you're reading...
Leadership and Activism

Being a Student Ally: Teachers as Necessary Voices of Protest

Standing up to authority is about standing up for our students, our communities and ourselves.

A few months ago I was teaching a somewhat uninspiring writing curriculum to a group of sixth graders as part of teacher training program. As young educators, participants in the training were expected to prepare original lessons from a pre-written curriculum and teach them to classes of about twenty students on a daily basis. We were observed by mentor teachers several times a week, and met with those mentors about once a week to receive feedback on our growth as aspiring teachers. Even with many great supports in place, my colleagues and I were struggling to make the curriculum our own, as well as making it engaging for our students. The program, which was private and in league with many of the standard “reform” movements of the day, put a great deal of emphasis on preparing students with the skills they would need to excel in elite academic institutions, and very little on social justice and community empowerment.

For one of my initial lessons, students had been assigned a short story for the previous night’s homework, preparing them to begin writing a simple summary in class that day. At the beginning of the lesson I asked students to describe what they had read and how they had interpreted the course of the events for themselves. Immediately hands shot up as students clamored to give their own interpretations, and I as I began to listen I quickly realized that members of the class had not understood all the events in the same ways. One student, Kelvin, was particularly adamant about his interpretation of the ending of the story, and a debate broke out amongst different students about what had really happened by the end of the tale. Even as I encouraged students to find evidence from the text to support their claims, I was excited to see their enthusiasm around the assignment, their ability to articulate and problem-shoot their own interpretations, as well as to see that each student had brought their own lens to the reading. The lively discussion was by far the most encouraging event in the class at that time, and as I had been frustrated with my lack of success in engaging students with the material and finding ways of connecting it back to their own lives, this seemed like a step in the right direction.

When I met with my mentor teacher later that week–a compassionate but by-the-book Teach For America alum–one of the first lessons he wanted to discuss was the aforementioned summery class. Specifically, he wanted to discuss the debate which the students had had around the events of the short story. “Kelvin was wrong,” he instructed me. “It was irresponsible for you as the teacher to let a student with a wrong interpretation have so much room to speak. You should have stopped him, corrected him, and made sure that every other student in the class knew what the right answer was. If a test was given to the students right now, I guarantee that few of them would be able to describe the events of the story correctly.” When I countered by saying that I thought giving the students the opportunity to argue their own perspectives allowed them to cement their understanding of the story more deeply, he replied, “But if they’ve cemented it incorrectly, then you have failed as the teacher. If they are wrong, you need to correct them. It is your job to give them the right answer, and if they try to argue with you, to assert your authority as the instructor.”

This meeting jarred me, and gave me a great deal to think about in terms of my responsibilities as an educator. On the one hand, I was confronted with the reality that as a teacher I do have to think about the real obstacles that my students will come up against in their lives, and providing them with the necessary skills that will need to navigate those obstacles. On the other hand, I recognized that I must also think about the systems and codes which oppress my students–the same ones which oppressed me in my own education–and aid in creating a foundation for them to fight those systems. Finding a balance between giving students the tools they need to survive world, while simultaneously preparing them to transform the world into a place which does not merely have to be survived, is a constant struggle for teachers dedicated to radical learning, and this meeting was the first time that I, as an aspiring educator, had come up against it. Yet, I would argue, given the current climate of public education across the globe, this is the key battle in which we as educators and advocates must engage in. As charter schools become the imagined wave of the future for oppressed communities, as massive corporations and hedge fund managers take control of the public sector, and as Teacher For America and other privately-funded organizations become primary training grounds for young educators, demanding that education remain in the hands of the public and that classrooms serve the communities they teach becomes not only a radical act, but a threatening one. Helping students pass while also encouraging them to resist a set curriculum and the invasion of their communities by private corporations becomes the feasible but fraught goal of the educator, and one which is not met without a real fight.

To be true advocates for the intellectual growth of our students, and to remain genuinely committed to the radial purposes of education, teachers must become voices of protest in the face of privatization, and the hijacking of learning for mere vocational and occupational preparation. This means asking difficult and unpopular questions of ourselves and of the institutions which employ us, the same types of questions which I attempted to pose later on to my mentor teacher: If I want my students to see the world from multiple angles and perspectives, how can I tell them that there is only one correct interpretation? If I want my students to challenge power, how can I run my classroom as an unquestionable figure of authority? These are not frivolous quandaries, for answering them for yourself as an educator can be the difference between creating a classroom which mirrors the dominating social order, and one which works to fight it. Acting upon them can make one even more unpopular (while my mentor teacher entertained my questions, he was resistant to their actually being given priority in the classroom, and was not pleased when I refused to make certain changes to structure of mine), but if our goal is to empower our students to stand up in the face of oppressive and conservative institutions, we must learn to do the same alongside them. This is the definition of a true ally.


About Benji Hart

Benji Hart is an interdisciplinary artist, author, 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


8 thoughts on “Being a Student Ally: Teachers as Necessary Voices of Protest

  1. Yes….excellent piece which fuels my fire to radically change classrooms. Thanks for fighting and providing needed inspiration!

    Posted by Francesca Blueher | December 26, 2011, 8:29 pm
  2. There’s so much to respond to in this post. First, to receive feedback about your growth as a beginning teacher on a weekly basis strikes me as potentially damaging. Complexity inherent in teaching often requires time spans greater than 7 days in order to see ‘growth’ (whatever that might be). I am uncertain as to the context that would have allowed a ‘mentor’ to say to you that you were wrong and should have told a student he was wrong, but I can’t imagine the events that would allow such language to be appropriate. I don’t know what a ‘by the book” teach for America alum is, but the advice seems inappropriate. Giving ‘right’ answers, especially as it relates to literary interpretation is not the job of a teacher, nor is it wise to classify a student’s interpretation as wrong or right. There are far more interesting stances a teacher can take. One can be both wrong & right and that’s why I commented first on time. Who knows what self-correction (if any was even needed) Kelvin might name for himself. Alongside the more efferent practices of reading literature, there must also be the aesthetic response. Kelvin may well have been finding his way towards how he feels and what the work inspires as he situated himself in the text. The road to to such wondering may not be direct, or ‘plot’ accurate.

    It seems to me that both you and Kelvin need enough space to wander and wonder as you each make your way as teacher and reader.

    The best to you as you craft a teaching style for yourself.

    Posted by Mary Ann Reilly (@MaryAnnReilly) | December 26, 2011, 11:21 pm
    • Thank you for your wishes and your feedback. Reflection and feedback have thus far been very important parts of my own learning process, and I’ve never thought about how too much of either might be damaging. In the context of this particular program, I think what may have seemed like a simple opportunity to look back on and process one’s own teaching turned out to be much closer to a business-model-kind of “professional development.” These sessions were ultimately more about building efficient teachers by the standards of corporate-dominated education reform than they were about nurturing critical thought in students or educators. They were about policing the classroom in ways that as a young teacher were difficult for me to see at the time, and the regulation they relied on was decidedly against wonder, against complexity, against debate, and against learners challenging those who had been charged with teaching them–a dynamic which was as present in the meeting with my mentor as it was in the expectations he set for my and my co-teachers’ classrooms. Thank you for pointing this out. My next question might be, how do we distinguish between healthy reflection and policing which halts the natural growth of teachers and students? What does positive reflection look like, as opposed to stiffing regulation?

      Posted by rad fag | December 28, 2011, 1:01 pm
      • You raise a great question regarding effective ways to mentor teachers. I look forward to others’ responses. I have served as a supervising teacher to student teachers and have found that asking lots of questions is an excellent way to help teachers reflect on their practice. Even just a simple, “How do you think it went” can result in rich conversations. I highly recommend that you look into Art Costa’s Cognitive Coaching model as a start.

        Posted by Elisa Waingort | December 28, 2011, 1:07 pm
  3. The power of the single, best answer at work.
    I wonder if your mentor and students would interpret The Giver the same way… would silencing result?

    Best wishes for you and Kelvin, and even more for your mentor!

    Posted by Brent Snavely | December 27, 2011, 7:29 am
  4. We read to practice being human (who said that?) – both in the preparatory and active senses, I think. We communicate in all sorts of ways, live, and breathe to do the same.

    When we forget that purpose – when we confuse living and breathing and wondering and discovering – with being correct – then we wind up with curriculum guides.

    Teaching like this – whether it’s ascribable to TFA (and I’ve heard nothing to dissuade me from ascribing it to TFA, amongst other organizations) or not – will be the death of imagination. It’s corporate memetic vampirism. We need so much for our children and system of public education and neighborhoods and country and planet that we had better pay more attention and give more care to how we tell kids to act and what we tell kids learning is.

    Dependence on certainty is an crippling addiction for a people able to process ambiguity. Any kind of monoculture – including that of the curriculum guide answer key – opens up our society and – in this case – its inner life – for cataclysm.

    I wonder how a TFA teacher or TFA-style mentor would teach “Harrison Bergeron,” “The Lottery,” or “Life is Beautiful.”

    Anybody want to set up a Coöp-hosted pedagogical debate on a story that captures ambiguity?

    RF, thanks for modeling what it means to be an ally.

    Absolute morality protects kids from summary judgment in ways that correct answers and their zealous champions do not.


    Posted by Chad Sansing | December 27, 2011, 12:05 pm
  5. I agree with the other comments here. There is something almost anti-intellectual about the comments made by the mentor teacher. At the very least, the “if-at-first-they-don’t-succeed-just-give-them-the-right-answer” approach seems to reveal a lack of real understanding on the part of the mentor about the teaching and learning process.

    Stepping back a little further, however, we have a classic “tail wagging the dog” scenario where, once again, our need to make it look like our students are succeeding really serves to undermine the possibility of true success and real education.

    Opening up debate about something that, for many, might seem so clear and obvious introduces so many things to the teaching process. Insisting that students find evidence for their opinions, no matter how “wrong” they appear to others opens students to the heart of critical thinking. It also gives us the perfect opportunity to engage in formative assessment and watch our students thinking out loud…something that is always precious!

    Thanks for the story, and your passionate interpretation of it!

    Posted by Stephen Hurley | December 27, 2011, 3:35 pm
  6. Reading how your “mentor” gave you feedback about one teaching event by negatively ocusing on what looked to me like the most exciting part of the lesson – student-run open-ended discussion – raised my ire. Add to that the fact that this is coming from a TFA brainwashed mentor got me even angrier. And then, because I’m working on letting go of my anger in order to find more constructive and healthier ways to respond to anger provoking situations, I was heartened by your reflection of this incident and the importance of allowing the messiness of classroom conversation, with all its imperfections, to prevail. This is an important lesson for you, and all of us, to learn. There are
    “mentors” out there that can teach us a lot, such as what not to do in order to recognize what’s truly important in the classroom. Keep writing and reflecting on your experiences; you will be a much better teacher for it. Long live messy, lively, multpile answer conversations! Let’s bury the “right answer” epidemic of educational thought! Wait a minute. I thought we’d done that long ago? We’ve got our work cut out for us.

    Posted by Elisa Waingort | December 28, 2011, 10:21 am

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: