When I was a kid, the first day of class was all about the school supplies. Saying goodbye to summer seemed less dreadful with a fresh box of Crayola crayons and a Trapper Keeper in my backpack. Throughout my days as a student, this excitement of the first day of class was always a constant in my life. When I was in high school and too old to buy crayons, (ok, that’s a lie, I still bought crayons) there was the excitement over AP classes or meeting new friends. In college and grad school I couldn’t wait to get see the syllabus on the first day and learn what tasks and readings would fill my semester. With the exception of a few math classes I’d like to forget, I’ve always loved being a learner.
But now I am a teacher, and to be honest it takes a bit more work to get excited about the first day of class. No one buys me crayons and I have to write that syllabus myself. But there’s still a deep joy to the first day of class. It’s the day I meet the students who will be co-learners with me for the semester. On the first day of class I remember bell hooks words about radical pedagogy in Teaching to Transgress, “the professor must genuinely value everyone’s presence.” The first day of class is the day I begin to deeply hope and believe that we’ll learn and be transformed together.
In articulating my pedagogy, I call myself a teacher-activist. I deeply believe that our classrooms should transform both students and their teachers. As a professor in the humanities (theology and ethics, to be exact) I have a great hope that our classrooms can move beyond individualistic learning outcomes and transform our communities. Eventually, they might even change the moral discourse of our society. I believe classrooms are spaces where civility can be born, where collegiality can be learned and practiced, and where difficult conversations can happen in (safe) space. But the transformative classroom does not happen automatically. It takes a deep commitment on the part of all the learners — including those who teach – for transformation to truly occur.
This past month as I worked to tweak my grad-level “Foundations of Social Justice” syllabus for the fall, I thought of all that happened over the summer. Fresh on my mind was Trayvon Martin’s death and the George Zimmerman verdict. Now, as I look forward to the first day of class I wonder how we will read Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” differently in light of Trayvon’s too-short life or the Supreme Court’s decision on the Voting Rights Act. Most importantly, I hope we will read it differently.
I like to think of the classroom as a starting place for grassroots activism. But I also know the classroom is a space of privilege. Some kids don’t get new crayons. Lots of kids don’t get to go to college. Even fewer have the time, money, or privilege to enroll in the grad school courses I teach. In East Africa where I do research on HIV and AIDS, children walk miles to go to school and sometimes can’t go because they can’t afford a uniform, or the roll of toilet tissue each student is required to bring for class. In Chicago where I live and work, parents are worried as the school year draws near about their kids crossing gang territory to get to school due to this year’s massive school closings.
Education is precious, which is why it must be transformative. If our classrooms can’t give us a space to talk about race, or discrimination, or the violence that is too common in our country, then we might as well pack up our crayons and books and go home.
But I think teachers know this well. In our hearts, I believe most of us who teach are teacher-activists whether we name ourselves in this way or not. Teaching isn’t just a job — it’s a vocation.
So here’s a challenge for all of us — teachers and learners. When we return to our classrooms in the next few weeks, let’s think about teaching and learning as activism. Let’s bring the injustice of our world with us into the classroom so we can deal with it here. Let’s draw a circle around it and sit uncomfortably for a while, listening to the stories of those who have experienced injustice firsthand. As we do, we might just learn together how to become agents of deep and lasting change as we transform more than just the classroom.