When I was recently asked if I thought teachers today needed to be activists I didn't hesitate in my answer. "Being a teacher, almost by definition, means being an activist."
That might come as a surprise to those teachers who have never wrote a letter to the editor, marched in a rally, retweeted a Diane Ravitch tweet, or "Occupied" anything but their classrooms. But I'm holding to my belief, as firmly as some teachers hold their protests signs declaring things like, "Let Teachers Teach" and "Protect Our Students": being an activist is an essential part of being a teacher.
For most teachers activism is an everyday thing because students and their needs are every day. There's a lot to watch out for in a classroom -- even on good days they are a moil of energy -- aside from whether a lesson is hitting home. A student who can't read the board because her family can't afford glasses. A cough that doesn't go away. A young boy who refuses to go to rec. because he gets picked on. A nasty bruise on the arm of the girl who doesn't meet your eye. The immigrant student struggling with a new culture and a new language. The issues are real -- poverty, neglect, abuse, poor health and nutrition, bullying, depression, low self-esteem -- and they are all a part of an average school day.
Good teachers don't complain, they just act, doing what needs doing to help their students learn. It may be a home visit, a talk with a school counselor, an offer to tutor after school, a walk around the playground at lunchtime, or a spare change collection in the teachers' room for eyeglasses. Some teachers (and it's a growing number) feel the need to address these concerns in a broader context, "taking to the streets" to confront such issues as health care, drugs, physical and sexual abuse, bullying, immigration, the current educational policy itself. But whatever teachers do, they take action, becoming activists for their students.
It wasn't any different for me, teaching teens incarcerated in an adult prison. It was just as important that I be aware of the health and safety of my locked up students as it was that I have appropriate materials and a clear goal for the day's lessons because, as every teacher knows (but few policymakers), students' living conditions have a profound impact on their school success. For me that meant paying attention to who came to class with a cut forehead or bruised cheek, who hadn't showered for a few days, who acted frightened or paranoid, or who didn't show up at all. Locked up kids have few to no advocates. My role as their teacher required that I be that advocate and take action where and when I could. Many times that action meant carefully, diplomatically negotiating the volatile power structure that makes up prison culture. But how could I do otherwise? How could any teacher do otherwise?
There is another aspect of teacher activism, however, that is even more profound, and that teachers can't sidestep no matter where they stand on the activism spectrum: Students learn how to act by observing how we act in the everyday world.
It was something that my jailhouse students made me conscious of. Prison has lots of rules. Some rules make sense; others make no sense at all. Even though they knew it was against the rules my students would ask me to do things like sneak in some candy or to let them take colored markers back to the block. Pretty innocent things, but I refused. "Why not? It's no big deal," they'd complain. "Nobody will find out." I knew they weren't interested in my sermon on honesty and integrity. That was okay, though. My words were beside the point. What was the point was that I would not break the rules. I acted in a way that they didn't like but that they knew was right. The same lessons go on whatever the school setting. Students learn how to act by simply watching how their teachers act, whether it's following rules, treating others with respect, or just showing up day after day and doing their job.
Unfortunately today's education reformers not teachers are the ones who are defining -- and limiting -- what it means to be a teacher, and there's not much about activism in their definition. According to these pundits, a teacher's job comes down to one thing: Get kids to pass the mandated tests. It is a shortsighted definition that is harmful not only to students but also to the teaching profession itself. But any teacher will tell you that we are much more than test-preparers. To be a teacher is to be an activist in ways that are familiar and unfamiliar, that are comfortable and uncomfortable, and that are mundane and at times, as we have seen throughout our history, heroic.