Teaching Social Justice: A Teacher’s Story

Who’s responsibility is it to teach social justice? This teacher is often asked, “Why can’t you let ‘social justice’ go?” Here’s her answer.

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

Then I realize that we may control the cultures of our classrooms, but we are not in control of the world our students face away from their desks. My students are bombarded with issues surrounding privilege and power every single day. “Activism” is now so rampant that it even appears in Oscar acceptance speeches. Protests are televised and publicized and the Internet has turned four hash marks into weapons of mass discussion. Whether or not I talk about it, they will. 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.

So, the issue is not mine to let go. Every day I teach is a day that these discussions are a tool to help better my students.

Growing up, 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 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.

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 can teach them poetry and about the social issues they see in the outside world. I can show them how stories 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. 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.

At the end of the day, that’s my job. 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.

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

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