In the last few years, the American education system has been bludgeoned by changes that have upended decades of progress toward better academic, economic and social outcomes for all.
Politicians around the country have been aiming to demolish progressive policies by targeting teaching about race and ethnicity, the LGBTQIA+ community and women’s reproductive rights. Calls for book banning and censorship have become common. These dangerous culture wars will wreak havoc on education and education policy for years to come.
As a teacher and school-based leader, I always understood the necessity of advocating for students and helping them navigate life, and I tried to help other teachers change the trajectory of many lives.
I taught my students to respect the power of civic engagement and social activism. Recent politics has made it hard to extend that work. The rollout of Florida’s House Bill 1557, popularly known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, was the start of a radical transformation that threatens to undo decades of social change. Other states, including Indiana, Alabama, Ohio and Tennessee have followed Florida’s lead with legislation that is discriminatory against the LGBTQIA+ community. It must be resisted.
Teaching is inherently activist.
Politicians are also attacking the Black population. When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis challenged the College Board’s AP African American Studies course, he inspired others to follow suit with flagrant concessions to institutional racism. Calls to be “anti-woke” and “anti-indoctrination” have become increasingly popular battle cries. Earlier, the complete misrepresentation and misunderstanding of critical race theory signaled a disregard for the Black community and contempt for the importance of students learning about all people and cultures. Since then, states such as Arkansas and Texas have also opposed the true teaching of the history of Black people in this country by dropping African American history courses and eliminating diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. The states’ actions provide a smoke screen for efforts to limit discussion of race and racism and disenfranchise the Black community.
As teachers worry about losing their jobs for violating the often-vague language of these new laws, school boards have succumbed to the demands of the few over the best interests of the majority. Who suffers the most? The students.
There is a critical need to prepare teachers to be intentional voices calling out the oppression that continues to plague our education system. We must do this through teaching, learning and advocacy — as well as social activism and civic engagement.
I have trained in, taught and led educator preparation programs. In past years, these programs met societal and student needs through instruction on culturally responsive teaching, trauma-informed education, conscious leadership and many other progressive approaches. Our goals were not far-fetched or new.
Teacher preparation programs have traditionally served as catalysts for shaping the future of the American education system and the ways in which we collectively work as a society to improve outcomes for all students. Teaching is inherently activist. Colleges, schools of education and alternative teacher preparation programs prepare people to engage in activism through teaching and learning. This is not what some politicians would call “indoctrination”; instead, these efforts embrace the potential for educators to be true change agents and justice warriors.
Today, during this 21st century version of the civil rights struggle, it is more important than ever to remember the lessons of the past and the role of educator preparation in training teachers and other education professionals to confront lies, dismantle oppressive systems and be advocates for students’ causes.
We must be deliberate in the ways in which we prepare teachers to serve the community. So many rights and freedoms are currently under attack in this country. That makes it even more important to fight for justice within the American K-12 educational system and ensure that our students learn the truth. This is dire.
Eugene Pringle Jr. is a senior professorial lecturer at the American University School of Education.
This story about teacher activism was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.