I’m currently deep into Education and Capitalism: Struggles for Learning and Liberation, a highly recommended read for those committed to learning about struggles for social justice in public education. An excerpt captured from the book’s introduction serves as a catalyst for thought and questioning. In the foreword teacher activist Adam Sanchez interviews Bill Bigelow, the curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools.
(Adam Sanchez): Many social justice educators feel that their teaching is their activism, yet at the same time teachers increasingly have less control over their curriculum. For those who believe in social justice education, is what we do inside the classroom enough?
(Bill Bigelow): I want to start by flipping the question on its head. I’ve known a lot of teachers who believe that their activism outside the classroom is sufficient. And it’s not. It’s not enough to be a good “social justice unionist,” or to participate in teacher antiwar committees or worker-community alliances. I believe that teacher activism begins in the classroom, with our commitment to our students and to the communities that we serve as educators. Our first job is to be an outstanding teacher. That said, as you point out, how well we are able to serve our students and the society as a whole is being shaped–distorted, really–by forces that are outside of what is going on in the schools themselves. As we regularly editorialize in Rethinking Schools, protecting our classrooms, protecting our craft, requires that we challenge all kinds of social priorities. As the recent struggles in Wisconsin show, the wealthy and the politicians they’ve hired are attempting to defund and deform public schools. es, we need to teach about this and equip students to understand the roots and motives of these initiatives. But we have to be out in the streets opposing all these right-wing schemes. I do think that good teaching is a kind of activism, but the space for critical teaching will become increasingly narrow unless we get active beyond our classrooms.
It’s interesting that Mr. Bigelow decided to “flip the question on its head”. We’ve all likely encountered teachers who “keep their politics and activism” outside of the confines of their classroom and the school building as a whole. I’ve also come across many relatively progressive teachers who decidedly focus their entire “activist” efforts within their classrooms. While there is value in a teacher committed to developing compelling social justice-minded teaching and learning in their room, it really can’t stop there. As Mr. Bigelow mentions in the end of his response, we must expand our activities and engagement beyond the classroom. If we are to truly resist and rewrite the script of harmful routines and norms that are dominant in public education we need to collectively dig deeper in order to bring about authentic meaningful change. Rather than an either/or perspective, this requires advancing the position that activism in the classroom and outside the classroom is urgently necessary.
This is all relatively common territory especially if you’ve read some previous thoughts. The pertinent issue remains as to how we intelligently push ourselves further into developing our own potential as not just educators but as parent leaders, students and organizers. We also must effectively persuade others to collectively do so as well. Both aspects of this looming challenge defy overtly simplistic responses and thinking. Still, one critical element of the personal transformation and the base-building that is central to this is identifying and developing roles. I often think of the elder African-American wisdom in the phrases “know your lane” and “stay in your lane” when the topic of roles come up in organizations and coalitions. Finding our particular strengths, talents, and skills that gel with others while building a collective effort is significant in moving any effort forward.
Of course, even getting to that type of consideration requires negotiating and meeting folks where they’re at in terms of their comfort level. Especially, but not exclusively, teachers frequently harbor concerns about professional consequences for getting involved in any type of critical activity, much less authentic grassroots activism. Part of the challenge in approaching this issue for ourselves and others is twofold. Locally, while engaging potential recruits we often say “We don’t advocate committing economic suicide” to those who express concerns about the potential ramifications of their public activities. This is meant to communicate how each person involved has to make decisions as to what level of risk their willing to commit to and undertake while understanding the possibilities. Meanwhile we need to understand that is unacceptable to do little, nothing, or actions that merely perpetuate conditions as they currently stand. If we intend to move towards improvement in addressing deep-seated long-standing issues in our schools we need to both shift conditions for grassroots organizing and gain more key stakeholders’ active participation as organizers. No small task, no doubt.
With that general charge in mind we should consider those who have walked this path before both in our immediate experience and beyond. Often times there are people and organizations with a wealth of experience right in front of us waiting to be explored and investigated. On the other hand, many of us are familiar with the “Just go out there, connect with people, and build relationships!” advisement style (often comes with a proverbial pat on the back) that we’ve experienced in education and, perhaps, organizing contexts. Such superficial approaches can be unproductive and potential dangerous especially when we don’t focus on intelligent development coming out of an informative history of grassroots struggle in public education that is unfolding to this day. In that spirit, going forward into the future and (hopefully the comment section!), I’d like to try to hear from those who have been able to successfully activate and politicize stakeholders such as teachers, parents, students, and family members. How were you able to do it? In what situations or conditions were you successful? What challenges did you face?