When I landed my first teaching job, I was given total autonomy over my classroom with the caveat that my students perform well on the standardized state tests. With this freedom, I introduced my students to diverse protagonists who defied stereotypes, explored issues of women’s rights and gender expression, and created assignments that took into account students’ own cultural and community passions.
My students did perform well on the standardized tests, and of course I was glad. But beyond that, I enjoyed a feeling of purpose and integrity from aligning my philosophical beliefs with my professional practices. My goal was to make the world a better place by fostering empathy in my students and helping them learn more about the wide world around them. When given the freedom to make the curriculum in my classroom reflect my deeply held ideals, I felt purposeful and was satisfied with my job.
When I moved to a new district, I lost this autonomy and was expected to teach the same curriculum as my veteran counterparts. This curriculum had been in use for a very long time, and I found myself required to teach material that I didn’t necessarily like or agree with.
Because of this limitation, my sense of fulfillment and drive plunged. I was shocked and deeply troubled by my first encounter with a scripted curriculum, and it reminded me of how I had felt during my teacher-training observation.
As an idealistic teacher-in-training, I observed an English teacher at an urban high school who was forced to adhere to a scripted curriculum generated by a textbook company. Everything was prescribed and mandated. The teacher could not adjust the speed of delivery or tailor a worksheet to the needs and interests of the students. She couldn’t insert projects or readings outside of the script; any minority voices or issues of the disenfranchised that were not included in the script were simply not taught. The script even went as far as to tell the teacher exactly what to say when passing out worksheets or beginning the readings for the day. And she was told to follow the curriculum—or else.
I know I’m not the only educator dedicated to social justice who is making huge internal compromises in order to stay in the classroom. Many of us are passionate about challenging traditional narratives, exposing students to culturally relevant lessons and moving beyond worksheets and Scantron tests. And many face situations similar to mine where, in order to follow administrative mandates, they cannot teach what they believe is best for students and the world.
These compromises tear at our sense of efficacy and meaning because teaching for us is so much more than imparting skills. Many times I considered leaving, not merely because I couldn’t do what I wanted, but because what I was forced to teach felt like a waste of time.
However, I didn’t leave, and after careful reflection and conversations with a few students, I’ve discovered that curriculum makes up only a small part of what it means to be an educator for social justice.
I model empathy and compassion every day in speech and actions toward my students. In between classes, I address name-calling and slurs. When I speak with respect to students, not accusing, not degrading, not punishing, but asking, leading and inviting, I teach social justice.
In my classroom I hang Teaching Tolerance posters and photographs that memorialize the many civil rights struggles. When I make my classroom a safe space that honors those who fought for equal rights, I encourage questions about social justice.
I articulate high standards for every single student in the classroom, regardless of background, family reputation or detention record. When students know I believe in them, I support social justice.
Recently, a student from our school’s newly formed Gay-Straight Alliance told me that many of the student participants in the GSA felt most safe in my classroom. “It’s because you don’t tolerate bullying,” he told me. Because I am present with my students and work hard to make my classroom a community, no matter what I am told I have to teach or what script I’m handed, I am a teacher for social justice.
To all of those teachers who are fed up with the standardization, the mandates and the “get back in line” mentality: We do vital, needed work for the world in small actions also. Every time we forge a connection that invites a student’s heart or mind to open a little wider, we advocate for social justice.
Ricket is a high school English teacher in Ohio.