Beyond Advocacy: Teachers As Activists & Other Lessons From Jonathan Kozol

I recently met Jonathan Kozol, one of my many edu-heroes. He reminded me that teaching, learning, and leading in the 21st century demands more than advocacy. We need to be activists.

As an undergraduate student at Regis University, I read Savage Inequalities by Jonathan Kozol for the first time. It changed the way I think about schools and schooling forever.

I never imagined that more than twelve years later, I would be back on the campus where I was first introduced to his work, in the same room with Kozol himself, one of my education heroes.

On the night before the scheduled panel event, I ate Chinese takeout for dinner.

My fortune cookie message read, “Be bold, brave and forthright, and the bold, the brave and the forthright will gather round you.”

In different words, Kozol would reiterate this message the following day. His body of work serves as an example of bold, brave, and forthright investigative writing.

During the two-hour luncheon event, audience participants and panelists explored many issues facing public education. We covered terrain from school funding to pre-k, the purpose of schooling and the state of the teaching profession, corporate reform efforts and community involvement, accountability and achievement gaps.

In the midst of this dismal discourse, thin rays of hope for the future of public education emerged. Three fortune-cookie length lessons I’m taking from the prolific Kozol and the other panelists include:

Teachers need to be activists (not just advocates)

To truly transform our system and reimagine and redesign our schools in ways students deserve, it is not enough to be passionate and proficient inside our classrooms.

We must also speak up and speak out about what’s working (and more importantly what’s not). We cannot be afraid of revealing inadequacies at the expense of covering up inequities. We must be relentless in our quest for improvement if we ever plan on keeping the promise of public education for all students. We must start speaking honestly and often about what happens inside schools.

It is becoming trendy in education reform circles to position teachers as advocates. But Kozol reminded me that it is not enough to be an advocate when students need activists. What’s the difference? More than semantics. An advocate is a “person who publicly supports or recommends a particular cause or policy.” But activism is much more, well, active. Activists use “vigorous campaigning to bring about social or political change.” We must do more than publicly support or recommend. We must be the change agents in our schools. But we need not do this work alone.

Connect and collaborate with allies

Recent protesting and action by staff and students in Jefferson County, CO points to the power of activism and collective action. Too often practitioners still work or lead in isolation or collaborate only with other educators when a much larger and broader coalition is needed.

By partnering with parents, students, and other stakeholders vested, interested in, or impacted by public education issues, we can problem solve much more publicly and powerfully. The best ideas for improving our public schools are much closer to the classroom than the policymakers or the governing board members charged with an education docket. The best ideas live in the students themselves. We should listen to more high school seniors like this one, and encourage our students (and their families) at all grade levels to help us imagine, design, create, and fight for the schools current and future citizens need.

Pick your battles wisely and be good at what you do

While activism is non-negotiable, Kozol was quick to remind educators to “Pick battles big enough to matter, small enough to win.” He advised early career teachers to hone their skills and build expertise in their teaching craft in order to establish a body of work to support their activist efforts. Classroom stories and artifacts are compelling and irrefutable data points to demonstrate how teachers increase learning, bolster engagement, and create more human-centered classrooms. This positions teachers to fight the “bigger battles” of teacher-led curriculum, instruction and assessment reform.

Sitting that close to Kozol made me feel braver, bolder and unforgivingly forthright. And the fortune cookie message, alongside my signed copy of Shame of the Nation, will stay situated in a prominent place on my bookshelf. A constant reminder that teaching and learning in the 21st century is equal parts skill, art, and activism.

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