Have the Courage to Teach

Equity and social justice work in schools is easier said than done. This educator offers four steps for turning talk into action. 


Ask a group of teachers how to create lasting and enduring change through student-teacher relationships, the curriculum and home-school partnerships, and a plethora of answers ensue. Now, ask that same group of teachers how to create lasting change through equity and social justice work? The proverbial chirping of crickets. For many teachers, these topics elicit nervousness, unease and fear. They like the idea, but the what and how of working toward equity and social justice with our students and colleagues seem elusive.

Recently, I participated in a Twitter chat, and this question came up:How can we help students to see past the stereotypes that surround them? About LGBT people? About Muslim people? Others?” My response was, “Have the courage to teach. Do whatever is needed.”

I like to use the following analogy when helping colleagues to begin engaging in equity and social justice work: One, start with yourself; two, reach for the low-hanging fruit; three, climb the tree; and, four, be ready to slide down or even fall out of the tree from time to time.

Start with yourself. In order to do this work honestly, authentically and with integrity, we, as teachers, must be willing to engage in reflective self-examination. This not only allows us to know where we currently stand in our cultural competency but also informs us of what we need to do to strengthen that competency. The Implicit Association Test (IAT) is one such self-examination tool. Specifically, the IAT is designed to detect and reveal unconscious biases regarding race, gender and other identities and characteristics. These biases are unconscious, but they influence our thoughts, actions and interactions.

Reach for the low-hanging fruit. Educators can access resources that allow them to reflect on their practice and make choices based on their comfort level with the topic at hand. Teaching Tolerance maintains a rich repository of equity and justice materials, including Critical Practices for Anti-bias Education, a guide that helps teachers marry academic and social emotional goals with culturally responsive pedagogy. Two more wonderfully accessible reads are Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions and The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life.

Climb the tree. At this point, you are ready to branch out a bit (pun intended). This might include participating in a Twitter chat with an equity or social justice theme or attending a professional conference, such as the National Association of Multicultural Education Conference or White Privilege Conference. If you’re an independent school educator, consider attending the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) People of Color Conference. Speaking of NAIS, its Summer Diversity Institute is an excellent way to build one’s leadership skills in equity and social justice and to move others along in the work. 

Be ready to slide down or even fall out of the tree from time to time. Equity and social justice work is wonderfully rewarding, but it can also be difficult, physically taxing and emotionally draining. It demands a lot of courage to interact with others and to continually examine oneself. Your conversations with students and colleagues alike will be often messy. Additionally, you might make lots of mistakes—marginalizing other people’s experiences, not speaking up and expecting those from oppressed groups to educate you, to name three. At the same time, you will have the support and encouragement of others along the way for sustenance and support.

I recall a quote used by a workshop presenter many years ago that I feel is fitting here: “Always keep your hands on the right things.” For us educators, this means that we always work with the best interests of students in mind. In other words, it is truly all about the students—and students need, want and deserve adults who move beyond being nervous educators to becoming courageous educators. 

Webb teaches Spanish to middle and high school students at an independent school in Connecticut.