professoriate?

FEDERICO WAITOLLER

Well I’m at the point right now where I’m squeezing the last drop of juice out of my dissertation. (laughs)

TRAN TEMPLETON

Which was on what?

FEDERICO WAITOLLER

Teacher learning for inclusive education.

TRAN TEMPLETON

Dr. Elizabeth Kozleski

Dr. Elizabeth Kozleski

I’ve seen a couple of those articles that you’ve written with Elizabeth Kozleski.

FEDERICO WAITOLLER

Yeah, and so it was a very lengthy dissertation. It was a pain when I did it but the good thing is that I have a lot of data. So I’m buying myself time while I get my [new project] set up.

TRAN TEMPLETON

The dissertation… So many doctoral students like myself are worried thinking, “How am I going to get this done?” Do you remember your process for that?

FEDERICO WAITOLLER

I had decided on a dissertation, but it was kind of strategic. I was working as a data coordinator, what you [and your colleague had been doing before at the UW], and I was organizing this large data collection for this large project that was on professional learning schools for inclusive ed. We were working with three different schools, working on transforming them into inclusive classrooms, at the same that we were working on professional learning and different ways of apprenticeship in the classroom. I was working on analysis and RTI (Response To Intervention), and I thought, “Why am I going to do that?” And I said, “I’m just going to use the data that I’m collecting for this project,” and that’s what I did. I had a lot of data that I collected for that project, from video of the classroom to institutional documents and interviews. I was trying to look at two things. One of the questions was more about the institutional layer and looking at the social discourses that were present in both institutions and how they converge and merge together. Both institutions, meaning the university and the schools, and how they clash, merge, or generate tensions for the teachers that were there.

TRAN TEMPLETON

That must have been really interesting.

FEDERICO WAITOLLER

Yeah, I thought it was! (laughs)

TRAN TEMPLETON

We always think our own research is really interesting! (laughs)

FEDERICO WAITOLLER

And the second part of the second question was how teachers learn amidst those tensions, so how they were drawing from disparate understandings of teaching and learning to make sense of something and how that was reflected in practice, in the videos that I had. So I have that, and the good thing was that I didn’t need an IRB, I didn’t need to collect more data. By the time I was writing my proposal, half of my data was collected. I needed to reframe the study though.

TRAN TEMPLETON

See, that’s what I miss about the UW. Things are different at Teachers College, at least in our Curriculum & Teaching Department. It’s very different.

FEDERICO WAITOLLER

Yeah, I was very privileged, though I worked hard to collect all of the data…

TRAN TEMPLETON

Absolutely, I remember the work that you did with us at the UW.

FEDERICO WAITOLLER

…[I collected that data] on my own, pretty much…doing this brought up a lot of tension, right, because I was collecting data for this project but I was so freaked out that I wanted good data. I didn’t want other people to go and collect my data.

TRAN TEMPLETON

I understand that feeling.

FEDERICO WAITOLLER

And the videos, particularly I wanted to make sure that they were focused on what I wanted them to…

TRAN TEMPLETON

What were you capturing?

Andrea Flower

Andrea Flower

FEDERICO WAITOLLER

Classroom practices. Once a week, a professor from the university went to the classrooms and did coaching and had conversations with the teachers, looking at the video afterward and the practices involved. So I wanted to look at those issues and I needed to make sure that the cameras worked well enough, just all the paranoia that you have throughout your dissertation.

TRAN TEMPLETON

Well, you remember, Andrea Flower (my colleague at the UW) and I didn’t let anyone touch the data.

FEDERICO WAITOLLER

That’s right. You were the data Nazi.

TRAN TEMPLETON

Yeah, but now that I’ve read some of your recent work, it seems that a lot of your work now is around race and disproportionate numbers of children of color placed in the special education system.

FEDERICO WAITOLLER

Well, that was always my interest, and the teacher learning is actually a way to address some of those intersecting forms of exclusion, I would say. So the program that we have, the reason I wanted to do work there, was that the teacher learning programs were fusing tools from inclusive education, and differentiated instruction, but also fusing critical race theory and cultural responsiveness, and so it was a nice fusion of different tools from different teacher communities. But yes, other work I’ve done has been around intersections of race, special education, and class/gender. That’s what I’m beginning to do now.

TRAN TEMPLETON

So this new project is tied to that?

FEDERICO WAITOLLER

We’re just beginning to collect and prep the data. We’re going to do a spatial analysis of identification patterns and placements of special education in Chicago to see how identification patterns change across the city. We’re trying to look for neighborhood variables, not just in school. We’re still defining those variables, but we’re thinking we’re going to go talk to urban planners, people in health care, and look at, for example, access to grocery stores, to community centers, health centers, different demographics in the neighborhood. The dominance of charter schools in some neighborhoods as opposed to others, that plays a role in identification. So I have a research assistant, and she’s prepping the data. But it’s a lot of work because we need school level data and coordinates on the maps. The bulk of it involves a lot of phone calls, asking “is your school in such-and-such neighborhood?” Chicago Public Schools has over 600 schools in one district, so it’s a little bit of a headache, but I have time. That’s the reason why I said I’m trying to squeeze my dissertation. I’m already tired of publishing on my dissertation but I still have work from it to get out, so the idea is I’ll buy myself one more year publishing from my dissertation and hopefully by the end of the following year, I’ll have myself some initial analyses from this study.

TRAN TEMPLETON

And how did you start to think about this idea?

FEDERICO WAILER

Inclusive Education: Examining Equity on Five Continents, Alfredo J. Artiles and Elizabeth B. Kozleski, professors of culture, society and education, with alumnus Federico Waitoller  (co-editors)

Inclusive Education: Examining Equity on Five Continents, Alfredo J. Artiles and Elizabeth B. Kozleski, Federico Waitoller (co-editors)

Well, it came from Alfredo Artiles. You know that edited volume, Inclusive Education Examining Equity on Five Continents? We began to play with these ideas of community variables and neighborhood-based variables. The article was just about disproportionalities, from a spatial perspective, but I didn’t want to just do identification. I also wanted to look at placement, to see the types of services students were receiving.

TRAN TEMPLETON

So you’re using Edward Soja’s work, critical social theory…

FEDERICO WAITOLLER

Soja’s work, critical social theory, critical geography, to start learning about how the conversation has been going on in this aspect, and of course all the work that I’ve been doing on overrepresentation. And I’ve been learning about Chicago itself because it’s a monster. Politically, it’s a mess. It’s its own world.

TRAN TEMPLETON

I think a lot of doctoral students like myself, we worry that our dissertations will define us, but what it sounds like you’re saying is that it goes beyond. You continue to learn…

FEDERICO WAITOLLER

Well, you’re going to have to spin it. You’re going to have to make a case when you go up for tenure that you’re providing a cohesive body of knowledge, and that’s how you frame it later on. It doesn’t have to define you, but you probably want…I mean, if you do a dissertation, you’re going to have 2, 2 ½ years of publishing after it, which is going to be your head start for tenure time, so you can change but not drastically, because then you’re going to have a hard time justifying it.

TRAN TEMPLETON

With all that we know about the politics of higher education, did you ever have doubts about going into academia?

Edward Soja

Edward Soja

FEDERICO WAITOLLER

No, I knew it the day that I started the Masters program.

TRAN TEMPLETON

Why, what was it?

FEDERICO WAITOLLER

I don’t know, it was just something I knew I wanted to do.

TRAN TEMPLETON

Well, remind me because I’ve forgotten, what was your focus in the Masters program?

FEDERICO WAITOLLER

The focus was on EBD (Emotional and Behavioral Disorders). I was the only one in my cohort who chose to do a thesis [rather than a final exam]. And I did a thesis on disproportionality, and I became interested there. I mean, I knew I was going to go into academia, probably since I was 19, but I don’t know, just because the imaginaries about what kind of life it would be, and lifestyles, the kind of tasks that you want to engage in everyday, but the idea of race began to shape in the Masters program.

TRAN TEMPLETON

Really…

FEDERICO WAITOLLER

Dr. James Banks

Dr. James Banks

[At the UW] I took a class with James Banks.

TRAN TEMPLETON

After I left, I thought, shoot, I really should have taken a class with James Bank.

FEDERICO WAITOLLER

Yeah, it was great. It really shaped my interests….Actually, while I was applying for jobs, the UW started to look for someone in special ed who had more of a language and culture background.

TRAN TEMPLETON

And that’s partially why I moved into a broader program. I just felt like special education, in general and apart from disability studies programs, were so…positivist, so “this is truth,” and I lived my whole life like that, until I got to New York and thought, “Oh my god.” And you just get so angry… (laughter)

FEDERICO WAITOLLER

Well I think it has to do with your own biography too because I was not a positivist. I studied psychology back in Buenos Aires, and it was much more of a postmodern kind of thinking and so, when I went to the UW, I learned that and it was great, but it didn’t…

TRAN TEMPLETON

You still had your own lens.

FEDERICO WAITOLLER

Yeah.

TRAN TEMPLETON

It didn’t indoctrinate you.

FEDERICO WAITOLLER

But I think if I had gone to the classroom right after that, I may have changed. I don’t know. We never know but I just think, when we get engaged in practice, particularly in special education, you get enveloped by this medical perspective and trying to “fix these kids with these problems.”

TRAN TEMPLETON

Right. So congratulations on almost being a father! Now, because of the sheer time that academic life takes, I think a lot of people wonder, how do you balance being in your first year, second year, with having a family?

FEDERICO WAITOLLER

Well (laughs) I don’t have a family yet.

TRAN TEMPLETON

Well, at least, how do you give Lehka [Dr. Waitoller’s wife] the attention she needs [while working on your research]?

FEDERICO WAITOLLER

(laughs) I don’t think she does [get the attention she needs]! (laughs) So I don’t think I can answer that question, but you know, it’s just the lifestyle you choose. She’s a career-oriented person too.  And she spends a lot of time at the museum. She’s in curatorial work so she’s working at the Art Institute of Chicago.

TRAN TEMPLETON

Nice, nice, you two are doing well there.

FEDERICO WAITOLLER

Yeah, it’s worked out well. She was working as an interim curator at the ASU Museum and then at the Phoenix Museum, and then it just happened that some of the major donors at the museum at Phoenix are one of the major donors at the Art Institute. So they connected her.

TRAN TEMPLETON

So it helps that you both have…

FEDERICO WAITOLLER

Yeah, that we both have our stuff. And I think we are both trying to imagine what that’s going to look like with a kid in November. I mean, I’m the one who has more flexibility, so I’m gonna get all the slack. (laughs). But you know she has night events, you know and stuff she needs to do and…

TRAN TEMPLETON

There are professors at Teachers College who carry their babies with them…

FEDERICO WAITOLLER

That’s true, I know, that’s true. I’m too clumsy for that; I would be very scared for that. But yeah, so I think that helps. I think if [that emphasis on career] is different and if the power distribution there is not well-balanced, it can be very frustrating. If you don’t understand the other, and their passion for what they’re doing, and respect and try to support that, it’s almost impossible. I think the first year [in your university position] begins when you negotiate your position, and that’s key. You need to make sure that wherever you go, they give you enough support in the first three years so that you can…

TRAN TEMPLETON

So you feel that way at the University of Illinois?

FEDERICO WAITOLLER

Yeah, and I made sure that I had the money that I needed to start, and they were very explicit that they would leave me alone for the first three years.

TRAN TEMPLETON

So you could do whatever research you want…

FEDERICO WAITOLLER

Whatever I want, and with very little responsibilities toward the department. I have some responsibilities, it’s not that I don’t do anything. I’m part of the program development for the Masters program. And now they’re kind of asking me more and more as I go into my third year, but you want to make sure that you have your space because it takes time to publish. It depends where you land. If you don’t get a tenure track position, it’s fine, but if you get a tenure track position and you need to publish, it takes time to publish and it takes time to get stuff out. And if you need, I don’t know, 15 articles by your sixth year, the first year you’re probably not publishing because you spent the year before that doing your dissertation. And that’s it, so you need time. You need time to think and develop your own identity as a scholar in the type of work that you want to do.

TRAN TEMPLETON

So you didn’t have doubts about going into it, but now that you’re in it, what’s been the hardest part?

FEDERICO WAITOLLER

Federico Waitoller and Stephanie Farmer from CReATE (Mike Klonsky photos)

Federico Waitoller and Stephanie Farmer from CReATE (Mike Klonsky photos)

I’m moving now into activism, researcher as activist role. And it’s going to be a little bit of a switch for all the things going on in Chicago. And it’s a tough tension because being an activist means 
“produce work faster and not so thoroughly,” or frame it in a certain way that kind of reduces your work but at the same time is more appealing so it gets picked up by the media, by the teachers’ union…

TRAN TEMPLETON

Right, you have that article that was picked up by the Chicago newspaper, right?

FEDERICO WAITOLLER

Yeah, it was the Sun Times. Yeah, it’s very difficult because I’m very meticulous with my work and I want to be thorough and I know the messiness of all this and I want to transmit that it’s not a black and white issue. It’s very messy but you cannot do in the public sphere. You need to be very clear. I don’t want to say black and white but you need to be very clear.

TRAN TEMPLETON

People aren’t going to ask you about what makes it messy…

FEDERICO WAITOLLER

And also they want very simple explanations and they don’t want this very complex picture about what it means, like… are charter schools good or bad? They want to know if it’s good or bad. That’s a bad question in itself, but that’s what they want to know. They want to know if it’s effective or ineffective, right?

TRAN TEMPLETON

And you want to say “Yes, but…” or “No, but…”

FEDERICO WAITOLLER

Yeah, “No, but…” it’s a very complex issue.

Kevin Kumashiro

Kevin Kumashiro

TRAN TEMPLETON

Kevin Kumashiro

FEDERICO WAITOLLER

Yeah, I know Kevin.

TRAN TEMPLETON

He’s in Chicago, right?

FEDERICO WAITOLLER

Yeah, yeah, we work together at CReATE.

TRAN TEMPLETON

I heard him talk a while back, and he talked about the researcher as activist, that we need to reframe ourselves as activists. And I think it’s hard for academicians to enter the activists’ space because they can be looked upon with skepticism. I don’t know if you’ve experienced that.

FEDERICO WAITOLLER

The group that Kevin started is called CReATE: Chicago Researchers and Advocates for Transformative Education. I’m part of that collective, and the union really likes us, and the parent groups really like us. We’ve been really explicit and supportive of them through research and media statements. So I haven’t experienced that yet.Well, yes and no, because I’ve been meeting with some of the school boards the last two, three weeks, and they’re receptive to certain things. But that’s a tough tension. And then, you’re doing a lot of work that’s not valued because for tenure they don’t care if you publish a story about this and that, right?

TRAN TEMPLETON

The last thing I wanted to ask is, do you find it hard to be in social situations, as an academic? You find yourself wanting to talk through what little feminist ideas you’ve read about with a woman at the nail salon who’s telling you about her male boss at work. But that doesn’t go over too well. Now I understand what it’s like to be so immersed in your work that it’s hard to find the right language to talk to people as you might have before.

FEDERICO WAITOLLER

I don’t know. I’m still learning how to put things into simpler terms.  Last year we were shopping for a house, and the realtor invited us to a little get-together, and there were other people looking for houses, and some developers. I was talking to one of them, and he asked, “Oh, what do you do?” So I told him about my work and he started talking about the charter school stuff. And he had, you know, a pretty capitalist mindset thinking charters are great. I told him, it makes sense but when you look at it, the data hasn’t supported charter schools for ten years so it’s very hard to make a case for charter schools. I think when you can provide – I know it has its limitations because the data’s not amazing – but when you can bring some empirical evidence to the conversation people start questioning the ideas a little more. And trying to hear, to listen, to people.

TRAN TEMPLETON

And try not to use the word postmodern.

FEDERICO WAITOLLER

And feminism. That’s another one, yeah, that’s true. I’m trying to make an empirical argument. You don’t have to do it always, but you know, just to disrupt people’s thinking, to say, “you know, what you’re thinking makes sense,” or it’s based on this assumption that’s flawed. By being respectful and pointing it out.

TRAN TEMPLETON

Good advice.

FEDERICO WAITOLLER

But I love those types of conversations.

Tran Templeton

Tran Templeton

Tran Templeton is currently a doctoral candidate in Curriculum and Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University. She holds a Bachelors in Human Development from The University of Texas at Austin and a Masters in Teaching and Learning from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. Previously, Templeton was a special education teacher, and prior to Teachers College, she served for four years as the Program Director of Colegio Monarch Guatemala, a school for children with neurobehavioral disabilities. Her interests include childhood agency, social and emotional development in early childhood, and teacher education.

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One thought on “Federico Waitoller with Tran Templeton

  1. Pingback: Andrea Flower and Gita Upreti with Tran Templeton | Esteem

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