Monday, May 8, 2017

Reclaiming Social Justice Education

When I first started teaching almost 10 years ago, I was afraid to talk to teachers about social justice education. I understood the climate at the time and felt that expressing my views about social justice education would prevent me from finding meaningful employment. So I kept my views to myself, tried to play the game, and subversively taught social justice issues in my classroom through my teaching practicum's and first year of teaching. However, as I became more confident in my ability and capacity to advocate for social justice education, I stopped hiding what I was doing in the classroom to share what I have learned in my struggle to be a social justice teacher.

As I look at the teaching climate in our schools today and as I attend conferences, I'm noticing more and more that teachers are embracing social justice. At first, this movement to accepting social justice education had me really excited. I would love the opportunity to have more frequent conversations with educators about how the issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, ability and colonialism impact our profession. What an amazing profession we would have if we could consistently have these conversations, reflect on our various privileges as teachers and consider how we can act both in and outside of the classroom to create an education system that truly serves all students.

Unfortunately, what I've learned at conferences, on twitter and in conversations with teachers, is that social justice has been co-opted into something very different. What I'm seeing is that social justice is being stripped of it's actual meaning. Instead of teachers and students examining issues like racism, homophobia and poverty from an intersectional lens, social justice education has morphed in to charity awareness raising and the ill fated phrase, "celebrating diversity". When we reduce social justice to just raising money for a charitable organization, we rob students of the opportunity to ask questions as to why does a charity need to exist in the first place? What are the structural barriers that exist in our society that prevent people from having equitable access to opportunities? I'm not against charitable giving, but students deserve to understand how inequity is created and maintained in our society and how learning through a social justice lens will break apart the deficit view we often put on people who are facing injustices in our world. It is an extremely dangerous concept to have students of privilege believe that they can/should be saviours to those who are suffering. Rather, social justice education can offer students knowledge and tools in how to act in solidarity to support those facing injustice.

Too often have we reduced social justice education into "celebrating diversity" into what Paul Gorski famously called "Taco Parties". Instead of authentically learning about the experiences of different peoples and cultures, we end up reducing cultures in our classroom to a celebration of stereotypical food and dress. This is not social justice education. We as teachers must take responsibility for not only learning about social justice, but also refusing to engage in pedagogy that can be damaging to the people and cultures we are attempting to teach about.

Teaching for social justice is an act of solidarity with all people (students, parents, teachers, community) who face injustice in their lives. Teaching for social justice is not only recognizing that issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, ability and colonialism impact teaching and education but also taking a stand on those issues in advocating for a more equitable world. Teaching for social justice is not just teaching about certain topics and then having students regurgitate answers on a test, but it is learning to relate to students in a non-authoritarian way in order to allow student voice to be a part of the classroom decision making process. Perhaps most importantly, teaching for social justice is understanding that the relationships you build and the love you show for your students can be one of the most revolutionary acts for social justice possible.

So please teachers, continue your journey in social justice education. I'm glad you've come down this pathway with me. But don't end your journey where you're comfortable. Get uncomfortable with your learning and understanding of social justice education. Your students need you to get this right.

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