Social justice teaching is not, or should not, be about teaching students what to think. We should teach critical thinking, teach about empathy and with empathy, teach inclusively, critiquing our own instruction to make sure we are teaching to and about marginalized groups. Teaching well is an act of social justice.
When we get to teaching social justice as a topic, it is a different thing entirely. It’s worth noting that teaching about racism and privilege and -isms and all that can be done well, but it also can be done in ways that support the systems we think we’re attacking.
In other words, I’d rather have a teacher kicking ass at teaching regular ol’ math to everyone in their room than have a school-to-prison-pipeline statistics lesson that involves a whole lot of kids being told to be quiet and listen, or being sent to the office, or feeling like they’re being told what to think. Ideally, the lesson could be in both the substance and the style.
I have made many mistakes along this path. I was the teacher who went to the two-day anti-racism training and came back fired up to tell my kids all about the things I understood now. You know, like, “We are all racist.”
I took things that had taken me most of my life to fully understand and shouted them to a room of 13-year-olds without context or conversation, then got frustrated when they didn’t “get it.” As if 13-year-olds would immediately get “woke,” despite spending their entire lives as products and contributors in a racist system, as carriers of implicit bias, as consumers of a supremacist culture.
In my earlier years, these mistakes were easily made and quickly forgiven. I worked in a school that was a regional magnet school for both arts and racial integration. Our students were mostly liberal and largely kids of color, so, especially as a White guy, I was often rewarded for just being willing to try.
My New School Forced Me to Think Harder about How I Teach
This year has been a different experience. I started in a new school and district. The school has a racially, culturally and economically diverse group of students. I don’t want to ignore that.
At the same time, it is, generally speaking, the wealthiest and Whitest school I’ve ever taught in. Also, because the protests centered on the killing of Philando Castile happened at the police station that essentially shares our parking lot, this school is also the most politically polarized.
I am not, not for one second, promoting the idea that classrooms can or should be politically neutral. (See: nearly every other word I’ve ever written.)
What I’m saying is that my goal is to teach in a way that promotes social justice, builds an understanding of systemic racism and sexism, expands the cultural and global competence of my students and acknowledges that I’m not quite so egotistical as to believe I understand everything in the whole world.
I was teaching sections of “The Hate U Give,” and realized that, aside from Mr. Castile, many of my students had little history of police violence over the last decade or so. They’d heard of Trayvon Martin, but didn’t know what happened to him. “I Can’t Breathe” references went unnoticed, except a few thought maybe LeBron had worn that shirt once. So, I found some decent resources online that gave timelines and other background and let students explore them online.
A Parent Called Me on My Liberal Bias, and She Was Right
Honestly, I didn’t look that hard at the resources. They had good timelines, but they also had some pretty “this is what’s wrong with Trump’s America” language up top. Nothing I disagreed with, but some things I wouldn’t have put in front my class if I was paying close attention. I wasn’t, so I did.
One student was uncomfortable enough to text her mom from class, and her mom was calling my classroom phone in minutes, pretty damn pissed about the liberal bullshit I was forcing her kid to read.
Guess what? She was right. I told her so. I talked to her kid, too, who told me that I usually do a good job of letting students hear about and from multiple sides of an issue, but that so far with this unit, I’d been doing “all Black Lives Matter stuff.” And guess what? She was right. One of the most powerful things about “The Hate U Give” is its ability to reflect so many perspectives about a complex topic, and I had not leaned into that piece of the storytelling. I’ll fix it.
If this happened in any other year I’ve taught, I likely wouldn’t get a phone call, I likely wouldn’t get complaints, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t making any mistakes. I’m thankful they spoke up, thankful the student and parent trusted me enough to talk about it, trusted me to do better.
So, this year has meant a lot of thoughtful planning, and some messing up, and some reflecting and adapting. You know, like how teaching is.