What does it mean to teach for social justice? If you had asked me this question many years ago, I likely would’ve told you it means to teach our children to love all others—not despite their differences but including them. Teaching students to respect and appreciate all people, I thought, was the solution to combating the injustices, both subtle and blatant, so many experience on a daily basis.
I was wrong.
Love is Not Enough
My error was in oversimplifying the systems of oppression interwoven into the fabric of our society. Good, loving people unknowingly contribute to systems of oppression every day. I unknowingly contribute to systems of oppression every day. So do you.
Given this, it’s not enough to care for or even love someone. Love alone doesn’t protect marginalized communities from the effects of systemic injustice nor does it guarantee we ourselves are somehow free from maintaining these very systems, directly or indirectly, through our own unexamined beliefs and actions.
Where to Begin
But if not love, what else? Let me begin by saying love is an essential piece of the social justice puzzle. It’s vital that students learn to better understand and value all people of the world. This begins with recognizing and celebrating what each child brings with them to the classroom. So yes, teaching love—love for oneself and love for others—is a great place to begin.
But if we truly want to disrupt societal injustices, we have to boldly push into cultural criticism. We have to help students first question then disassemble the particular beliefs and practices that maintain oppression. In doing so, we begin to expand what it means to teach for social justice.
What We Need to Understand
If you’re still reading this, I assume you’re genuinely interested in helping students learn to identify, explore, and address issues of injustice in the classroom and beyond. And I assume you’re willing to push yourself to grow just as much as your students, if not more so.
To do this, there are some critical understandings that underscore all efforts to address issues of social justice in the classroom. These are outlined below. Read over them closely while carefully considering their meaning to you on a personal level as well as to your classroom teaching.
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What We Need to Understand About Self
- Growing up in this society has caused me to unknowingly develop prejudices. Having these prejudices does not make me a bad person. However, I do have a responsibility to acknowledge and dismantle each of these as they reveal themselves to me over time.
- There are times when I’m so used to things being the way they are I fail to recognize the presence of injustice or oppression in the lives of others. Yet, just because I’ve not been aware of these myself does not mean they aren’t real.
- There’s no such thing as being neutral. Any attempts on my part to avoid facing hard truths or engaging in critical work alongside my students only serves to support the many systems of oppression at play within our society.
- I shouldn’t mistake my comfort for my safety. The same is true for my students. This is hard work and I should expect it to push each of us in ways we’re not used to being pushed.
- I’m unlikely to see an end to racism, sexism, xenophobia, and most other forms of oppression in my own lifetime. Yet, all the same, I’m willing to do the work because small victories, accumulated over time, bring us closer to a more just society.
What We Need to Understand About Society
- Oppressive beliefs and practices are intended to maintain unjust power imbalances in our society so those within the dominant culture can protect their privilege. Deliberate efforts are made to protect these privileges.
- Our individual actions are heavily influenced by the larger social systems to which we belong. These systems (neighborhood, school, religious/spiritual community, and so on) shape our understanding of the world and how to live in it.
- Race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, and all other means of grouping people are not based on any proven science but, rather, socially constructed. There are countless other ways people could be grouped instead and those currently in use within our society hold no more credibility than these other possibilities (say, handedness, hair color, height, or agility).
Teaching from a Position of Privilege
Several years ago, I gave a presentation about teaching for social justice to a group of educators. After my presentation, a professor of Color from the nearby state university raised her hand and asked, “Because we don’t see a whole lot of white teachers talking about race in the classroom, could you speak to how being white affects your ability to discuss race with a diverse group of kids?”
With just a couple moments left before attendees were to move on to other sessions, I felt the gravity of this question weighing on me and I fumbled it. Badly. Speaking to what my whiteness meant regarding how families had accepted, questioned, or challenged our classroom’s social justice work in the past, I failed to address the most critical aspect of her concern:
How can someone of privilege, having never personally experienced the effects of individual or systemic racism, speak from a position of authority within a group of children for whom these discussions are not just academic but extremely personal?
This is a question I grapple with regularly when engaged in critical discussions with my students. It’s imperative that I’m always aware that I speak from a position of privilege as a result of my whiteness within discussions of race, my maleness within discussions of gender, and my heterosexuality within discussions of relationships and family structures.
Why Understanding Matters
And this is why understanding matters. The perspectives I take and the importance I give to particular aspects of a current event or student question are largely based on the limitations of my own experiences. But my understanding is detached because my knowledge has come from discussions with friends, family members, colleagues, and peers as well as a large collection of observations, films, speeches, books, articles, and so on. I have no lived experiences to help me truly understand what it means to be Black, female, gay, trans, Muslim, wheelchair bound, or a refugee, to name just a few.
Each of our students represents an intersection of the many social groups to which they belong. For this reason, we cannot—and should not—ever allow ourselves to assume we are an authority capable of resolving our students’ every question or concern.
When we teach for social justice, our kids provide a diversity of experiences and thought that are invaluable to the collaborative nature of this work. Our job, then, is to follow their lead.
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To learn more about Social Justice Talk: Strategies for Teaching Critical Awareness visit Heinemann.com.
Chris Hass is a second and third grade teacher at the Center for Inquiry in Columbia, South Carolina. In his twenty years as an educator, he has taught in a variety of settings, served as an adjunct professor for early childhood and elementary programs, and presented at all levels on the importance of integrating social justice teaching into our everyday practices. Social Justice Talk is his first book. Follow Chris on Twitter @chass2200.