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November 15, 2023
ASCD Blog

A Way Forward for Liberatory Educators

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How to teach toward love—even when teaching under fire.
Equity
A Way Forward for Liberatory Educators
Credit: Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock
As of late, I have found myself in a deep period of grief and mourning, a great deal of which has been brought on by the destruction and devastation that is seemingly all-consuming in our world today: In addition to ever-present racism and systemic oppression levied against Black people and folx of the global majority, there also exists the ridiculous, though unsurprising, pushback against truth-telling and antiracist teaching (which is deeply needed within our society) and the fullness of embracing the nuances of teaching Black history. 
Liberatory educators are facing challenging times: Racist, undemocratic, and oppressive legislation and political stances are designed to uphold white supremacy by reinforcing the teaching of lies and silencing educators who do liberatory work. This includes the censorship of educational materials and books that support young people and educators alike in moving toward a more equitable, just society and other intimidation tactics that are designed to create fear around and silence educators. Moreover, there are wars, deep antisemitism, Islamophobia, confusion, civil unrest, and deep amounts of human grief that can quickly lead to compassion fatigue for educators.
Amid this educational landscape, there are educators who remain clear in their civil and social responsibilities by teaching in ways that promote activism, truth-telling, and liberation. Then, too, there are educators who want to continue to engage, who are eager or curious to teach in liberatory ways, but do so under the fear of losing their jobs, being ostracized, or even being attacked. For many liberatory educators—educators who use their practice and platform to center social justice, love, healing, activism, and the experiences of those who are relegated to the margins of society—this is a dangerous time, and they are wondering what they ought to do and how to move forward.

Liberatory educators use their practice to center social justice, love, healing, activism, and the experiences of those who are relegated to the margins of society.

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A Way Forward

When serving as a classroom teacher, there were many times that I felt inundated with sadness and rightful outrage, as I do now. But what remained greater for me was a belief in the power that I yielded in such a sacred, personal, and magnetic calling as a teacher. That is why, in my book, Toward Liberation: Educational Practices Rooted in Activism, Healing and Love (Beacon Press, 2023), I ground educators in the urgency and necessity of liberatory practices by recalling the work of James Baldwin in his address “A Talk to Teachers.” In this address, Baldwin, speaking in 1963, advises educators of our duty in times of great turmoil: “We are living through dangerous times,” he begins, creating a call to action urging educators that “those of us who deal with the hearts and minds of young people must be prepared to go for broke.”
In my book, I provide a guide, resources, and an anchor in the deeper why for educational practices that center liberation—and, ultimately, love. For educators who are seeking to continue, but are unsure of how to do so, consider these practices: 

1. Remember your why—and the deeper why.

Education, ultimately, can either be used as a tool of oppression or a vehicle for liberation. Liberatory educators understand that, in a world wrought with harm and systemic oppression, teaching can and should be used to transform, heal, and liberate humanity in ways that lead to and honor love. 
Liberatory educators come back to the anchor—the why—that reminds us that schools, like many institutions in the United States, have historically been built and designed to uphold and reinforce white supremacy culture. Therefore, educational practices that center liberation, truth telling, and antiracism are required to create sustainable and equitable outcomes. 
Many educators believe that it is a part of our job to ensure that the young people we have the privilege to serve are well. If we are teaching young people impacted by systems of oppression, bigotry, racism, sexism, and other forms of harm, part of ensuring their wellness is teaching and leading them in ways that center their healing and liberation. 
Remembering your anchor will support you as an educator in times when teaching and leading in ways that deeply honor what our young people need most becomes difficult. Going back to the why often means remembering our passion, love, and respect for the young adults and children we serve and our desire to support, care for them, and ensure that they have powerful educational experiences. The deeper why requires us to engage with and lean into the ways that teaching has always been political: how it has always been used to advance a social agenda that has often resulted in the silencing, erasure, oppression, and degradation of Black people and people of the global majority. Therefore, remembering our deeper why means teaching in ways that are intentional about telling the truth, disrupting cycles of oppression, centering joy, amplifying activism, and centering antiracism and justice.

The deeper why requires us to engage with and lean into the ways that teaching has always been political.

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Practically, this might include: creating liberatory units that use essential questions and enduring understandings to drive home themes around justice and activism; approaching the content you teach in ways that allow students to engage as problem solvers to real-world issues; teaching history from the perspective of those who are most marginalized or silenced; or, if you are a school leader, creating pathways for educators to learn more about how to teach in ways that lead to liberation.

2. Embrace different forms of activist teaching. 

As a classroom teacher and education consultant, I ask educators and students to define “activism” both generally and individually for themselves. It is important to understand that we can engage in activism in a variety of ways. When teaching activist movements, both present and past, I encourage learners, including educators, to consider the various ways that activism can unfold and take place. While some forms of activism include active protesting, marching, organizing, civil disobedience, and strikes, aspects of activism can also include writing, photography, engaging in the arts, and deeply humanistic and liberatory teaching. Educators might consider:
  • What can centering activism look like within my practice?
  • How can I use the content that I teach to solve a problem or to guide students to thinking more critically about the world and how we can help to make the world a better place?
  • How can I deepen my understanding of teaching as activism; how can I commit to learning from other educators who center activism and liberation as a part of their practice? 
Educators like Paulo Freire, bell hooks, Bettina Love, Gholdy Muhammad, and myself work to remind educators of the unique ways we can engage in activist practices. We can push back against legislation and mobilize if this makes sense for us. We can close our doors and teach the truth anyway. We can and ought to teach in ways that promote critical thinking so that our students can critique what is happening in the world for themselves and can resist. In this way, we raise co-conspirators alongside us. We can create essential questions and enduring understandings that position us to use our content to critique, examine, and make the world a better place. We can also center healing in our classroom out of the recognition that students and adults have to be well first before we can engage in any forms of activism.

3. Build community and a wealth of resources.

Although some educators may feel isolated when engaging in liberatory practices, please know that you are not alone. Please know that your work is neither thankless nor inferior. This work always matters, even when it appears not to. Find ways to be in community, as this is crucial to sustainability. Educators can read books by authors who examine why and how to engage in antiracist, antibias, and transformative educational and teaching practices. Some authors include Bettina Love, Gholdy Muhammad, Dena Simmons, Liz Kleinrock, and Sonja Cherry-Paul. There are also scholars, such as Eve Ewing, Gloria Ladson-Billing, bell hooks, and Lisa Delpit to look to. There are resources that can be found within Rethinking Schools, Facing History and Ourselves, Learning for Justice, Woke Kindergarten, and the Education for Liberation Network. There are many of us. Tap in!

4. Prioritize the ways you care for your self.

Some schools can be destructive environments that exacerbate teacher burnout and turnover rather than prioritizing self-care or wellness for their educators. As a result, it is essential to prioritize your wellness and care, especially if you are engaging in practices that feel hard and draining. And this is particularly true if you are a Black educator or an educator who is working against the very forms of oppression that you also experience. 
Remember that systems of oppression and tactics aimed at thwarting liberation and love are designed to drain those who engage as activists. Make sure that you are caring for your full self mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically. Create routines around wellness and self-care. Take care of your mental health. See a therapist if needed, take medication if needed, and take care of and nourish your body. Do your best to set boundaries and to create work-life balance. I know this is challenging, but it can be done. Your self-care truly matters.

5. Remember to center joy. 

Joy is integral to activism and liberation—always and especially within education. Centering joy is really hard, and, given how oppression works, it is meant to be. Do not feel guilty about centering joy, and, when you can, remember that liberation is ultimately about honoring humanity, honoring young people, and loving young people. This is joyful.

Remember that liberation is ultimately about honoring humanity, honoring young people, and loving young people. This is joyful.

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Joy in the classroom can look like incorporating the arts and safe movement. It can look like engaging in student-centered practices, like project-based learning. Joy can mean letting students be the drivers of their education experience through various demonstrations of learning that allow students to lead. It can look like creating spaces for celebration, for rest, for pauses, and for reflection. And it can even mean playing music and allowing students to dance! 
As an educator, a joy practice also includes honoring yourself and extending grace and gratitude to yourself and your colleagues. Remember to prioritize what makes you feel good and fully human, outside of only prioritizing your educator self. 
When we forget joy in the work of liberation, it is easy to become jaded, burned out, or to feel depleted, and we either stop engaging in practices that are most needed for a just society, or we stop believing in it altogether. Centering liberation and collective healing are not easy, but joy allows us to feel rehabilitated when we are weary. Joy is central to liberation because it helps us come back to our humanity. Joy allows us to continue with the hard work of liberation—to breathe more deeply, more fully, more graciously—and when we are in touch with our humanity in this way, we are more inclined to honor the humanity in others. This is what our world needs most.

Jamilah Pitts is an author, social entrepreneur, and educator. She is the founder of Jamilah Pitts Consulting, a firm that supports educators in centering liberatory educational practices, and She, Imprints, a wellness organization that serves at the intersection of wellness and justice for women and girls of the global majority. Jamilah is an alumna of Spelman College and has pursued graduate studies at Boston College and Teachers College, Columbia University. She has coached, led, and trained thousands of educators in both national and international spaces. She is the author of Toward Liberation: Educational Practices Rooted in Activism, Healing, and Love (Beacon Press, 2023).

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