There is a narrative about U.S. education today which lays the blame for many of our challenges at the feet of our public school teachers. The centerpiece of the Obama Administration’s education policy is forcing school districts to evaluate teachers based on student test scores. Mainstream media reports claim that firing bad teachers is the key to saving American education. “Bad Teacher” is even the name of a 2011 Hollywood movie that grossed over $100 million at the box office.
This is not a new problem—historically teaching was “women’s work” which paid poorly—but the devaluation of teachers has intensified over the past half-century as U.S. schools have moved toward a more authoritarian model based on perceived economic and national security threats. As schools become more standardized and obsessed with data from bubble tests, good teachers are leaving the profession, and new teachers are being trained in bureaucratic approaches which fail in the presence of actual students.
Over this same time period, economic inequality in the U.S. has skyrocketed. The top 1% of Americans earn nearly 25% of total income, compared to less than 10% in the 1970s. Major corporations control the media and politics, democracy is eroding, and more people feel disconnected and discouraged about the future.
Instead of using teachers as a scapegoat to distract from failed economic and social policies, we should be asking our teachers to help reinvigorate our democracy. This requires two shifts in our collective thinking—we must remember that teaching is an old art form, not a formulaic process, and we must see classrooms as catalysts for social justice.
“The Art of Social Justice Teaching” is a project that provides resources, training, and inspiration to guide new educators and reconnect seasoned educators to their craft.
We are based at June Jordan School for Equity, a small public high school in San Francisco with some of the highest college-going rates for low-income students in one of the wealthiest cities in the nation. Our results are not the product of techniques we invented; we simply strive to follow the tradition of excellent teaching that has been common in American working-class communities for ages.
Like great teachers of past generations, we reject simple, technocratic approaches to schooling that do not reflect the actual complexity of human brains and social relationships. We believe that classrooms should be places of love, hope, and excellence—places that reflect the full depth of the human experience, where students can develop themselves as intellectuals.
Like the progressive pioneers of public schooling, we believe that teaching must be rooted in an ethical framework which supports and strengthens the American democratic tradition. Teachers should support parents’ efforts to raise their children with good values, and schools should be training students to be leaders for justice in the world.
At the same time, we understand that teaching is a very practical art, and that philosophy only takes us so far. Our work is grounded in video examples of actual teachers in real classrooms, with all of the accompanying complexity and challenge. We describe specific teaching moves as well as guiding principles which allow teachers to adapt those moves to their own students’ context.
In essence, what “The Art of Social Justice Teaching” does is provide a forum for teachers to create humanizing spaces which improve educational outcomes for students and help prepare young people to be leaders for democracy. Whether you are a new teacher who is excited about your students’ potential to change the world, or an experienced educator feeling frustrated with wave after wave of ineffective “reforms” which undermine real learning, we hope you will join us in this struggle.