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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  • JustinMinkel

    Love this, Jess!

    The line “big enough to matter, small enough to win” will stick with me–great advice.

    • JessicaCuthbertson

      The “just right” battles? 🙂

      Thanks, Justin – I’m much better at matching “just right” books with readers than finding the sweet spot around battles big enough to matter (the ones that matter feel mighty big to me 🙂 and small enough to win, but I think finding those just right spots for our advocacy and activism work are well worth the effort.

  • JenniferHenderson

    “We must be relentless in our

    “We must be relentless in our quest for improvement if we ever plan on keeping the promise of public education for all students.”

    This is my favorite line and what I will hold with me.  I often find myself filling with self-doubt and shying away from situations where I know my voice is needed.  I can’t be afraid of a content I don’t teach or a colleague who has more experience than I do.  I must be relentless if I’m going to start, support and succeed in keeping our promises to our kids.

    • JessicaCuthbertson

      On Being Relentless…

      Thanks so much for commenting and sharing your thoughts, Jenn! YES! If we come from a learning stance of assuming positive intentions and doing what’s best for our students our teaching context and/or years of experience don’t really matter.

      I recently had a colleague share that a parent visited her classroom after raising concerns about math instruction and the math standards. After spending time in the classroom, her fears and worries were wiped away and she shared several take-aways (strengths) about what she saw, heard and learned from the teacher and from the students. Her comment was, “This is SO different from my second grade experience!” The teacher gained valuable feedback from that parent who has no teaching experience but was able to notice and name positive instructional shifts by relating back to her own schooling experience. 

      We can all be activists for public education — use your voice my friend because it is powerful, grounded in experience, and always, always student-centered! (Plus, your voice might inspire others to not be afraid and to be relentless alongside you! 🙂 

  • Allison Sampish

    fortune cookie

    Wow! What a great fortune and how true it is in this profession. I remember reading Kozols’ books for the first time and being inspired and worried for the profession I so badly wanted to become a part of. And to think at that time I was only thinking of my classroom space and those 25 students within my class. Now, I think the line that speaks the loudest to me as I think of the next few weeks of meetings that run late into the night and more committees then I care to admit at the school, district and state level is “it is not enough to be passionate and proficient in our classrooms.”


    • JessicaCuthbertson

      Your Advocacy Helped Me


      Thanks for reading and commenting. As I hope you know, your advocacy has greatly inspired and mobilized my own. As part of the first CTQ cohort of teacherpreneurs you, along with Dana and Jessica K., helped me understand the importance of leadership beyond our classrooms (and the importance of being grounded in a classroom simultaneously :). My interest in ed. effectiveness especially and the teacher evaluation legislation and implementation in CO, would never have resulted in depth and engagement in the process with the state department without you blazing the trail and serving as a model for other CTQ teacher leaders.

      Keep being excellent for your kinders — and keep inviting policymakers into your classroom to see firsthand what instruction, curriculum, assessment and learning means for our youngest learners. You are a true gift to the profession!

  • BriannaCrowley

    Inspiring…and I needed it this morning

    I finally got to this (it had been open in my browser for at least 24 hours), and it came at the perfect time. I found myself nodding, mentally applauding, and highlighting my heart out of this post. 

    Being bold is hard because boldness invites push-back. Being bold is hard because boldness requires an inner confidence that doesn’t allow the outside questions to shake the core of truth. Being bold is hard because it can so easily slip into arrogance without the right dose of humility and an openness to hearing those who disagree. 

    I needed these words this morning. Thanks so much for writing them. 

    • JessicaCuthbertson

      On Boldness – Tough but totally worth it!

      Yay! So glad you’re feeling inspired and thanks so much for reading, sharing/tweeting this out and commenting! 🙂 

      (Geeky ELA Teacher Aside: Also, thank you for providing me with a set of three fabulous mentor sentences for students! We’re looking at all types of craft moves and I can’t wait to share your 3 lines about boldness with them to have them notice and name the impact of parallel structure and repetition of a key word/idea.)

      …back to the topic at hand…I love your truthful and raw statements about boldness. Yes, yes and yes! Being bold is hard work (but sooo worth it!) Sometimes I have to take a deep breath and censor before speaking up because a little dose of boldness can go a long way :). I really want to encourage and empower others to find their ‘inner bold voice’ and start advocating for (or better yet acting on) those things that keep us up at night.  Too often we over-censor ourselves, are bound by fear or repercussions, or just kick back thinking that the advocates are those with titles like union reps. or department chairs, etc. 

      How might we start a movement of bold activism amongst teachers? 

      • BriannaCrowley

        ENG Geeks Unite!

        Can you tell we are kindred word-lovers?! I too look for those perfect examples of a writing or grammar concept to show my students. Glad I could be part of that process. 

        In general, I may overuse the parallel structure in my writing. But at this point, I’m cool with it. #alwaysgrowing 🙂

        Activism and teachers…I think there are so many steps leading to this. And yet it all comes back to my favorite Ghandi quote: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” First, teachers need to reject the messages from our society that tells them: “You only know about writing lesson plans, making cute bulletin boards, and grading an essay/word problem/lab report.” Once they reject that, they have to see, understand, and embrace the skills they have developed over their years of experience in the classroom with students. Teachers don’t have promotions or levels (another problem to discuss). One subtle outcome of this is that they are never defining for themselves or others their own skills. There’s no need to wrestle through the perfect action verbs to update the resume, and no need to take stock of their expertise in such a way that they articulate it. 

        This seems to lead to a lack of awareness of the deep well of skills and expertise a teacher brings to any situation. Only the surface-level skills are evidence to the teacher and subsequently the public–creating a presentation, delivering content, grading papers. So teachers need to understand their expertise, and wrestle to articulate it to those outside of education. 

        Ok, I think those are two steps. What is the next one in this journey from “just a teacher” to activist? 

  • WendiPillars


    Being an advocate or activist…this (among so many other nuggets) is what I’m taking away today, JC. I feel like I’ve recently entered into the world of advocacy, or at least put a name to some of the things I’ve already been doing for “my” students (as others claim). I never used to think that should be part of my role as a teacher, but now I know differently. Being an advocate is a start, but I feel I have far to go to be an activist. Part of me says to jump in, align with established networks/ groups/ people, but it’s not that easy for me. Like Jennifer, I find myself shying away when I know my voice is needed. Like you, I’m trying to suss out the battles that will be most important to my context. It entails solidifying my background knowledge, along with knowledge about what is and isn’t being done already, and asking the right questions. Only then will I feel confident enough to become an activist–as if my 18 years of experience aren’t persuasive enough. Why is there doubt? 

    Maybe it’s a confidence thing? I definitely have the passion–but I’m not yet at the point where activism is a physical non-negotiable. Right now, it’s in my mind, but I just need to take the next steps to make it tangible. 

    Thanks for writing this, JC. As Brianna said, these were much needed words today. 

    • JessicaCuthbertson

      Experience, Expertise, Credibility & Confidence…

      Thank YOU, Wendi, for reading, commenting and sharing your thinking about the journey from teacher to advocate to activist. I think you’re right on target and not alone in this struggle. Why do so many practitioners minimize their expertise and experience when it comes to advocacy and activsim efforts?

      While your fears are real (and I believe shared and widespread in our profession), I do think that we (in collaboration with our allies) have the most power to shift the rhetoric about public education and tackle the business of transforming our schools. I can’t think of a time I’ve heard another professional with 18 years of experience (and National Board certification and leadership strengths and…) question their own credibility or confidence. Can you imagine a doctor with that level of experience sitting on solutions to improve healthcare? An engineer secretly problem solving in a bedside journal? A seasoned policymaker withholding ideas or biting their tongue during a debate? 🙂 

      I believe the status quo has survived for so long because by and large teachers are compliant, polite, rule-following citizens, who work very hard inside the classroom supporting student learning. However if the system is counting on us to be compliant, polite, rule-followers — speaking up, advocacting and activating, and questioning the status quo feel rebellious and risky. Perhaps the time is now to be a bit more radical in the name of shifting the status quo?

      And some added fuel for the fire…just read this sobering account in The Washington Post (Jarring headline: “Poor Kids Who do Everything Right, Don’t do Better Than Rich Kids Who Do Everything Wrong.”) We can’t stay silent because our silence could be misconstrued as complacency. We can’t ignore inequities any longer. Your 18 years more than suffice as a qualification for advocacy and activism. And in the process, think of who you might inspire to join the cause?

  • TriciaEbner

    At least some of where it comes from . . .

    I’ve read this several times, and here I am again tonight, reading it plus all the comments. Here’s what resonated with me tonight:

    I can’t think of a time I’ve heard another professional with 18 years of experience (and National Board certification and leadership strengths and…) question their own credibility or confidence. Can you imagine a doctor with that level of experience sitting on solutions to improve healthcare?


    When I told my high school physics teacher what I was planning to do with my life, that I was going to major in secondary education and teach and hopefully inspire and motivate kids the way he and his colleagues had inspired, motivated, and challenged me, his words back to me were these:  “But you could do so much more.”

    Seventeen years old, about to turn eighteen and head off into the best adventure ever (and it continues today) . . . and one of the shining beacons of my education said that to me. So much of what he did, daily, I aspired to do. Okay, I wasn’t going to teach physics . . . but if I could bring his energy, and my English teacher’s wisdom and intelligence, and my music teachers’ hearts all together to my classroom . . . WOW. 

    And he told me “You could do so much more.”

    Took the wind out of my sails.

    For the record, if I ran into him today, I’d tell him, “Oh, I have done so much more . . . I’ve shown reluctant readers there really ARE great books out there for them. I’ve helped hesitant writers realize their voices and their stories were worth hearing and sharing, and they could make a difference. I’ve shown gifted kids that the projets THEY choose, THEY design, and THEY implement are not only worthwhile, but can be powerful and meaningful. And I’ve helped encourage, nurture, and challenge the generation of teachers following me. And I’m not done. I have MORE to do.”

    And a big chunk of that MORE: encouraging and supporting my colleagues to speak up and be those experts, those advocates, and those activists.

    Sorry to ramble. Those comparisons just really hit home with me.

    Headed off to get some sleep . . . so I can tackle that “more” tomorrow.



    • JessicaCuthbertson

      Your story


      This is so not a ramble – this is a powerful story! I wonder how many teachers have similar stories of being told they should “be so much more” instead of being mentored, recruited and shepherded into our amazing profession? We know too well in other (top performing) countries where public education is truly valued teaching IS the “so much more” opportunity and career path that the best and brightest are recruited into in order to continue to improve the system. 

      I think your story should be shared more formally and broadly – if you want to author a guest post on this blog let me know :). 

  • WendiPillars

    Blood’s a-stirrin’….

    So, as I read and re-read this thread, my heart is racing. You’re absolutely right, every one of you. Why do we doubt ourselves? Why do we downplay our expertise and knowledge? And damn, why do we let others take that wind out of our sails so quickly and effortlessly? I’m tired of being complacent–because it hasn’t changed anything that needs to be changed. An 18-year teaching veteran with military experience and a workaholic persona that just wants to get things done in the best interest of her students? There is no reason I should be questioning my credibility/ confidence.

    It is time to step up–and you’re right–it’s not a task to do alone. Jess, Tricia, Brianna, thank you all for being there to push the buttons I needed pushed. 😉

    • JessicaCuthbertson

      YES! Virtual teacher leadership accountability and activism 🙂

      Wendi and Tricia – thank YOU both for motivating and inspiring me. I’ll challenge you both (and any other interested teacher leader) to a pact. I believe this is the true power of teacher leadership and virtual community – when we have internal doubts, fears, worries, and skepticism we need only reach out to each other to get a ‘shot of boldness’ in our arms (or hearts or minds) in order to move forward.

      I’ll be YOUR shot of bold if you’ll be mine! Who’s in? 

      • TriciaEbner

        I’m in!

        I’m all in! Time to be bold!

        Who else will join us in this pact?