On Truth and Neutrality

Encouraging fellow educators to commit to tackling the tough topics.
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“No one can be in the world, with the world, and with others and maintain a posture of neutrality. I cannot be in the world decontextualized, simply observing life.” —Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Freedom

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in August 2018.

When it’s quiet and they’re busy, you watch your students. So many of them, each an individual. They all have such an incredible opportunity—do they know this? In this democracy, everyone has opportunity, or so you’ve been told. When people work hard, they make it. 

But then your educator mind self-corrects: There are barriers. 

You’ve considered these barriers, the obstacles many of your students have faced and continue to face: poverty, injustice, oppression. You’ve touched on these barriers in the classroom, but fear stops you from pushing further. 

While we take time to summon up the courage to talk about social justice in our classrooms, our students’ lives keep going. They continue to live out their identities, to bear the weight of our country’s unanswered history, to come to class even though their humanity may be under attack. The times we’ve struggled through as a nation and the realities we’re traversing today demand exposure and truth. Our students can’t carry these burdens alone. 

Reaching them depends on unconditionally embracing the complexity of their humanity. And to do that, we need to recognize it. It’s our responsibility to facilitate a careful examination of our history and our students’ humanity in the context of it. As Paulo Freire wisely stated, “No one can be authentically human while he prevents others from being so.” 

There is nothing neutral about freedom, justice and equality; we must tirelessly pursue them through truth and examination. It can be difficult to decide to educate for truth, to become a social justice educator. But with courage and a plan, the journey is possible for every educator. Here’s a good start.

Face yourself first. 

Reflect on how you live your values. For example, if you value love, justice or equality, list a few actions you have taken to support those values in your classroom and your school. Look for gaps or contradictions; then think of one or two actions you will take to further pursue that value in your classroom.

Educate yourself. 

Commit to attending professional development centered on equity. Seek out useful resources. Teaching Tolerance’s latest project, Teaching Hard History, is a perfect place to start looking at the past. There’s a podcast, a webinar and resources. And consider how this hard history shapes our present. If you haven’t yet, subscribe to The Moment, and TT will send you emails with lessons and resources on timely topics. As Sara K. Ahmed explains in Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension, “Ignorance is not bliss. Ignorance is a luxury of the privileged and a barrier to the unnoticed and underserved.”

Expand your personal library. 

Paulo Freire and Howard Zinn are musts, but don’t stop there. This list from Teaching for Change is a great resource. 

Release the assumption that the hard truths matter only to students with marginalized identities. 

Freedom, justice, equality and identity matter and are relevant to all your students, not only your students of color or those with marginalized identities. And it’s important that all students are exposed to the truths of hard history and the legacies of privilege and white supremacy in their lives.  

Find an educator community. 

No community? Start one! Check out how this educator from Colorado did it. Join Twitter and follow educators with experience advocating for justice, freedom and democracy.

Prioritize stories of redemption and resistance in your classroom. 

Don’t just focus on stories of oppression; have students engage with narratives that illustrate the resistance and empowerment of those of who have been historically marginalized in our country. There is immense power and hope hidden in the stories of your students’ courageous ancestors.

Take it one step at a time. 

The process of becoming an educator for truth needs to be honored. Respect your incremental movement toward change. Avoid neutrality. Remember what Elie Wiesel said: “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

The truth about the values upon which our democracy is said to stand—freedom, justice and equality—belongs in your classroom. It belongs to every one of your students. Everyone has the right to the real story of social justice, of this democracy, of the ways history continues to leave its mark at the individual and collective level. 

Garayúa-Tudryn is a school counselor at a dual-language elementary school in North Carolina. She is also a member of the Teaching Tolerance Advisory Board.

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