As the political waters around us grow murkier and murkier, the fear that freedom of speech is under attack run rampant without any critical reflection as to its validity. Teachers, who still claim a sense of social responsibility to develop students into active global citizens are looking for ways to engage in critical dialogues with students without sinking into these torrential muddy waters. Although some teachers have chosen to engage with their students without filter, doing so could have devastating consequences on an educator’s career and students’ development. On the other hand, some teachers are so tight-lipped about issues in the world for fear of being seen as “too political,” that critical conversations about issues in our society are nearly non-existent in their teaching rendering them irrelevant in the eyes of many students. Today, let’s put some balance between these two extremes. Teachers, if we want students to grow up to be engaged citizens able to think critically about the world around them, shouldn’t we be able to do it effectively ourselves?
Being a self-professed socially responsible educator, I can tell you first hand that the resistance in upsetting the status quo in any manner can be formidable and fierce. My stances on creating anti-racist and anti-bias classroom environments for my students often have upset parents, collegues, and administrators who hold traditional “American” values and beliefs. For me, the backlash is worth it if I can help create more positive experiences for students and parents whose voices often go unnoticed and unheard. In being a teacher that is an agent of change and has a greater sense of social responsibility, one does not look at teaching as an objective, decontextualized act of simply transferring knowledge to students. The critical approach necessary in teaching towards social responsibility allows teachers and students to be more than regurgitators of facts, but critical thinkers of their world, able to critique current systems and work towards justice, peace, and equality for all.
However, introducing or discussing what can be seen as controversial issues in the classroom should not be done lightly. There are many implications and consequences for teachers who challenge the status quo in many school environments. It should be understood; in this process, it is not about making students think the way we want them to believe. It is the freedom of guiding them in the practice of how to think more critically about the issues they face. As agents of change in today’s classroom, we are to help guide students in using difficult dialogues to promote peace and justice. Even still, tackling controversial issues in school can be daunting. In this “age of outrage” and “virtue signaling,” the waters have been muddied even more in understanding what issues are morally imperative and must be considered in teaching with a critical approach.
Consider the following suggestions on how to set up a classroom environment where tackling sensitive issues can be done thoughtfully and respectfully for all.
Keep an Open Mind.Set the tone that students should and will be able to learn about issues and positions from multiple points of view.
Model and Show Respect.Create an atmosphere that shows respect for differing opinions and beliefs. It’s not always about who’s right and who’s wrong, students need practice in disagreeing with others respectfully and understand that doing so does not always mean letting go of personal convictions.
Establish a Sense of Morality and Ethics.This can be tricky. Even though we want classrooms that maintain a sense of respect for all people and beliefs, we also need to maintain a positive classroom environment. If students express ideas, opinions, or views that articulate the dehumanization, erasure, or marginalization of another group, we must be ready to challenge those stances. If we are to teach for greater equity, love, and tolerance in the world, we must be able to stand against hate, bigotry, and oppression in the process.
Trust me, I know how difficult it can be to express dissent regarding traditional American beliefs. However, if we are not aware of the marginalization that many so-called “traditional” beliefs result in for our diverse students and their families, we are not merely neutral, we are being complicit in continuing their oppression.
When deciding on your commitment to social responsibility in your classroom, consider the following moral imperatives when establishing “how far” you should go in your social justice approach in your classroom or school:
- Consider the different cultural norms each student brings into the class. Not everyone will value the same ways of thinking, acting, or behaving in the classroom, so we must maintain respect for the diversity of cultural patterns.
- Evaluate the unequal distribution of power in your classroom. Students hail from many different economic, social, and religious backgrounds. Help students feel empowered in bridging the gaps that separate countries, political structures, religions, and values by valuing not only a dominant voice but marginalized ones as well.
- Be open to the multiple perspectives and experiences students come into the classroom with. Understand that certain topics are going to seem offensive to certain students. In this dilemma, consider how you offend and approach issues that could be polarizing with as balanced a perspective as possible. Although all sides should be recognized and heard, the goal should not be to keep people comfortable in their bigotry but challenge it and address it.
- And finally, consider how you promote and model the act of critical thinking of complex issues. Remember, sometimes there are no neutral positions, sometimes wrong is wrong. Whether we agree with it or not, all teaching is a political act. Anytime we take a stance to speak up or remain silent, we are sending a message. The question remains, what messages are you choosing to send to your diverse students about the issues that affect them the most?
Today, I challenge every teacher to take a stand. If we are truly agents of change working to make the world a better place through education, we must be able to reflect on the areas in our teaching practices that do not measure up to those goals. Let’s take action! Think about a topic that you usually shy away from in your classroom: racism, sexism, homophobia, immigration, white supremacy, white privilege, police brutality, climate change, etc. How can you grow in your understandings of these issues and present them to your students from a multiple perspectives approach? In other words, how can your simple act of engaging in difficult dialogues embody a vision for your students of a better world?
Brown, H.D., & Lee, H. (2015). Teaching by principles: An interactive approach to language pedagogy