Radical Teacher Activism is the Only Way to Make the Change We Need

There has been a lot of discussion in my graduate studies so far about how teachers take action and fighting for what is right in educational policy. Students in my program are struggling with these big issue questions we bring up. Is there a way for teachers to work inside the system of education in order to create the best classroom they can for their students while still following the mandates of Common Core? Are there ways for schools, districts, and unions to act as a whole to demand change? Is there even a way to fix the education system as it stands today, or do we need a radical restructuring of the entire mechanism? These discussions are certainly engaging, and I have been wrestling with these issues for a while now. Sometimes I even question whether or not I am going into the right field of work. If teachers are marginalized and mistreated as much as they are, how can I consider this a viable option for my future? 

I consider myself an activist first and foremost. When I went into college, I was undeclared because I didn’t have a clear idea of what career I wanted to pursue; all I knew is that I wanted to be an activist in some way. It was fortunate that I had the professor I had, Jane Fowler-Morse at SUNY Geneseo, because she saw my activism interest and encouraged me to take education classes. There I realized that being a teacher is the best way I can become an activist. Few other careers have such formative impact on young adults who represent the future generation. I knew that, as a teacher, I could be a positive role model for students in more ways than one. It is only now, during my graduate studies, that I realize the extent to which I must shoulder that responsibility and the magnitude of the impact I can make. 

Everything we do as citizens in this society is a political statement in one way or another; the name brands of the clothes I buy, the fact that I don’t necessarily always buy organic food, and certainly the way I teach all reflect what I believe and my principles. Teaching students this is one way to teach them how to be critically literate. When students understand the implications of their actions, they can be act in ways to support the dominant discourse and maintain the status quo or they can subvert power dynamics and empower themselves. By using critical literacy techniques in my classroom, I will give my students the tools to enact social change as a united group. This is one way to take action as a teacher in my own classroom and instill a sense of civic responsibility in my students. However, the question I ask myself and others in my graduate program, is whether or not that kind of isolated activism is enough?

One thing my Urban Teaching and Leadership class focused on was how Garfield High School in Seattle Washington had a school wide opt out movement of their state’s standardized tests. These teachers made sure they had unity and a common goal and acted upon their principles of what was right for their students. The result was a reanalysis of standardized testing practices in Seattle schools and the start of a movement of teachers taking action across the country. Another example would be the Chicago teacher’s strike of 2012, in which teachers refused to be in their classrooms until their basic teaching needs were met. In this case, teachers got the support from the community in order to make sure their cause was taken up. Because the entire district was bought into the cause, their demands were met and the teachers won their fight for justice. When teachers provide a united front and meet resistance with righteous anger and justified frustration, then we can make huge impacts on a political level. 

But are teachers nationwide angry enough? Do people realize that the status quo is not sufficient and maintaining the system we have will not work? When I hear of teachers who don’t mind the rollout of Common Core and who don’t object to corporations peddling their modules to districts, I wonder if we could provide a united front. I’m writing this post in the wake of a Rochester School Board Meeting in which teachers rallied to express their grievances about Common Core, APPR, and the volume of tests administered to students, among other things. But I fear that, since the representation of our workforce was not complete, the impact of what needed to be said may not have been strong enough. When the message splinters, it loses meaning. And when teachers become complaisant, the activists in us become weak. What do we need to rally us? When will the struggle and disengagement we see in our students caused by high-stakes tests and irrelevant content be enough? When will the resentment we feel from our community through attacks on our methods and increased emphasis on accountability standards be enough? When will the deprofessionalization we experience from our administration insisting we follow canned and inflexible modules be enough? 

I question at the beginning of this post whether or not teaching is a viable option for me considering the toxic socio-political environment I must subsequently enter into. The answer is that teaching is the only viable option for me. I cannot, in good conscious, stand by watching these injustices happen in schools in my community and say or do nothing. When my classmates say that their place for activism is in the classroom when the doors are closed from administrators, I say that that cannot be enough. If we, as teachers, strive to take up the cause for social justice in our nation—which we all have done by becoming educators—then we have to commit to it 100%. At this point, working within the system to make it better will no longer make the change we need. This nation needs a radical shift in policy, in theory, and in our very zeitgeist. Perhaps I sound like a radical, and perhaps that is what I am. 

I would love to hear any comments on how you enact social justice in your classrooms?Or in what ways we can use our positions as teachers of writing in order to make the radical shifts we desperately need.