Teaching as a form of protest

As a public school teacher serving students in New York City, there are a lot of mandates placed on me. These mandates are enforced and reinforced by a system that cares far more about a test score, school rating, and keeping White parents happy than it does for the liberation and racial healing for its dark students. As such, these mandates require me to enact a colorblind curricula and pedagogy. They encourage me to ask my students about tutoring before I ask them about how they’re doing. They urge my students to be themselves in a building without a gender-neutral bathroom. These mandates support the idea that teaching is apolitical. They make seeing a police officer outside my classroom normal. They entice me to manage dark bodies and their behavior. They expect me to focus strictly on content through the many traumas of a pandemic.

This summer I realized that that there are lots of different ways to protest. You can protest with your body. You can protest with your wallet. You can protest with your energy. After reading Christopher Emdin’s recent contribution to The Atlantic’s “On Teaching” project, I began to see how teaching can also be a form of protest.

I can protest by resisting classroom policies that limit when and how many times a student may use the bathroom. I can protest by refusing to adopt textbooks and content that centers the white, male, able-bodied experience. I can protest by not dishing out a detention to a student because they are wearing white socks instead of black. Or because their shirt isn’t tucked in. I can protest by not giving our full 45 minutes to the Common Core each day. I can protest by acting out against the idea that teaching math is about symbols and statistics and not stories. I can protest by prioritizing how I listen to my students — especially my black and brown students who are female, queer, or gender-nonconforming. I can protest by being on the committee that changes hiring practices. In the morning, I can protest by building camaraderie and playing basketball with my students at open gym instead of obsessing over my lessons. I can protest by acknowledging the politics of grades and working to ensure that, at least in my classroom, they don’t supersede my students’ intellectual and emotional well-being. I can protest by defiantly and outspokenly positioning myself as a colearner, not a teacher. With a school whose student body is 85 percent black and brown, I can protest by finding ways to make my curriculum and pedagogy honor, celebrate, and endorse Black, Latinx, and indigenous cultures and ways of being. I can protest by helping my school look in the mirror and face its ugly past.

Emdin sums this up perfectly:

A pedagogy of protest privileges dialogue with students even when the school schedule says there is no time for it. It creates space for youth to teach about their lives even when the curriculum says there is no space for it. It focuses on building community and family even when the school administration tells teachers not to express emotion with students. If teachers want to respond to racism as they’ve responded to the coronavirus pandemic, they can start here—in their own classrooms.

Framing teaching as an act resistance makes it harder to look the other way or say that the school system that keeps my students and I shackled to an unjust history is too big or too far-reaching to change. Though I may only be one teacher in a humble corner of the educational universe, I can resist. I can say no. I can give the system hell in my own way with antiracist lessons, cogenerative dialogues with students, and advocating for Black culture — and all of its intersections across gender, sexual orientation, ability, religion, and class — at faculty meetings. I can work to abolish teaching norms that stifles the intellects and erases the emotions of marginalized students. I can protest every day with my teaching by what I plan, what I say, and what I do.


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