A Note On Teaching As Activism

Photo c/o Pete Souza (https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2015/02/26/putting-end-preventable-scourge)

A president tells a crowd of supporters that any professional athlete who decides to peacefully protest should be fired. It sounds absurd on its face because, relatively speaking, professional sports shouldn’t cause as much consternation as nuclear war, economic stratification, crumbling infrastructure, waning rights for sexual assault victims, and the catastrophe of natural and man-made disasters across the world. Yet, if there’s one person capable of embodying the frustrations, fury, and structural policies that reflect inhumanity, President Donald Trump has taken that torch. Rather than feign some form of dignity and respect for America’s citizens, he’s waded in the worst of America’s prejudices, leading from the bottom of the barrel, digging deeper in all the wrong ways. He simultaneously wrests his fortune (and fortunes) on the position of the Presidency, forcing the average critic to play a verbal tango to distinguish the office from the man himself.

The battle he’s currently engaging in with Colin Kaepernick, Stephen Curry, Jemele Hill, and public figures of color who protest racial discrimination is a proxy for an argument over who deserves to discuss America.

As educators, we’re charged with conveying the norms and values of American society. Plenty of scholars have different renditions for why America values an education, but the lack of consensus speaks to the disparate renditions of what America was, is, and will be. Structural inequities make it so the stewards of this amorphous body of knowledge would necessarily protect the hegemony of the American folklore. Columbus discovered America. Washington chopped down a cherry tree. Lincoln freed the slaves. King Jr. had a dream. Obama became president. America, Land of the Free, Home of the Brave, Headquarters of the Redeemed. Its faults (slavery, internment, sexual assault, capitalism / globalization, xenophobia) were bad, but America still won. No other country is better than this one, so don’t try to make it better.

At least that’s what we’re volun-told to teach implicitly and explicitly.

But, akin to the conversation around athletes vs. Trump, educators across the country who’ve “taken the knee” for stances critical of the American narrative often find themselves at the edge of the employment cliff. It’s little wonder that less than 20% of the entire teaching force is of color. It’s even less curious that the schools with higher percentages of educators of color are more subject to scripted lessons, standardized testing, crooked teacher ratings, and oppressive staffing decisions — including suspension and expulsion for frivolous reasons.

Historically, we know that the Brown vs. Board decision led to the firing of tens of thousands of teachers of color across the South. As the courts forced districts to shift student populations more equitably, districts prioritized white educators over black ones across the board. What’s also unsaid, but understood by those who witnessed that history firsthand, is that both black and white educators would have the same or similar qualifications for their employment. But the stories of America would typically be different from a black educator than a white one, and with that, the set of knowledges and pedagogies these educators come with. Today’s diversity efforts use the diversification of the teaching profession as shorthand for reducing, if not eliminating, racial prejudice in the teaching workforce as well. Even as educators of color are typically more culturally responsive, it’s not enough.

Note that I use the word “typically” because today’s zeitgeist has it that, when one discusses race, people believe they’re in solidarity by retorting with a “not all.” It’s a great linguistic trick that ultimately absolves the people who say it from further investigation into their own work and the things they allow in their own teachers’ lounges and staffing practices. This is true even for the most well-meaning of us, who, rather than acknowledge the issue at hand, would rather say “Well, not all of us. I saved this Black kid once.” You found self-forgiveness and absolution. Cool.

If “not all” was a valid response to educational inequity,” then we have a duty to investigate how we got to the point where so many education thought leaders are white while the majority of our students — at least in public schools — are not. We should investigate why so many of these leaders force pseudo-neutrality on their employees, but work at the behest of political parties and get invites to partisan fundraisers. We should investigate how contracts magically appear and consultants show up at schools’ doors with slogans like “failure is here.”

We need to investigate why people feel comfortable saying “failure is here” when the faces looking back at them are of color.

“Taking a knee” is a responsibility that needs to be taken seriously in the advancement of the teaching profession. It’s not simply about diversifying the teaching profession, because, if teachers are still asked to follow militaristic scripts and speak using the same repressive codes, then diversity is hollow. Even now, many of the same “neutral” leaders denounce Trump, but forget to turn to their education spaces and ask how autocracies and fascism exist in their districts. They’ll face few repercussions for what they say as long as it fits within the mainstream of respectability.

On the other hand, educators who have spoken out against structural inequity in all of its forms understand the consequences of their acts. The range of slights does not go unnoticed. There’s a long list of things higher-ups do to make this set of educators feel unwanted: lack of professional recognition, rescinded invitations to events, denial of leadership positions, moving classrooms to basements and desolate spaces, getting classes outside of the teacher’s license area with all the kids deemed undesirable, ineffective teacher ratings, and eventual firing and blackballing from a district. These are fear tactics used, but the fight for equity and social justice often demands us taking various L’s in the service of keeping our souls.

Teaching as an act of activism is merely assuming that educators won’t abide by the generic story of America’s implicit innocence and winning. We do better when we engage with America before, during, and after ballots are open to the public. After all, the idea that children should be able to read, write, and do some math is a political commitment already. “Taking a knee” would also allow us to say “Yes, and we haven’t afforded the right to knowledges to all of our children in a way that is just, fair, and human.”

“Taking a knee” ought to be the next step into digging deeper into the floors underneath us. We have plenty to uproot and re-ground us. It’s, at least, a critical discussion to have.