Why Teaching About Social Justice Matters

This teacher is often asked, “Why can’t you let ‘social justice’ go?” Here’s her answer.
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Why do you make everything about “social justice”? Can’t you just let it go?

These are questions I have been asked by… well, everyone—from parents to people on Twitter. I’ve been asked this by other teachers in my prep programs, teachers down the hall, by my own family members. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t ask myself sometimes: Wouldn’t it be easier to just let it go?  Can’t you save “social justice” for them to learn on their own?

And I sit with that: Why can’t I just let it go?

Then I realize something most teachers realize at some point: We may control the cultures of our classrooms, but we are not in control of the world our students face when they step away from their desks. So it’s not my problem to let go of. It’s the one they will face all the time.

Whether or not I talk about it, my students are bombarded with issues surrounding privilege and power every single day. “Activism” is now so rampant that it, for better or worse, even appears in Oscar acceptance speeches. Protests are televised and publicized at the click of a button, and the Internet has turned four hash marks into weapons of mass discussion. Whether or not I talk about it, they will.

Moreover, my students won’t just see these issues discussed; they live them. They will wonder why they don’t see their stories told on film, or why assumptions are made about them based on their last names. Even in the “racial paradise” some claim Hawai‘i is, my students are able to identify these issues in their lives. When asked to write a paper on stereotypes, 40 percent of them wrote about racial stereotypes they faced. Another 20 percent wrote about gender stereotypes. Without knowing what they are called, my students wrote stories about micro-aggressions they dealt with on a daily basis, and lowered or unfair expectations put upon them. My students are not just keen observers of the outside world; they experientially learn from struggles around power and privilege every day. They have important stories to tell and to hear.

So, the issue is not mine to let go. It is either mine to acknowledge or ignore. Every day I teach is a day that these discussions are either a gaping ocean to try and leap over or a tool to help better my students.

Every day I enter the classroom, I think about the lessons I had to learn myself as a student.

As a Mexican-Filipina-American kid growing up in a mostly white neighborhood, I struggled with my own identity. My brown skin and curly hair stuck out like a sore thumb, and my ethnic background was associated with the word dirty—an insult lobbed casually at white boys who had gotten too tan.

I needed someone to show me my culture has glorious role models of integrity, creativity and intellect, and that we need more people to tell those stories. 

I also needed someone to teach my other classmates—and, at times, myself—empathy, context and understanding for people from minority backgrounds. We needed to learn how to listen to those stories.  Only by hearing and understanding them would real progress be possible.

Yes, cultural and societal knowledge can (and should) be taught at home—those of us who grew from students of color to adults of color often had no other choice.

However, it must be asked: Who will validate these familial educations outside the home? Who will help students of color navigate the murky waters of a system not built for them? Who will give those who do come from cultures of power the impetus and tools to navigate their privilege so they can ally with the disempowered?

Who will teach these students to look at the world around them and figure out the problems and solutions with context and empathy? Who will teach them to tell their stories, and listen with open minds to the stories of others?

Isn’t that my job?

I was recently at a parent meeting, and a coach said something that struck a chord with me: “Thank you for giving us the opportunity to work with these students. Thank you for giving us your children.”

As teachers, we know this is not just a job; it is a privilege. Being able to teach with and learn from our students is a gift.

I can teach them poetry and about the social issues they see in the outside world. I can show them how stories don’t just use beautiful tools like allusion and metaphor, but can be used as tools to subvert power, question normalcy and change society as we understand it.

For that to happen, though, they need to understand society as it is. They need to face the conversation happening in our world right now with frankness and honesty. Teaching “social justice” must occur not simply because it’s relevant, but so my students can explore how their stories fit into the larger tapestry of a national and global story. Anything less is a wasted opportunity to challenge and expand not only their minds, but mine as well.

So, it is often not easy. It sometimes doesn’t feel good and rarely ends in simple answers. Still, as an educator I must ensure that each student who enters my room at some point leaves feeling empowered to stand up for what they believe in. They may not always agree with me, but at least I will have given them the tools to share those beliefs.

At the end of the day, that’s my job, my privilege, my kuleana: When a kid leaves my room, they’re going to have heard as many stories as I can give them, and they’re going to feel like they can tell their own.

Torres is a seventh- and ninth-grade English teacher in Honolulu, Hawaii.

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