you're reading...
Leadership and Activism

Are Teachers Activists?

The notion that education is inherently social justice is detrimental to oppressed communities.

My father was a first generation college student. Raised in rural Massachusetts on public assistance, he comes from a large group of siblings, and one of the only Black families in the area. Excelling in school from an early age, he was identified by several of his teachers as gifted, and my grandmother in particular understood that an academic future might be his ticket away from poverty in a small, postindustrial town. My father went on to receive scholarships to a private high school, college, and finally a Ph.D. program, a feat which required herculean efforts on both his and his family’s part. Meanwhile, many of his siblings who struggled in school, battled drug addiction and found themselves in destructive relationships, did not receive the same kind of attention and support, having never been marked by any of their teachers as “worthy of escape.” While they were encouraged to pursue the vocations for which they had been typecast, my father left home in the 10th grade, never to live there again. In my generation, the family is split along class lines, with those who attended college leading middle-class lives in various locations around the country, and those who didn’t residing in the small town in which my father was raised, still wrestling with many of the issues they faced as young people.

I was recently watching an installment of Skip Gates’ America Beyond the Color Line–a project I take issue with for a number of reasons. This particular chapter of the film was dedicated to issues of urban plight. At the moment that I flipped to the broadcasting channel, Gates was sitting with an all Black group of high school students in a classroom on Chicago’s south side. After listening to stories of the students’ struggles and setbacks as members of an impoverished community, Gates asked, “Would it mean something to you all if more wealthy Black folks came back to this neighborhood and said, ‘Look, I made it out, here’s how you can, too’?” Most of the students nodded, and a few shouted their affirmative responses. The episode closed with a predictable monologue about education being the key to success, the primary weapon with which to fight poverty and unlock a brighter future for the Black community–replete with doctor, lawyer and engineer dreams for all Black youth. While formal education, admittedly, has long been mythologized as source of saving grace for the supposedly downtrodden, it is only in recent decades that teaching the oppressed has come to be seen as activist work, something inherently selfless and good, and which helps restore justice to those who have been perennially denied it.

Many in my current student generation are being drawn towards careers in education in larger numbers than ever before. This has to do with a host of social, political and economic shifts–each worth its own individual interrogation–including recession, the availability of jobs in certain sectors, and the urgent need to pay off loans as the price of “higher learning” continues to skyrocket. Yet for the sake of this discussion, the phenomenon I would like to focus on is the relatively recent development of the rhetoric of education as social justice work. Young idealists who seek to involve themselves in making a positive change are moving more and more away from protest, away from grassroots and community organizing, away from militant efforts which seek to challenge oppressive systems, and more and more into joining with the systems themselves, particularly through the means of becoming teachers, principals and policy makers. We as students and young people are not merely encouraged in this direction, but are actively recruited by our learning institutions, the nonprofit sector, and a myriad of private organizations, all of them siphoning resources and rights away from oppressed communities even as they rely on the rhetoric of social justice to appeal to aspiring change makers. The result of this rhetoric’s production, and our belief in it as a generation of young educators, is a sterilized and barren notion of social justice, one which reinvests faith into the exact institutions which structure and perpetuate an inequitable social order.

My father is now a college administrator at his alma mater, and plays a large role in overseeing one of the very institutions which holds such a problematic place in his family’s history. What could easily be read as a narrative of personal triumph for my father as an individual, when placed in a larger context, is one of a family’s being rent apart, and an oppressed community being dismantled, not uplifted. Why do we seldom ask: How is it that so many of our present notions of social justice depend on the individuals who have been largely successful within the order teaching whole communities who have been oppressed by it to work diligently inside of it in the hopes of individual betterment? When did social justice become solely about teaching, talking and testing? How did we all become sold on working within current educational and political models instead of challenging them at their bases, preferably with militant and community-based means of action?

In response to the question, ‘Are teachers activists?’ my answer is: No. Not inherently. Teaching brown kids math, helping recent immigrants master English, or even making an occupational commitment to public education, are none of them inherently radical acts, though they are often characterized as such. This is not to say that choosing education as a profession is in dissonance with struggling for social justice. It is when we believe that it is enough–that simply being a teacher by trade is activism–that we enter into dangerous territory. For this belief is complicit with a plethora of assumptions detrimental to justice, including the notion that learning is inevitably about competition, class mobility and community escape. It leaves unchallenged an oppressive state’s ability to define “the public good,” the power of private bodies to determine curriculum, the bonds between school and the prison industrial complex, and the colonial concept that the oppressed should model themselves after their oppressors in order to be “successful.” Our cooperation with these systems of thought and action results in the perpetuation of the most abhorrent and inequitable structures in global history, and works to destroy the very communities we have naively taken it upon ourselves to “save.”

A true commitment to social justice must be about something deeper and more potent than deigning to work with oppressed people, preparing them for proper immersion into the social orders which have forever defined themselves through their disenfranchisement. Our work as educators cannot simply be around developing the curriculum which has been handed to us and spooning it to our students, hoping to sneak in a few progressive tidbits in the form of readings and discussion questions. A real struggle for justice requires that we fight systems of oppression both in and outside of the classroom, pose real threats to their ability to function, and be brave enough to take the risks required to resist the conservative goals of traditional education, rather than apologetically working along with them.


About Benji Hart

Benji Hart is a Chicago-based author, artist, and educator. Their words have appeared in numerous anthologies, and been published at Teen Vogue, Time, and The Advocate. The have been a fellow with Yaddo, Trillium Arts, and MacDowell. See more of their work at


42 thoughts on “Are Teachers Activists?

  1. “For this belief is complicit with a plethora of assumptions detrimental to justice, including the notion that learning is inevitably about competition, class mobility and community escape. It leaves unchallenged an oppressive state’s ability to define ‘the public good,’ the power of private bodies to determine curriculum, the bonds between school and the prison industrial complex, and the colonial concept that the oppressed should model themselves after their oppressors in order to be ‘successful.'”

    Exactly–especially that last phrase, the idea that the children in our public schools “should” adopt certain values, if they want to “succeed:” compliance, respect for “authority,” consumerism, patriotism, capitalism, and so on.

    Wonderful, meaty piece–a conceptual frame for understanding lots of current practices and programs in education.

    Posted by Nancy Flanagan | December 9, 2011, 9:37 am
    • Thank you so much for making the leap from the raced and classed expectations of traditional education to the other kinds of requirements it makes of our communities, and the many systems tied up in them. This gives me something a little more to chew on in relation to these questions. It is an honor read your comment and receive your feedback.

      Posted by rad fag | December 9, 2011, 6:52 pm
  2. This is an awesome post and intersects directly with something I am writing about for Radical Scholarship.

    “Teaching brown kids math, helping recent immigrants master English, or even making an occupational commitment to public education, are none of them inherently radical acts, though they are often characterized as such.”

    The conflation of NCLB, and “no-excuses schools” as “the next piece of the Civil Rights movement” is an elision of troubling effect. And we’re not talking about it enough. Almost not at all.

    Great piece, thank you for it.


    Posted by Kirsten Olson | December 9, 2011, 10:42 am
    • Thank you so much for reading, and for tying this questions back to NCLB, and other federal and private initiatives. That is a really important connection that I had not made here. I would love to read your piece when it comes out.

      Posted by rad fag | December 9, 2011, 6:01 pm
  3. Bakunin picturesquely expresses it: “Man has two opposed instincts; egoism and sociability. He is both more ferocious in his egoism than the most ferocious beasts and more sociable than the bees and ants.”

    Even after a successful social revolution which dismantles the state there will still be a vital need for an education which can nurture the social virtues on which an anarchist society might be built. This is a central theme.

    For anarchists, the ideal society is something that has to be created. And education is primarily a part of this creation; it involves a radical challenge to current practices and institutions, yet at the same time a faith in the idea that human beings already possess the attributes and virtues necessary to create and sustain such a different society. They do not need, therefore, to either undergo any radical transformation or to do away with a Marxist ‘inauthentic’ consciousness. Education is not a means of creating a different political order, but a space in which we experiment with visions of a new political order – a process which itself constitutes an educative and motivating experience both for educators and pupils.

    In many standard works on anarchism, education gets barely a passing mention. A pity. For the anarchists’ acknowledgment of the need for a substantive educational process, designed along clear moral principles, goes hand-in-hand with their contextualist account of human nature. It thus turns what what might otherwise be nothing more than naïve optimism into a complex and inspiring social hope.

    Posted by Landon | December 9, 2011, 1:17 pm
  4. The most inspiring text I have read in months. Thank you, RF.

    I’m thinking about how much resistance I withhold from the system because of my fears about the economy and my way of life. I appreciate how clearly you problematize that for me. I wonder also about the day-to-day conflicts of expediency that come up between my writing and my teaching in a public school.

    Am I a real threat to the system? Good question.


    Posted by Chad Sansing | December 9, 2011, 1:40 pm
  5. Yes! Thank you for articulating and sharing this.

    Posted by Jack | December 9, 2011, 5:45 pm
  6. As a future teacher, it has been pounded into my brain that self-reflection is essential to being an effective teacher. As an idealist, I hope to bring into my classes lessons that include messages of environmental and social justice issues, ways to create positive change in the community, reconnection with other humans, empowerment to stand up for what one believes in, and what one dreams about. I ask myself, is it possible to do this within the current system? Is it possible to shift the realities of my students in a year’s time? What can I do as a teacher, idealist, activist, environmentalist, and a communalist/anarchist?

    Posted by Marie Smith | December 9, 2011, 5:51 pm
    • Yes! I really respect your reflection, and those profound questions. “Is it possible to do this within the current system?” is a big one I have been struggling with as I attempt to figure out what my next life moves might me. I would love to know more of your thoughts on that question in particular, but on all of those really great questions generally.

      Posted by rad fag | December 9, 2011, 5:59 pm
  7. I am not a teacher, but to make change the parents, community members, and taxpayers must be engaged. The conversation must jump out to reach all the stakeholders. There is great dissent in the nation. I heard on the news this evening that public schools in Texas are suing the state over funding of schools. There is a law suit here in Florida that is advancing. I don’t know where else, but following these cases may provide the impetus that leads to the kind of analysis started here.

    Posted by Sandra | December 9, 2011, 8:19 pm
  8. This is amazing…absolutely amazing. Never read a post that has went so far as to deeply explain the racial and ethnic divide in the American academic system that has either asked children to conform or encourage them to be change bringers.

    Posted by Jabreel Chisley | December 10, 2011, 1:02 am
  9. Beautiful. I have to tell you, I almost didn’t read this post, because based on the title, I was guessing that it would make the opposite argument.

    “It is when we believe that it is enough–that simply being a teacher by trade is activism–that we enter into dangerous territory. For this belief is complicit with a plethora of assumptions detrimental to justice, including the notion that learning is inevitably about competition, class mobility and community escape. It leaves unchallenged an oppressive state’s ability to define “the public good,” the power of private bodies to determine curriculum, the bonds between school and the prison industrial complex, and the colonial concept that the oppressed should model themselves after their oppressors in order to be “successful.”’

    And this set of assumptions is now fracturing communities and blighting children’s lives all over the world through international programs like “Education for All” and numberless NGO’s who believe they are “fighting poverty” with schools.

    I’d like to see us really stay with these points rather than simply nod to them and move on.

    Posted by Carol Black | December 10, 2011, 1:21 am
    • Yes, let’s stay here. I just started reading Walk Out Walk On. It’s about emergent, organically networked non-Western learning spaces and all the humanity that goes with them. I’ll post more about it here as I read.

      “What would I do for social justice?”, is a much more powerful question than, “How would I school or teach for it?”


      Posted by Chad Sansing | December 10, 2011, 10:57 am
      • chad, should we do a book group kind of set of posts about Walk Out Walk On? Monika leads? Monika, you down? Let’s learn out loud together?


        Posted by Kirsten | December 15, 2011, 9:45 am
        • That’d be great. We disassembled and reassembled a piece of classroom gear yesterday to fix it, and I kept wondering to myself when I would have the guts to ditch everything and get the kids started on bicimaquinas.

          Hasta entonces,

          Posted by Chad Sansing | December 15, 2011, 3:57 pm
  10. You have touched on an important issue that I have been struggling with for the last few years, that of cultural values. As a white middle class man I have struggled with how to reach the disenfranchised ethnic minority youth I teach, especially since many of the values they demonstrate reflect an attitude not espoused by the establishment as those which lead to success. I continually compare them to the ethnic minority students who come from middle class families. The differences are huge and the value system appears to be the main difference maker. In serious discussion with my colleagues of color, they agree with me. They agree with have to help the former group shift its values.

    If I read your piece correctly, you are against such a philosophy. What happened to your family is sad. My own family has a similar history, though my father never made it to college himself. However, his siblings remained in a lower socioeconomic class, reflecting some of Ruby Payne’s characteristics. Just to help me continue to process this whole idea and keep discussion going, can we categorize a particular set of behaviors or values that do indeed lead to success but not necessary be the values that continue to promote a system of oppression? What if there are overlaps in the sets – does that make “successful” values evil? Could the effects on your family and others be a result of an entirely different set of values?

    Posted by Matt Guthrie | December 10, 2011, 9:35 am
    • Thank you for your important questions. You have understood my intent behind the piece correctly, and I think a next question to ask in order to keep the conversation going is how do we (re)define success? Certain communities and their cultural practices and values are often decried by traditional education as lacking the traits which lead to “success.” The same bodies who make these accusations, I believe, have not stopped to question how the success we have laid out for them is a historically problematic and oppressive one, and that students/families/communities may have whole other visions for and ideas of success that are more just and more radical, but not understood or valued by a Eurocentric, middle-classed-based form of schooling. In my experience, the students who on topical level have a “dysfunctional” or “non-compliant” relationship to school are the ones who are beginning to grasp on a deeper level the inherent inequities and contradictions of traditional education. Instead of wringing our hands and trying to force these students to be models of the very class/race groups which benefit from an oppressive education, these are the exact students who we should be looking to to help us change our definition of success, and the structure of traditional schooling. These are the students whose questions and complaints should take a front-and-center spot in community discussions, and whose criticisms should be allowed to help shape a new and more just kind of learning.

      Posted by rad fag | December 10, 2011, 10:18 am
      • These are such important questions.

        If you look at the phenomenon of collaborative “cheating” in school, for example, you’ll see that it represents a child’s choice of the value of loyalty to a friend over compliance with a structure that tries to pit her against her friends in a competition for adult approval. (This value contradiction should be obvious when we hear the old admonishment before a test, “Don’t help your neighbor!”)

        This same value placed on loyalty and mutual support is evident in groups of kids who choose to defy all authority, define their own idea of socially desirable (or “cool”) behavior, and hold in some contempt the child who strives to please authority figures. These kids’ bond to one another, their willingness to sink or swim in the world together, is given precedence over the system’s desire to measure them against one another in order to provide them with differential rewards.

        The interesting thing is that both the most and the least privileged social classes tend to evidence an emphasis on group bonding and mutual aid that transcends the competition of the school system. The upper classes always take care of their own, and if one of their children does not perform well in school, he can still become President of the United States! Crucially, however, this social code excludes 99% of the population from its vision of group loyalty and support.

        Kids in the poorest communities often know that they can’t expect justice from the system, and so they bond to one another in defiance of it. They understand that what the system offers is a chance for 1% of them to escape to join the upper 1% of society, but that 99% will be left behind. Again, this often leads to resentment of the child who takes advantage of the offer to “rise” out of the community.

        Instead of insisting on a competitive zero-sum vision of “success” and then judging kids as “dysfunctional’ when they resist it, we could, as you suggest, be taking this evidence of children’s natural loyalty to their friends as a positive social value that can guide us in creating learning opportunities which are not in conflict with it – not to mention a society and an economy which are not in conflict with it.

        The opposite social values, however, are structured deep into the system. The first thing that would have to go is grading.

        Posted by Carol Black | December 10, 2011, 12:32 pm
        • This is such an amazing analysis! Thank you so much for sharing this, there are so many points here that I will need to keep returning to.

          My mentor teacher once did an exercise with his 6th grade class where he asked the group if it was ever okay to break the law, then led a discussion about who creates laws, what purposes they serve, and who benefits from their being enforced. I wonder what a similar discussion might look like around “cheating” as a specific kind of law breaking. Based on the great ideas you bring up, I would love to ask students if it is ever okay to cheat, why cheating is seen as threatening, why it is punished so harshly, and who or what is it that is being threatened when we cheat. It could be a great foot-in-the-door to build up to a discussion about how we create learning communities which are about helping our neighbors, rather than competing with them for adult and systemic approval.

          I would also like to know more about your thoughts on grading. I have honestly never been a part of a learning community which did not rely on grading, and I wanted to know, what do you imagine being the kind of structure which might take the place of that traditional system of measurement and competition?

          Posted by rad fag | December 11, 2011, 12:06 am
  11. Thank you for saying this and for saying it so well. One thing I love about my school is that they support my blogging openly about the need to work for social justice in society as a whole, as it arguably relates to our mission. I teach middle schoolers, and it aches to see their idealism brought into conflict with realities as they grow up. In that context, a little subversion is not only healthy, it is necessary.

    Posted by BillIvey | December 10, 2011, 11:48 am
    • Where do you teach?

      Posted by dloitz | December 10, 2011, 4:36 pm
      • Stoneleigh-Burnham School. Here’s a link to one piece, “Making History,” on the importance of nourishing subversion. 🙂

        Relating to this larger conversation, I’ve also been thinking about my own experience in school. I grew up in Amherst, MA in the late 60’s and early 70’s, so pretty much a liberal activist context (arguably the most liberal era of one of themost liberal towns in the country!). In that sense, even though I “did school” well, I was also raised to question and challenge the status quo. I slipped into social justice work as a teacher progressively by focusing on the need to genuinely empower students and honor their individual and collective voices. My school being an all-girls school, anti-sexist work and feminism in the fullest sense of the word animate and run through much of what we do. Many of us view anti-racist and anti-heterosexist work as equally important and integral to helping our students become their best selves.

        Posted by Bill Ivey | December 13, 2011, 10:54 am
  12. A lot of the racism/classism struggles in and around education are entrenched and institutionalized, almost hidden from view and yet right there in plain sight. The Prussian Education system, which we adopted, did provide free compulsory education for all, but in a very prescribed manner, not allowing intellectual freedom. Then the eugenics movement as 1900 came about marginalized peoples and fueled racism, classism, ableism, etc. The weak, inferior, dumb were to be ostracized, the “negro” and “Mexican” (their terms not mine) given sub-par education if any at all, because the biased tests were “proven” evidence that the “colored” people were inferior. Then add vocational education that came about with two intents, one being to just put the poverty stricken and racial minority, as well as special ed. and female students, into, because they were, well, marginalized and not expected to succeed. ““Our schools have been scientifically designed to prevent over-education from
    happening. The average American [should be] content with their humble role in life,
    because they’re not tempted to think about any other role.”
    – William T. Harris, U.S. Commissioner of Education, 1889 demonstrates this idea. In 1939, the National Assoc. of Secondary chool Principals published something that stated (among other things) “too much time, money, and effort [were] being expended trying to teach the academic subjects to the educationally neglected……the curriculum should be based on….how to dress, how to make friends with the opposite sex and how to get a job.”

    I think this is akin to the “dumbing down” of our education.
    I feel all students should be empowered, encouraged, challenged. It just so seems that most education reform we’ve had either goes totally against this notion, puts people “in charge” who haven’t a clue about education, or just perpetuates the same problems; to loosely paraphrase Einstein, doing the same thing again and again, expecting different results, is insanity….which ed reform seems to embrace.

    Posted by Gem | December 11, 2011, 10:12 pm
    • I’ve not heard anything stating that vocational ed was conceived as a sorting mechanism, although that is certainly the perception I had while in school. However, this gives vocational education short shrift. Learning a trade can be very useful to someone, without them having to buy into the whole notion of college as the holy grail of secondary education. In the insane adoption of standardized testing, shop and mechanics have been dropped by many districts, to the great detriment of many students.

      Posted by Karen | December 13, 2011, 12:29 am
      • I think there’s also, in some quarters anyway, a really unfortunate snobbery connected to vo-tech schools. The one in my county is really competitive, and kids who want to go there study really hard in middle school to ensure they are qualified. Yet with all that, when I congratulated one of my friends on her son being accepted there, she thanked me with rather more warmth than I expected. It turned out most all her friends felt she was selling her kid short by letting him go there. But he knew he wanted to be an electrician, and was also looking forward to a starting salary a heck of a lot higher than what I make as a seasoned teacher if you’re going to take a strictly financial view of it. So he would be happy, he would be making good money – what’s not to congratulate?!

        Posted by Bill Ivey | December 13, 2011, 10:28 am
      • I do not wish to invalidate vocational education, and am saddened that it seems to be disappearing. I see it as a valid life preparing, educational offering for many children, but children should never be corraled into it, without their input, and certainly not based on race, etc. I have talked to my students after graduation who are shocked that schools did not prepare them for life, college, or a career. They know this is an injustice, and I Feel the push of standardized ed and testing is partially to blame.

        Posted by gem | December 13, 2011, 2:50 pm
  13. In my experience–in a relatively affluent, high-achieving California suburb–my colleagues are, for the most part, NOT activists. They tend to have been conventionally successful students themselves, who became teachers because teachers were their role models as children. They aspire to replicate the safe, comfortable, school environments that nurtured them, they bond with the students who are also like them (perfectly nice kids who come from nice middle-class families and do well in school) and do not see any value in dramatically shaking up the status quo because it’s WORKING for them and the ones they care about.

    This is not to say they are not supportive of activism, or that they’re bad teachers, it’s just that they don’t have an inherent mistrust of and desire to change the system. They accept a certain degree of failure because it rarely touches those who they’re close to, and it is, after all, something that has been a part of the process from the beginning.

    I feel that this pattern is largely because troubled students see school as something to escape, so of course they’re not going to become teachers…this whole institution represents everything negative in their childhoods, so why on earth would they work hard to find themselves trapped in it as adults? Unless an at-risk student encounters a truly transformative teacher in their own education, there is zero incentive to return to the system as a changemaker, even if that student goes on to be very successful academically in college…and so, the vast majority of teachers are good students all grown up, who have not cultivated the urge to resist the hegemony of institutional education.

    Just my experience…I’m curious to see if there are any activist teachers who never struggled with school, just skated on through the entire K-12 system without conflict or frustration.

    Posted by terihu | December 12, 2011, 12:41 pm
    • Hi, Teri (is it Teri?) –

      Some of my writing on the Coöp and is about my journey from school-successful teacher to whatever I am now. I don’t always feel like what I do rises to the call of “activism,” but I am a formerly school-successful student and teacher who is ready now for the end of public education as we know it.

      let me know if you’re curious to hear more.

      All the best,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | December 12, 2011, 12:45 pm
      • Sure, I’d be interested to see how that journey played out for you. Is it a very unusual journey? Or do you think it’s happening more and more now that education is increasingly being co-opted by the corporate “reformers” who have even less investment in educating truly at-risk youth than conventional educators?

        You also raise an interesting question of what counts as “activism.” I don’t know. I think I know it when I see it, but I also see a lot of bullshit (usually in the name of “raising awareness”) that some folks seem to think is sufficient. I don’t buy it.

        And yes, it is Teri.

        Posted by terihu | December 13, 2011, 2:22 pm
        • I think most teachers are angry – I think most of the angry teachers feel like a social contract is being broken between educators and tax-payers. I think fewer of the angry teachers realize it’s time for that social contract to go, not because of corporate decree, but because teaching and learning shouldn’t look like school anymore given what we know about human development, the state of our democracy, and the communications possibilities of modern technology. For me, looking for new models of teaching and learning led me to question and react against my compliance with the status quo.

          I wrote this post a little over a year ago to describe my journey. Since then I’ve tried to be clearer and more vocal, especially here.


          Posted by Chad Sansing | December 13, 2011, 8:57 pm
    • You bring up a really important and complicated point. I have been wondering lately whether the fact that I see radical potential within public education has more to do with the fact that my experiences within that system were far more positive than many of the other members of my community, rather than having to do with that potential actually existing there. This is part of the reason why I think the voices of the dissatisfied and frustrated are far more valuable for the struggle to build a radical education than those for whom the system has largely been working, as you say.

      Posted by rad fag | December 12, 2011, 6:00 pm
  14. This piece synthesizes many ideas into a compelling summary of why compulsory education is so damaging to students and communities. I’d go one step further and say that conventional schooling is coercive in the extreme, and harming almost everyone who goes through it. I’ve met plenty of people who deny having been traumatized by school, saying they loved it, but ask any kid what they’d do tomorrow if they could spend the day as they wanted and you’d rarely hear “Go to school”. School prepares people for useless tedium, and for following orders. Which was the whole point.

    Posted by Karen | December 13, 2011, 12:37 am
  15. good stuff all! Rather than say a whole lot on a post w/a bunch of great comments already, I’ll direct you to my blog:

    Posted by iteach4change | December 14, 2011, 11:19 pm
  16. My recent experience with Occupy New Orleans resonates with this. I went in to that with a lot of assumptions and belief structures that were vividly challenged, especially regarding race and oppression. While the issue of race is ever-present in my home town, I had never really been enlightened about the issue of privilege.

    In the first week of our local branch of OWS, there was a gargantuan internal struggle about the meaning of the movement. I mostly fit into the “This is about powerful financial institutions, giant corporations, and inexcusable degrees of economic inequality” faction, and had a hard time understanding why the “anti-racist” group kept getting furious with me.

    Over time, I grew to understand a little that being a straight white male in America isn’t the same experience everyone else has in terms of safety, acceptance and success. Without unpacking everything right here – something I’m still working on – this process correlates with my understanding of being a progressive educator.

    It’s difficult in modern-day New Orleans — with a public school system nearly 100% chartered, inundated with TFA and other stopgap teacheresque recruits — to be a truly progressive educator. Indeed, the entire city bears the image of an activist dream land, replete downtrodden black people and their needy children. A city ravaged by nature as much as corruption, waiting for positive attention and resources from out-of-state do-gooders.

    And so scores of young white professionals pour into town and replace their once-local counterparts in our schools (not to mention homes). Their mission? To raise standardized test scores across the board and save those depraved, lazy minorities from themselves. As for the children; they need to shut up, sit down, and stop being so damn oppressed.

    Posted by Jason Lacoste | December 14, 2011, 11:35 pm
  17. By posing your question, you have generated an uncomfortable moment that I perceive to be “activist-based”. Not all activists are, or need to be, “radical”.

    Best wishes,

    Posted by Brent Snavely | December 16, 2011, 9:30 am
    • I’m not sure I understand your statement, but from my perspective, a true transformation of our understanding of education does require radical activism. By “radical,” I mean addressing at the root the systems of normativity and inequity which not only govern our current moment in education, but which under-gird its very foundations. This does depend on, in my mind, activism across communities and institutions which is in the process of imagining and building entirely new systems which can help us to learn and grow collectively. This prospect is certainly uncomfortable–even daunting and scary–but it is the realization we must come to, and the commitment we must make together.

      Posted by rad fag | December 17, 2011, 4:52 pm
      • This may perhaps be a semantic issue, but in the context of your post I had seen “activism” and “radicalism” as related yet qualitatively different. One might actively press for/pursue change and not be radical, whereas a “radical” would seem to also be an “activist” of sorts.

        I agree that something “radical” is called for.

        Posted by Brent Snavely | December 19, 2011, 8:45 am
  18. This response is written after completing my first year teaching Kindergarten in a charter school in Austin, Texas.

    What is the objective of being a social justice teacher? “A real struggle for justice requires that we fight systems of oppression both in and outside of the classroom, pose real threats to their ability to function, and be brave enough to take the risks required to resist the conservative goals of traditional education, rather than apologetically working along with them.” This piece challenges teaching practices and the idea that teachers are inherently activists once they are placed in a low income/minority classroom. A question I’m posing to the author, the answer which I failed to find in the article: What then, do we want to create in the classroom? (in terms of student outcomes) What does it look and sound like when a REAL social justice teacher has been successful both inside and outside of the classroom? What becomes of the student? Does the student leave? Does the student take on different values than those of the oppressors? What values of the oppressors are we talking about here? Do you suggest that those who have ‘escaped,’ return to our hometowns and work internally to create change?
    And what about when the teacher was one of the students who was encouraged to ‘escape’?
    “In my generation, the family is split along class lines, with those who attended college leading middle-class lives in various locations around the country, and those who didn’t residing in the small town in which my father was raised, still wrestling with many of the issues they faced as young people.” This can be said about my family, too. I struggle with the the realities of my brothers: one in prison, one unemployed, and one strongly considering dropping out of high school. I won’t even go into describing how things have turned out for my 50+ cousins. But the result of my ‘escape’ has been this; I now struggle with the way in which my life as a college graduate, a teacher, and a member of the middle class has become so separate from the struggles of my family. I just returned from a short summer visit to my hometown (also the hometown of my fiance) where we both experienced the stress of our families misfortunes. My fiance and I cried together about the financial struggle that has defined my immediate and extended families lives, the uncertainty, and the sadness that comes with all of that. Then we switched over to his family: their constant need for perfection, their anxiety with failure, their lack of comfort. Both families are struggling, but what do I want for my students, my future children, and my community? What are the ways in which I will move forward to becoming a more effective social justice teacher, one that is a catalyst of change from the inside AND out, all while working 70+ hours a week, maintaining relationships, and my physical and emotional health? I ask these questions not so that the author will answer them, but rather to represent the struggles that my teaching cohort in Austin, Texas is struggling with at this very moment as well as my own as a minority woman newly entering the field.

    Thank you so much for your thought provoking piece.

    Posted by Estefana | July 3, 2012, 12:44 pm


  1. Pingback: Are Teachers Activists? « Educational Technology for Teachers - December 10, 2011

  2. Pingback: Are Teachers Activists? | Radical Faggot - March 19, 2016

Join the Conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 4,096 other subscribers

Comments are subject to moderation.

%d bloggers like this: