Teachers as Natural Social Activists

    Social activism begins the moment you feel responsibility instead of pity for others.

    While I have long been socially conscious, it wasn’t until I began teaching last year that I became a social activist. When I accepted the impressive responsibility of 130 souls, when I understood that I was entrusted to advocate for these young lives and the community they would inherit, I had no other choice but to begin to take action.

    Teaching has to be one of the best professions for becoming a social activist. Day in and day out, one is confronted with housing policies, welfare programs, child protective services, police, insurance policies, medical bills, immigration laws, educational reform, refugee policies, family reunification bills, literacy initiatives, and a host of other community services and government programs. The classroom is a crossroads of current events and a nexus of legislation and its effects on our most impressionable population – our children.

    I have been criticized from friends and family members outside of the teaching profession when I refer to my students as “my kids” or “mi’jos.” While I can appreciate their concerns, I don’t know if it is possible for a teacher to truly excel at their job if they do not feel like every single student is in someway their child. As I see past students in the hall and quiz them about their success in English class this year, it is more as a parent than a teacher. When I write recommendations for students like Jack, who recently was awarded a hefty scholarship at Our Lady of the Lake in Texas, it is more as a mentor than an academic instructor. When I speak with parents at open houses and conferences, we converse not as combatants but as co-guardians of this child’s future. It is impossible to be a good teacher without feeling this sense of responsibility and investment in students’ success beyond one’s classroom.

    This past spring break, while most of my students sat at home waiting for school to begin again, I had the privilege to march 126 miles against an unjust border wall proposed through my kids’ homes and lives. I was joined by countless other students and educators. I am sure teachers like Elizabeth Stephens, Elizabeth Golini, Andrea Guengrich, Patricia Flanagan, Mike and Cindy Johnson, and Cole Farnum all came to care about the Secure Fence Act of 2006 in much the same manner. All of us have students who have pricked our hearts; all of us feel a sense of responsibility for improving the community both because we see its shortcomings and because we see the enormous potential in each and every one of our students. We hope to help shape a community which will harness the potential for goodness that we have witnessed within every single young person.

    It is my earnest hope that, when I shake my freshman students’ hands on the graduation stage three years from now, that I will be able to do so as a person who has helped to change them and the world they are inheriting. As Cesar Chavez so eloquently wrote,

Once change begins, it cannot be stopped:

You cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read.

You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride.

You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore.”

(“Address to the UFW’ 7th Constitutional Convention, September 1984, pg. 121)

Once my students have learned that “Words are Power,” once they have understood themselves and their own agency, and once they realize that they hold within themselves all they need to change the world – once they know this, I can rest assured that these students will take good care of my future children and grandchildren.

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3 Responses to “Teachers as Natural Social Activists”

  1. Katie and Rita McKee Says:

    Matthew, this particular entry struck us both. We are thankful that someone like you is out there demonstrating to others how to change the world – and that you are a part of ours!! (A very important part.)

    You are truly a catalyst for change and empowering people to live this gift of life!!

  2. fikalo Says:

    This is definitely food for thought. Interesting. I imagine that, in a sense, it’s almost impossible to not engage in a form of social activism when teaching. The teacher has a very significant position of influence on the young people in their care. It’s sad to think that, for some kids, their only form of encouragement and support will be found from a teacher – but at least they’ve got that much!

  3. Matthew Webster Says:

    Fikalo-

    Thanks so much for your added insight. Yes, many teachers fail to recognize the profound impact they have on students. It is all too easy to lose sight of the fact that, for so many young lives, we teachers might be the only adult who takes continued interest in them and their futures. I have known many successful teachers who have doubted, at one time or another, their legacy after a lifetime of teaching. While difficult to quantify, their legacy is each and every student who needed an adult to care.

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