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I am a Teacher: I am not Neutral, Unbiased, or Objective

“Washing one's hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral." -Paulo Freire

I like to read this quote at least once a week to keep me focused on what the core of my teaching practice should be about. I often talk to teachers who feel that it is important that teachers are neutral, objective, and unbiased. Well, as you can probably guess from the above quote, I don't agree with that sentiment at all. I am a social justice teacher who believes that it is absolutely impossible to be a neutral and objective teacher.

Before we get into the politics of teaching, I want to explain my thoughts on what it means to be a social justice teacher. Social justice is a difficult term for a lot of us to really wrap our heads around. For me, it has always meant that my job as a teacher does not end when the bell rings. It means that if I truly believe in a socially just world, then I have to create the conditions in which those ideals can be practiced within my classroom. Creating those conditions usually starts with cultivating a mindset that challenges students to question power structures within society.

What this inevitably leads to is students quickly questioning my own power, which is a fantastic skill for students to learn. As a social justice teacher, I do not want to create obedient and passive citizens who will replicate those behaviours in their communities. We must remember that education is not training students to get jobs. A real education is teaching students the value of learning, democracy and critical thinking. After all, if we want critically thinking and democratic students, we should definitely be modelling that in our classrooms.

I teach social studies and a social justice class at the moment. As you can imagine, controversial topics arise on the daily in my classroom. Issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality are all tackled, analyzed, and discussed at length. It is important that I do not let my own viewpoints lead the students to a "right" and "wrong" answer, but challenge them to think about fairness and equality and how that applies to all people within society. If students agree that all people should be treated fairly and equally, then using that perspective to analyze social issues is a great starting point for important discussions.

Now, you may be saying to yourself that teaching in this manner is inherently subjective and not neutral. You may think that I am leading students to think a particular way that I deem to be more appropriate. Well, the answer is yes, I am trying to instill certain values of democracy, fairness, justice, and critical thinking into my students. My teaching, is inherently political. No teaching, or knowledge for that matter, is neutral or objective. I find that we are obsessed with the idea that teachers must be neutral and that all knowledge is objective. Textbooks are taken as ultimate truths and mainstream conventional ideas are rarely challenged and instead memorized as direct facts.

As a social justice teacher, it is my responsibility to to challenge a system or prevailing ideology if it creates contradictions within the society I live in. Therefore, as a teacher I must take a stand on a variety of issues if I believe in a socially just world. As a human, I am completely biased and see the world through my particular lens. How are we to expect that teachers do not suffer the same biases that all humans do?

What we as teachers can do is create an environment where our students can freely challenge the intellectual authority of the teacher and textbook. I often set aside times where students can openly challenge something I've said in a lecture. It's paramount that I talk to my students and explain that that are free to challenge my beliefs. I often reward this behaviour with a variety of class rewards (or food, teenagers love food!).It is essential that I model that It is OK to challenge authority because let's be honest, sometimes teachers just aren't right....and that's just fine.

If we believe in a strong and healthy democracy, we must create the conditions for this world in our classrooms so students can feel empowered to go out into their world and create the change that they wish to see. After all, if we don't teach our students to think and question, then what's the point of going to school in the first place?