How Moderate Teachers Perpetuate Educational Oppression

Lisa Kelly
8 min readMay 13, 2020

In his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote about his disappointment in white moderates. “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is …the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” Dr. King realized that injustice and oppression are systems that are maintained daily by a majority group that is afraid to act in a way that could cause themselves to lose power and privilege.

In her book, “We Want to do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom,” Dr. Bettina L. Love writes about the educational survival complex, through which US schooling perpetuates the oppression and suffering of black and brown people. She explains it by writing, “The educational survival complex, in which students are left learning to merely survive, learning how schools mimic the world they live in, thus making schools a training site for a life of exhaustion.” Dr. Love realizes that US schooling reproduces whiteness or the status quo of this settler colonialist nation, and the necessary solution is abolition of the system for the freedom of dark children.

@bbyanarchists on Twitter. Reform is a distraction from abolition.

To put these ideas together, I posit that the greatest stumbling block black and brown students and educators have to abolition of the racist, sexist, heteronormative, xenophobic and generally oppressive educational system is the white moderate teacher. The white moderate teacher isn’t always white — it’s a moderate teacher more devoted to maintaining the educational negative peace of the status quo order of standardized testing and policing of black and brown bodies rather than the tension of fighting for abolition of the schooling system. The moderate teacher has been thoroughly socialized through the US schooling system — a university degree is literally required to hold the position. It is not surprising that this schooling has taught moderate teachers to reproduce the system and indoctrinate students into whiteness. The moderate teacher has been so thoroughly institutionalized by schooling that they perpetuate the institution on to their students. The moderate teacher can often speak the lingo of radical ideology and theory, but weaponizes it against students, to continue to make them comply and produce and become citizens of a standardized capitalist society.

I was on a panel for a podcast by the abolitionist educational organization Free Minds, Free People when a comrade named Awo Okaikor Aryee-Price opened with, “We love children because they are closest to their humanity.” My comrade said this casually, as though it weren’t an earth shattering statement, and it blew my mind. It led me to ask the question — why are adults further from our humanity?

And my answer to this question is schooling. US schooling is a process of dehumanization, and I as a teacher am, complicit in that dehumanization. That’s why many people, especially people of color, talk about the unlearning they have to do as adults in order to learn about themselves, their culture and feel closer to their own humanity.

The truth that children are closest to their humanity forces me to interrogate my own moderateness, which I learned through my childhood schooling, was reinforced in my teacher credential program and solidified in my master’s in education program. It forces me to ask myself, where in my practice am I leading students away from their own humanity? The answer to that question is where I can identify the aspects of a moderate teacher, in myself and in others.

Qualities of a Moderate Teacher

Sonya Renee Taylor, author of “The Body is Not An Apology” via @traumaandco on Instagram. Moderate teacher maintain the oppressive educational system.

A moderate teacher places value on production above all else. To a moderate teacher, the most important things about students can be graded, measured by tests created by for-profit private companies, and compared against other students. A student is only valuable if they are completing classwork, homework and performing well on state tests.

A moderate teacher, thus, worries about children “falling behind,” without realizing that children can only fall behind when measured against arbitrary standards on an artificial linear trajectory and when children are made to compete against each other. (A child can never fall behind if the goal is to express their humanity.)

A moderate teacher builds relationship with kids and families because theory says it is important to do so, and because those relationships can be wielded as manipulation to force students to produce. A moderate teacher is often completely bogged down by the educational survival complex and is thus unable and/or unwilling to build relationships solely for the purpose of seeing each child’s humanity, community and which often requires the educator to vulnerably reveal their own humanity, as well.

A moderate teacher often uses the rhetoric of maintaining high standards without interrogating themselves —holding students to high standards of what? As my comrade G.T. Reyes wrote, “Educators …if you’re still asking about how to “hold students accountable,” I would suggest you first ask yourself — accountable to what? This might sound crazy to some of you, but maybe you are wanting students to be accountable to learn their place within white supremacist, capitalist schooling.” Many credentialing programs teach that it is racist to expect that black and brown children are less capable than white children, which is absolutely true. However, this doesn’t mean that the solution is to expect any student to reproduce capitalism or whiteness.

An example of moderate teaching couched in social justice terms is school uniforms. Often, schools that require uniforms are entrusted with the care of the bodies and spirits of poor black and brown students. Educators at these schools claim that uniforms “equalize” school because students cannot stunt on each other, and they claim that the uniforms “protect” students from gang violence because students are no longer wearing the ‘wrong’ color. In my experience, like every other punitive, carceral policy, uniform policies are enforced unequally, meaning that black and brown boys end up being sent to the office and thus excluded from learning most often for being out of uniform, and I have yet to see any evidence from anywhere that gang violence is lessened because of students’ self-expressions and bodies being policed. Instead, I see students’ spirits being crushed as they are scrutinized and made to conform by teachers and administrators throughout the school day. Moderate teachers and educators, in this instance, are claiming to perpetuate social justice but are really enforcing capitalist, carceral status quo. Uniform policy is only one example of moderate teaching, and there so many more.

Moderate teachers would often call themselves liberal, perhaps even radical. And, most radical teachers probably have to enact moderate actions in order to navigate the educational survival complex. In order to move beyond moderate teaching, one has to be critically reflective in all moments, and in all actions, as much as possible.

One of the interesting things about this pandemic is that I, personally, have been privileged enough to step a small bit away from the educational survival complex long enough to study more radical theory and ideas, and to do what Dr. Love calls, “freedom dreaming,” and have the mindspace to critically analyze my own practice. I acknowledge my privilege in this — I am lucky enough to not be economically struggling, to not currently be sick and to be able to think and intellectually explore alongside my daily job of REECHing my students. Below I offer my beginning thinkings on how to move beyond being moderate, and moving closer to being abolitionist teacher.

So, Can One Avoid Being Moderate? How?

I’ve seen some radical therapists online say that the least important thing therapists bring to their work of trying to connect people to their humanity is their degrees, because degrees are earned in a racist institution. So I’ve been thinking, does this apply to teachers? How can teachers approach teaching knowing that our degrees are the least important things we bring to our work? If schooling is a process of dehumanization, those of us who go through school uncritically are furthest from our humanity…does this qualify us to then teach?

@subversive.thread on Instagram

What would it look like to dismantle the racist, sexist, heteronormative, ableist, capitalist schooling that forces people away from their humanity? What would education that isn’t based on capitalist ideals of work production look like?

The first answer that comes to my mind would be — schooling that is centered on relationships. Not relationships that are about getting kids to like you enough to want to produce for you. But relationships built on understanding the unique humanity and the community that each child brings to education.

From there, abolitionist teaching to me would require that teachers get to know students’ abilities, hopes, dreams and desires, and try to help students achieve what they and their families want for them. This would require an individual plan for every single student so that students could measure their progress against themselves, instead of against each other. (To be fair to educators, this is hardly possible in overcrowded public schools — which is how the system is designed to reproduce itself).

To return to Dr. Love, she writes that “those who cling to their Whiteness cannot participate in abolitionist teaching because they are a distraction, are unproductive and will undermine freedom at every step, sometimes in the name of social justice. Being an abolitionist means you are ready to lose something, you are ready to let go of your privilege.” As a mixed race and light skinned, able bodied, cisgendered and thin person, I have many privileges that I need to constantly interrogate, ensure are not taking up space unchecked and use to advocate for and with dark, oppressed people. It takes courage to admit when I am moderate, to gauge when the benefits of disrupting the status quo and moving the dial closer to abolition out-risks the dangers, and to always do so in order to support the development of the humanity, spirits and bodies of the black and brown children in my care.

I vow to remain inspired by activist Angela Davis, and to continue everyday acting as though it is radically possible to abolish US schooling.