Teaching for Social Justice

by Jessica Shim

Last August, a group of white supremacists marched on the lawns and streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, and chanted things like, “Jews will not replace us,” “Blood and soil,” and “White lives matter.” They were carrying torches, Confederate battle flags, and German Nazi flags. They terrorized the streets and turned Charlottesville into a battle ground, which resulted in the death of Heather Heyer, a counter protester and activist who was marching against white supremacy.

As a first-year educator, this issue is very important to me because I recognize that in the future, some of these people, both protesters and counter-protesters (many of whom were young, maybe in their early-mid twenties), could easily be past students of mine. I believe one of the most important jobs as a teacher is to instill critical thinking skills and open-mindedness in students, and if I saw a student of mine marching for hatred and bigotry, I would feel like I had somehow failed. As I scrolled through the photos of people who were screaming hatred from the top of their lungs, I couldn’t help thinking: What kinds of conversations do I need to be having with my students in order to make a dent in their awareness of the world? What kinds of lessons do I need to be teaching? What kind of role model do I need to be? After doing some research around the Internet, reading some books, and talking to a few professors, I put together a list of goals I have to be a more social justice-oriented teacher and human.

  • Acknowledge my own biases and check myself. I think this is the most important first step. Acknowledging that I have unconscious, implicit biases and that I constantly need to be checking myself opens my mind up to learning more about race and identity issues in the United States and provides me with opportunities to be purposefully aware. Project Implicit at Harvard University has tests you can take that can reveal attitudes and biases you may have about groups of people. Taking this test helped me understand what kinds of biases I potentially have and when I need to be checking myself. Some questions I can ask myself before making broad assumptions, judgments, or generalizations could be: “Why am I making this judgment about my students?” “Why am I predicting my students’ scores this way?” and “Am I being objective / do I have evidence to back up my claim?” This article from Teaching Tolerance has more on stereotypes, biases, and getting to know yourself.
  • Have conversations. As the people of color (POC) population in the United States grows more and more every year, 80% of teachers are white, middle-class women. It is incredibly important to have conversations with teachers, preservice teachers, mentors, administrators, school staff, and students about race, identity, and oppression in the United States. An organization called Border Crossers offers training on how to talk about race and I believe that requesting professional development pertaining to these issues is incredibly important to start conversations because if the teachers can’t talk about them, neither can students!
  • Get involved in a group and organize. There are so many teachers for social justice groups out there! I know teachers don’t have a lot of time, but I want to spend maybe once a month or more contributing to a group, going to rallies, speaking in city council/school board meetings, or holding discussions on local race and identity issues. This has to do with the kind of role model I want to be for my students; I can’t teach my students to participate in democracy if I am not doing it myself, and I must hold myself accountable to using what I have to make a contribution to society.
  • Align lessons with an anti-bias curriculum. Teaching Tolerance, as well as NAEYC, has anti-bias curriculum standards. When I create lesson plans, I want to make sure that my lessons align with these standards and my students are getting equal and unbiased information. In addition to teaching compassion, tolerance, and open-mindedness (through activities like the ones from Know Your Classmates), I want to teach students to stand up for what is right, even if it is hard, and the importance of participating in a democracy.
  • Build relationships. Every teacher I’ve met stresses building relationships with students first, before anything else. They tell me that it doesn’t matter how decorated my classroom is or how great my lessons are- if students do not trust me and if I am not willing to build a relationship with my students, I will not have a successful classroom. I want my students to have hard conversations with me and laugh with me and struggle with me; my ultimate goal is to create an inviting classroom environment that will help me cultivate a genuine, trustworthy culture in my class. I want my students to know that I am standing up for them. I want them to know I always have their backs. I want them to trust me.

Here are some other interesting and helpful links I found that could help me incorporate social justice in my teaching.

Of course, I am no expert in social justice and am in no way implying that this is the answer to being a social justice-oriented teacher. I am constantly learning about how I can be a better teacher and am committed to holding myself accountable to accepting criticism and growing as a teacher and human.

I could rant so much about how systemic oppression in the United States is, on top of everything else going on, ruining chances for all students to get a fair and equal public education, but I will just link a few recommended resources here.

I refuse to teach a sugar-coated curriculum. I refuse to be silent and complacent. I will have conversations about oppression and equality with my students no matter how uncomfortable they may be. If you’re reading this, I hope you will, too!

Jessica Shim is an elementary school teacher.

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