The Inevitability of Guilt When Teaching Social Justice

I just finished reading and grading 24 ten-page reflexive essays for my Urban Education course. The reflexive essay was a final essay where students were asked to discuss how they changed throughout the course; more specifically, how their thinking changed. I asked them to analyze not only how, but also why. What provoked this change? And more importantly, why does it matter?

This assignment proved difficult for them because most of them have never been asked to write ten pages about themselves that was not an autobiography. Indeed I cautioned them against telling me stories about their own schooling in contrast to the urban schools that were the case studies of our readings, documentaries and course discussions.

I also told them they could not write about capital—cultural, social, financial or navigational. Not only do they not have the sociological background to truly understand the nuanced ways in which these constructs operate, they also needed to be challenged to see beyond the obvious. Yes, your parents’ money, connections and knowledge of the education system afforded you opportunities many students do not have. I do not care to hear that narrative again. What I want to hear is how my students are thinking about themselves in relation to issues of privilege and power in a stratified system.

And that is what I got (for the most part).

First, I want to express my pride in my students. They grappled with challenging and novel material coupled with the reality of spending many hours a week working at a community center in low income neighborhoods. They had to take the public bus (for many of them this was their first time on public transportation), complete an application for social services (e.g., food stamps, cash assistance, childcare, etc) and develop a program proposal to give their community center that met the center’s needs (instead of what my students perceived the center needed). All the while, they watched documentaries chronicling the school to prison pipeline, read academic articles chock full of statistics about gentrification (i.e. urban renewal) and school segregation, and listened to a podcast about gang violence in Chicago public schools. Every day they came to class prepared (okay, maybe not all of them were prepared every day), participated in class discussion and asked deep and difficult questions about the future of urban schooling in a system that sets poor students up to fail. I could not be prouder of their investment in, and commitment to, the course.

I am therefore not surprised that so many of their reflexive essays focused on their own privilege and how the recognition of their privilege positions them to affect social change.

What did surprise me was that despite their burgeoning understanding of their own unearned racial, economic and sexual entitlements, they still view themselves as outsiders powerless to influence change.

I did not notice this trend in their writing until in the second to last paper I graded, a student pointed out that she could have written a paper arguing for how someone with power and privilege can create change, but she did not because *‘good intentions do not create sustainable results.’

After pausing for a moment, I thought back and realized that not a single student wrote about how they could use their privilege to create change. In fact, most of them expressed sentiments of hopelessness and defeatism after taking this course and learning of the systemic problems sustaining the cycle of poverty. Many replaced their prior desire to teach in urban schools (one student titled his paper “Why I Won’t Teach”) or join TFA with a new goal of teaching in private schools because they recognize they do not possess the proper ‘background’ to truly relate to the students. Every student spoke of culturally relevant teachers and warm demander pedagogy as the ray of sunshine and strand of hope in urban schools. Yet, only one student acknowledged that despite the status with which she was born, she would do her best to become an educator who knows her students, lives in the community with her students and builds long lasting relationships with students and their families.

In class, I made a point to explicitly say ‘I am not here to encourage anyone to be a classroom teacher. I am also not here to discourage anyone from being a classroom teacher. I am here to inform you about the history and context of urban public schooling. For those who want to teach, I implore you to teach where you will be most effective.’

It is funny how students latch on to certain things. My students were clearly affected by Gloria Ladson-Billings’ theory of culturally relevant teachers and her discussion of the achievement debt. They almost all recalled statistics from the introduction of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. And every student quoted Allan Johnson’s writing on privilege. They also took to heart my advice to teach where you will be most effective. But they seem to have forgotten the many times I described teacher preparation programs that specifically train you in culturally relevant pedagogy. social justice

This is what I want to believe happened: they forgot. They tuned out at that point. This is the explanation I’d like to have for their insistence that despite their privileged positions they can do nothing to help those less privileged. The person in me wants to believe that my students—my smart, funny, warm hearted students—are not hiding in their privilege, using it as a reason for why they can’t truly understand the problems and will therefore do more harm than good in any urban school.

But alas, the teacher in me sees with keen eyes. I see which quotes they chose; I see their diction when speaking about black and Hispanic youth as ‘they’; I see the word guilt 81 times across 24 papers (yes, I counted); I see the juxtaposition of their descriptors of private school with the words used by Kozol in Savage Inequalities; I see their struggle to find their entry point into a system with which they have no experience. With which they feel no connection.

They feel no connection.

Not to the students whose lives are so different than their own. Not to the teachers whose daily struggle to find textbooks has never been experienced by their teacher-relatives in private schools. Not to me who (in the words of one student) “had experiences in her primary and secondary education that led her to first become passionate about the subject and then become a scholar of it.”

They feel guilt. And shame. And social obligation (three papers were about this). They acknowledge that in their privileged positions they have the luxury of feigned ignorance. In fact, one student wrote:

“Discovering so many hidden truths in this class has been like parting the clouds, and finally allowing the shadow of privilege to be cast by direct sunlight. When I choose to stay in the shade of ignorance and obliviousness, my privilege is not apparent and cannot bring me the anguish caused by unjust advantages I don’t feel that I deserve; in the shade, I benefit from Johnson’s ‘luxury of obliviousness’ (2006, p.22). When the sun of reality shines upon me, I remember that my privilege is always present, even when I do not see it or feel its effects.”

They know that what they’ve been doing is wrong, yet they have no solutions for how to do anything differently. One of my favorite passages from a student was:

“In third world countries there is a concept called ‘poorism’. This is where tour companies take tourists into slums and walk them through the slum, let them take pictures of the hungry disheveled kids, and maybe they even take the local form of transportation. These companies give tourists a glimpse of poverty so that they can return home and exclaim to all their friends that they know poverty, how it changed who they are, and then they can share that picture of a cute African child. However, two months later, they are back to where they started…I don’t want this class to be poorism in America for me.”

I don’t know how to make this class not be poorism for them. I am unsure of how to create an emotional connection between students and the text. But quotes like these leave me certain that I’ve created a cognitive connection and perhaps, for now, that’s all I can ask of 19 year olds. And of myself.


 *Note: Permission was asked of all students throughout the course to use quotes from their papers in this blog and in any future research.


One comment on “The Inevitability of Guilt When Teaching Social Justice

  1. naomi1431 says:

    I stumbled upon your blog the other day when someone posted the cute one about things that professors hate facebook. And, then I discovered that there was substance to this blog, and that you are, in fact, awesome, as I read through many of your posts. I only wish I could have had one education class like yours–mine were not and did not prepare me to teach in the environment that I wanted to teach in. There’s much that I agree with you about–that white upper middle class suburban teachers shouldn’t be or think of themselves as saviors of inner city youth, that doing so implies an assumption of superiority in and of itself, and that going into such a situation unprepared has the potential to be disastrous for everyone involved. That said, I feel the need to question a statement that you’ve said that you’ve made repeatedly: That one should teach where he or she will be the most successful. It’s something that I haven’t seen you fully articulate a defense of, but that you say with the utmost of certainly. (You may have elaborated at some point in the past–I haven’t read the entire blog yet.)

    I don’t doubt that individuals would likely feel the best about themselves taking this advice. But, quite frankly, it feels like a cop out to me. There’s an logistical problem with this statement. Schools, after all, need teachers in them. And black/poor/urban communities are not producing an adequate number of teachers to staff schools with the type of new teacher that we know is most likely to be the most successful in that environment–teachers that both are at home in the urban environment and have academic backgrounds that are sufficiently rigorous to prepare them to teach material well. That said, looking at the population that actually becomes teachers, it may very well be that 90% of potential teachers would be most effective in expensive private schools, or exclusive suburban schools. But, 90% of students certainly aren’t in those schools. And the kids that aren’t in those schools still need teachers.

    I say this because to me, a white woman not much older than you from a relatively academically privileged background, there is no doubt that I would be most effective teaching other people who are culturally like me, or like me with a bit more money and motivation and intelligence thrown in. But it’s not because I have a passion for those students. And it’s not really because I relate to them better. For the most part they’re not really smarter than other kids either. But, they’ve bought into the idea that an education is valuable and the ticket to prosperity, and that they’re capable of thriving in an academic environment, long before they meet me, and so they’re easier to teach. Having taught in both environments (for admittedly short periods of time) I would say that teaching in a predominantly white private school makes you feel a lot better about yourself than teaching in an high poverty predominantly black urban school. You’re successful, which leads to confidence, which leads to success, etc, etc. Your students do their homework. Your students say thank you as they leave the classroom. Your students listen to you. People treat you with respect and respect you for your educational background. But, that’s a reflection of them–not you. Teaching in poverty and segregation, quite frankly, is painful. And hard. And I suspect that it’s painful and hard regardless of your background, because you see things that are hard to see, and you deal with children who are hardened and angry, and have a right to be. But, something being hard doesn’t mean that it doesn’t need to be done.

    So, I’m not yet convinced that we should strive to be where we are the most successful, especially if striving to be where we are the most successful means that we are, in fact, making less of an impact on society than we would be had we chosen another path.

    Again–thanks for sharing your thoughts and perspectives on this blog. I plan to continue reading.

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