'Change Doesn't Come Simply Because We Wish It': Sonia Nieto on Justice & Teaching
Editor's Note: This is the seventh post in a series called "A Look Back." In it, I'll be highlighting a particularly insightful response an educator has provided in a past column.
Past posts in this series have included:
Today's "A Look Back" features part of an interview I did with Sonia Nieto about her book, Why We Teach Now.
You can read the entire interview at 'Why We Teach Now': An Interview With Sonia Nieto.
Professor Emerita of Language, Literacy, and Culture, College of Education, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Sonia Nieto has devoted her professional life to issues of equity, diversity, and social justice. She has written numerous books including most recently, Finding Joy in Teaching Students of Diverse Backgrounds: Culturally Responsive and Socially Just Practices in U.S. Schools (2013), Why We Teach Now (2015), and a memoir, Brooklyn Dreams: My Life in Public Education (2015).
LF: You write that Why We Teach Now is based on a "discourse of possibility." Can you explain what you mean by that and how you think it compares/contrasts with how you see more typical education policy discussions taking place?
For the past couple of decades, we've been mired in a discourse of hopelessness. This is due to several factors, not the least of which has been the so-called "education reform movement" that has focused on rigid accountability, privatization, and the corporate takeover of public education, in effect stripping students and teachers of dignity and respect, and stripping the "public" out of public education. These policies and practices have resulted in the blaming of poor and marginalized communities as well as teachers for all the problems in public education. Rather than excite or motivate educators about their role in changing the situation, the climate of blame and retaliation has led to a massive exodus of teachers from the profession, the further alienation of the students who need the most support, and even large-scale cheating in an attempt to game the testing system. Hope has been hard to come by.
We should have seen these things coming. We can't continue to blame teachers and the most vulnerable students for policies and practices over which they have little control. A good example is what is called "the achievement gap," the difference in achievement between White students and students of color. I reject this term, preferring instead "opportunity gap" because many students of color and students living in poverty attend poorly resourced schools and simply haven't had the kinds of opportunities and advantages that middle-class and wealthy students have had. To confirm this situation, all we need to do is visit schools in middle-class or wealthy neighborhoods and compare them with schools in poor neighborhoods. In most cases, there are enormous differences in the resources and opportunities they offer their respective students. And yet we continue to treat all students as if they've started out on a level playing field.
It's for these reasons that I refer to the teachers featured in "Why We Teach Now" as engaged in "a discourse of possibility." Whether they teach in cities or suburbs, large schools or small, early childhood or high school, they are filled with hope. But it is not a naïve hope, but instead a hope tempered by the reality of the situation in which they work and live. They're realists with a sense of purpose and commitment. They know that the system is often rigged against the most vulnerable and yet they have hope in their students and themselves to resist and change the situation. Maria Rosario, a Chicago elementary school teacher, described it in this way in her essay: "Because schooling has always existed to indoctrinate young people into a system where the vote might be better controlled or their minds might be better molded to serve as members of the working class, I am able to be there to help my students dream of other possibilities for themselves" (p. 200).
LF: Your book is comprised of essays by educators about why they teach. I'm sure it would be hard to choose, but could you pick three insights from the collection that you think are particularly important for educators to hear?
You're right, it is difficult! I've been tremendously inspired by the teachers who wrote essays for the book, and it is precisely because of their sense of hope and possibility that I continue to have hope in the future of public education, a hope that might otherwise seem displaced given the state of public education today. I'm grateful to them and to so many educators like them who continue to believe in the promise of public education.
Another insight reinforced by the teachers' essays is that teaching is a profession that reflects our deep-seated values and our identities. As a result, many teachers enter the profession either because they had inspiring teachers and want to be like them, or because they had negative experiences in school and want to serve students like them so that they don't have such experiences.
Sisters Jennifer Burgos-Carnes and Vanessa Burgos-Kelly, whose family moved to South Carolina from Germany when they were children, wrote about their struggles to maintain a sense of Latina identity in a place that, at the time, had little experience with [email protected] students. Alienated and alone, for years they felt marginalized by their schooling. In both of their cases, it was a sense of alienation that propelled them to become teachers so that their students of all backgrounds, and particularly their [email protected] students (now much more prevalent in South Carolina) would have more positive experiences. Vanessa, for example, mentioned one of the reasons she became a teacher, writing, "I wanted to become a positive role model for Latino students who may rarely see a Latino in an educational setting." Identity came up in many of the teachers' essays, but it wasn't only their own identities but the identities of their students their backgrounds of all backgrounds that matter to teachers.
Mary Jade Haney, another teacher in South Carolina, recalled her own alienation as a young student, writing, "I teach to reclaim the education I received as a student of color in the public school system." Challenging this sense of alienation for her students, she wrote, "I teach to ignite and inspire the passion for learning in the hearts of all children." Her statement, "I teach because I am in a profession that balances the universe," is one of the most eloquent statements about teaching that I've seen.
Change doesn't come about simply because we wish it, another insight highlighted in the teachers' essays. These teachers are activists, sometimes quietly and sometimes boisterously, whether in their classrooms, schools, districts, professional organizations, or even at the state and federal levels. Not all teachers need to be involved in all of these ways, but they all recognize that passivity leads not to change but to stagnation. Nina Tepper, who recently retired after more than three decades in the classroom, wrote about what brought her to teaching: "As a peace and justice activist in the 1960s and 1970s, I thought, 'If I could make a difference in the world, it would be as a teacher.'" And that's exactly what she did, in her case, through her teaching, professional writing, and continued activism in the community. In looking back on her career, she writes, "As a teacher, I had the capacity to influence child development and impact the future like no other profession."
Teacher Jesse Hagopian, a social studies teacher in Seattle, Washington, took his activism far outside his classroom and school to the state and national levels. Hagopian wrote about the successful effort to eliminate the MAP test in his school and, subsequently, in the entire state. He connected this struggle to his impetus for becoming a teacher, writing, "I teach because I know it is possible to organize students, parents, teachers, and administrators to fight for an education system that is democratically run by the people who make up that system, rather than the whims of philanthro-capitalists."