“Aren’t you that social justice warrior teacher?”
I must admit, in the teaching profession, my reputation sometimes precedes me. Folks who know of the work I’ve been a part of now associate me with social justice education, which is usually cool except when they throw that “warrior” term in there.
So let me be as clear as possible. The term “social justice warrior” is a pejorative term used to diminish and demonize social justice issues and those who advocate for them. A “social justice warrior” is often someone who is perceived to be arguing without evidence and only to “call-out” folks who are not politically correct or upholding “identity politics”. This definition is not anywhere close to what actual social justice education work or advocacy looks like. I’ve been doing this work for many years and by no means am I a leading voice on what social justice education is, but I think it’s time that we clear a few things up for what social justice education looks like in schools.
Social justice education is unbelievably important for not only understanding our world but also the world of education in which students of diverse identities and experiences navigate the very political environment of schools. When a teacher embraces a social justice framework for working with their curriculum, pedagogy, assessment, and relationships with students it is not about imposing an ideology or way of thinking on their students. I can’t even believe that I have to type that after being in this profession for ten years but I feel it’s still important for some folks to hear. Education is political whether we would like to acknowledge that or not. I’m not talking about politics in the partisan sense but every decision we make from content to instruction to assessment to discipline are political decisions that all teachers engage with. Social Justice education is about providing a lens and framework to help educators make decisions to help create more equitable classrooms to ensure all students can have success.
Social justice education is acknowledging that issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, and colonialism (among many other forms of oppression) impact our society and that educators have a responsibility to help students navigate these conversations in a good way. Teaching social justice issues is much like teaching anything else. You can present students with the latest research on the issue, hear stories from multiple perspectives from folks who are involved in these issues and allow students to engage in dialogue and research with each other to investigate how these issues impact our society. And the beautiful thing that happens when students do this is that they not only expand their understanding of folks in our society but also develop a deeper sense of empathy and compassion for other people.
However, we also need to understand that social justice education is not just about learning but it’s also engaging in action to make the spaces around us more just and equitable so everyone can have access to fair opportunities. Over the years I’ve worked with students on raising awareness in schools, engaging in social media campaigns, making documentary films and even planting a community garden. All of these projects aimed at raising the school communities awareness of social justice issues and creating space for students to have a community of peers where they could feel safe and develop a sense of belonging.
This is the power of social justice education as more than anything it is about the community and relationships that students and teachers can develop with each other when we have the opportunity to sit down and have dialogue on the issues that we face in our community. When true authentic space is created in classrooms/schools we can then begin to learn from each other and break down the various forms of prejudice, discrimination, and oppression that are perpetuated in our society.
Which is why I truly believe that social justice education is for everyone. As important as it is for vulnerable and marginalized students to be able to learn about the issues that impact them and to be able to see themselves in their learning, it is also hugely beneficial for students of more privileged backgrounds to learn about the diverse identities and experiences of folks different from them. If we are truly going to build a better world then we need everyone to understand that the way they see the world isn’t the same for everyone. Our diverse worldviews are a culmination of our experiences and identities and when we can create space for dialogue to understand and see the humanity in each other then we can begin to bridge the many divides that separate us in our world today.
Social justice education isn’t dividing us along identity lines, it is specifically attempting to engage students, teachers and the wider community in dialogue based on the latest research and understandings to hear the voice of the oppressed and marginalized to gain a deeper understanding of our world. Social justice education has the ability to help all students develop their critical thinking and questioning skills along with developing soft skills such as empathy, compassion, social and cultural awareness as well as a desire to get involved in their communities and engage in conversations around power and privilege. Simply, social justice education has the power to bring us all together. For a full understanding of the benefits of social justice education please check out the work of Alison G. Dover.
There are decades of peer-reviewed research on issues in social justice education that many folks seem to forget about when engaging public discussions on this issue. Throughout my ten years of teaching, social justice education has been vilified, demonized and a culture of fear has been created for many educators who wish to engage but are afraid of possible repercussions. We can’t possibly move forward with social justice education unless those in the public and those of us in schools can defend the merits of social justice education for each and every student across Alberta.
I’m a white, straight, man who grew up middle-class in the suburbs outside Windsor, Ontario. I led a very privileged and advantaged life and I can easily say that social justice education has been the most important and valued aspect of my career as a teacher as it has allowed me to understand my students, my community and the larger society in more depth in order to properly serve students and redress inequity and injustice where possible in my classroom. I hope that those of us engaged in this work can continue the process of working with colleagues and students to spread the word that social justice education is for everyone.