Why are you a teacher, and what is the point of doing the job you do? Teachers really need to think about those questions and hopefully reflect beyond the surface answers of wanting to “inspire” students. I doubt any of us really got into teaching to “fill gaps in the labour market” or decided that our true passion in life was watching students fill out multiple-choice tests.
For most of us, I would say that at some level we decided to be a teacher to effect change in the lives of students and the communities in which we serve. We felt a connection to a profession in which we could work with children and youth to promote qualities that may have been lacking in the world as we saw it.
However, for any of us that have been teaching for any length of time. you have probably seen how the inequalities of our world have impacted our students and their ability to learn. Poverty, racism, sexism, ableism, colonialism, and homophobia, amongst many more forms of oppression, infiltrate the walls of our schools and shape the real-world experiences of our students.
Regardless if our students come from a place of privilege or oppression, these issues impact our classrooms and challenge us to confront them to ensure that the students we care for can overcome these issues as well as not perpetuate them as they move from youth to adults.
For teachers, it means that we cannot be ignorant of how these issues impact education and the lives of our students. Teaching is an inherently political act as the decisions we make from choosing to ignore these issues or confronting them demonstrate to our students the attitude we should have towards the major issues of our times.
If we want our students to have a chance of following their passions in life and to take on the major social and environmental issues of our time, we need to demonstrate a sense of courageous teaching that is not afraid to speak out against the issues that impact education and our students. Teachers must act in a way that promotes the ideals we strive for that would create a more democratic and equitable world for all.
That is why it is necessary that teachers eliminate the ideas of objectivity and neutrality from their practice. As one of the greatest educators of the 20th century, Paulo Freire said, “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral”. As we see governments take on more austerity measures against education systems and demonize teachers in the media, it is essential that we assert ourselves as a profession that has the power to change society.
It is my hope that if you are a teacher reading this, you will join me in embracing a radical vision of what your teaching practice and the education system you work in could be. Teachers, in partnership with their unions and other ally organizations, must understand the power we can have if we understand the principles of social justice and democracy. When you signed up to be a teacher, you also signed up to advocate for your students. I hope you’ll join me, and many other teachers, advocating for a more just and equitable world free from oppression for all people.
Until that day happens, teachers must engage in the long-term struggle for justice both in and outside of their classrooms. Social justice must be a centerpiece for why we teach and we must advocate for social justice as a framework for understanding teaching and education to our elected officials, unions, and all others concerned with making the world a better place.