Teaching for Social Justice

By Herbert Kohl

A veteran educator offers pedagogical and personal suggestions learned over 30 years experience.

By Herbert Kohl

It is a sad statement on the moral sensibility of our schools and society that one has to advocate for teaching for social justice.

As one of my elementary school students once told me, “You know, Mr. Kohl, you can get arrested for stirring up justice.”

One problem is that many people – children as well as adults – do not believe that justice is worth fighting for. One cannot assume an idea or cause will be embraced merely because it is just, fair, or compassionate. Contemporary society values self-interest and personal gain over compassion and the communal good.

So what are social justice teachers – those who care about nurturing all children and who are enraged at the prospect of students dying young, going hungry, or living meaningless and despairing lives – to do? How can they go against the grain and use their classrooms to work in the service of their students?

My suggestions are both pedagogical and personal.

  • First, don’t teach against your conscience. Don’t align yourself with texts, people, or rules that hurt children; resist them as creatively and effectively as you can, whether through humor or by developing alternative curricula. Try to survive, but don’t make your survival in a particular job the overriding determinant of what you will or won’t do. Don’t become isolated or alone in your efforts; reach out to other teachers, community leaders, church people, and parents who feel as you do. Find a school where you can do your work and then stand up for the quality of your work. Don’t quit in the face of opposition; make people work hard if they intend to fire or reprimand you for teaching equity and justice.
  • Second, hone your craft as a teacher. When I first began teaching, I jumped into struggles for social justice. During one of my efforts a community person asked: “So, what’s going on in your classroom that’s different than what you’re fighting against? Can your students read and do math?” I had to examine my work, which was full of passion and effort but deficient in craft. I realized that I needed to take the time to learn how to teach well before I extended myself with authority and confidence in organizing efforts. This is essential for caring teachers. We have to get it right for our own students before presuming to take on larger systems, no matter how terrible those larger systems are. As educators, we need to root our struggles for social justice in the work we do every day, in a particular community, with a particular group of students.
  • Third, look around at the many effective ways of teaching children. I don’t believe there is a single technique or curriculum that leads to success. Consequently, pick and choose, retool and restructure the best of what you find and make it your own. Most of all, watch your students and see what works. Listen to them, observe how they learn, and then, based on your experience and their responses, figure out how to practice social justice in your classroom.
  • Fourth, it is not enough to teach well and create a social justice classroom separate from the larger community. You have to be a community activist, a good parent, a decent citizen, and an active community member as well.

Is all of this possible? Probably not. Certainly it isn’t easy and often demands sacrifices. And at the end of the day it might also make you sad, because there is so much more that needs to be done, so many students who don’t even have the advantage of a decent classroom and a caring teacher.

This leads to my final suggestion.

  • Protect and nurture yourself. Have some fun in your life; learn new things that only obliquely relate to issues of social justice. Walk, play ball or chess, swim, fall in love. Don’t forget how to laugh or feel good about the world. Have fun so that you can work hard; and work hard so that you and your students and their parents can have fun without looking over their shoulders. This is not a question of selfishness but one of survival. Don’t turn teaching for social justice into a grim responsibility, but take it for the moral and social necessity that it is.

Herbert Kohl, author of numerous books on education, is director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and Social Justice at the University of San Francisco.

The above is adapted from the afterward to Teaching for Social Justice, eds. William Ayers, Jean Ann Hunt, and Therese Quinn (New York: Teachers College Press, 1998). Reprinted with permission.