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You don't get to disengage

In 2013, Jemelleh Coes, as the youngest member of her school faculty and staff, was nominated to represent Bulloch County as Teacher of the Year. She went on to become Georgia’s 2014 Teacher of the Year. Jemelleh is currently working on her Ph.D. in Educational Theory and Practice with certificates in Disability Studies, Interdisciplinary Law and Policy, and Qualitative Research at the University of Georgia. 

There is one barrier to injustice that we can begin to correct immediately…ourselves.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking to some of the top educators in the nation. Most were outwardly and overtly justice-oriented. Others were more reserved in the ways they advocated for equity and justice. There was one, however who did not seem to be in tune with the issues of justice that many of the others were so passionate and knowledgeable about. She piqued my curiosity because except for the fact that she wasn’t advocating for equity and justice, she seemed to be a pretty good educator. She shared great classroom activities; she talked about believing in the ability of every child to learn and succeed; she talked about her collaborative work with colleagues; she talked about her dedication to including families; she talked about her interaction with policymakers and a few other details that on the surface would indicate good teaching qualities.

During a break, I pulled her to the side and asked her specifically how she attended to issues of equity and justice in her school, community, and classroom. She said, “I don’t.” My heart started to race as I got excited about what she would say to my follow-up comment of “Really, tell me more!” I was confident that she would say something profound like, “I don’t specifically attend to those issues because they are a part of everything I do, say, and teach in my classroom.” Or “I don’t bring those issues into my classroom because my students are regularly encouraged to take advantage of their own learning and they bring them into the classroom.”

That is not what she said. Instead she proudly boasted, “I don’t engage in all that stuff that is going on in the news. It is just too much to keep up with and some of it is just ridiculous.”

I did not know whether to be angry, sad, or confused, so I just continued my inquiry hoping for clarity. “What do you mean?” I asked.

“I mean, I don’t watch the news or really talk about things outside of the content that I am teaching in my classroom. What good would that do? It is just a distraction to the learning environment. Plus, I teach science. I don’t really think that equity and justice apply in my classroom,” she replied.

My brain went into full panic mode. I thought, “WHAT THE FLIP (full disclosure: I thought a different “f” word)!” I quickly employed the six-second pause, an emotional intelligence technique I’ve been practicing which encourages you to pause for six seconds so as not to respond to absurdities with pure emotion. It works. Thank goodness! I said, “Hmmm…I’ve never really thought of it that way. Thanks for sharing.”

Of course, I had thought of it that way before and lucky for me, I figured out very quickly that it was an idea that stopped short of full development and was potentially harmful to everyone! I walked away unable to engage any further. I needed a minute.

So many things ran through my mind---What kinds of privilege makes one believe that this is okay? Other than herself, who does she thinks benefits from her willful ignorance? What about her students? What about the ones who don’t get to ignore what’s going on in the world around them because the world around them is happening without their permission and their teacher—one who they like, trust and look up to—is oblivious to the fact that there is something happening that she should probably be aware of? And how is she missing the connection between science and equity and justice?!

I thought about that conversation a lot after that moment. I never returned to talk to that teacher. That was probably a mistake on my part, but I was not sure what I would say to her…until now…

Dear Teacher who thinks it’s okay to disengage, I appreciate that you are dedicated to working in the service of students. I believe that you would never intentionally cause harm to a child.

However, I think that it is important that you know that your choice to disengage from what is happening in the world around you sends many unintended message that you may be unaware of. I thought it was important too that you get a better picture of what your actions indicate.

Every time you choose to disengage, you miss the opportunity to better understand the gravity of injustice that exists in our society.

Every time you choose to disengage, you miss the opportunity to better understand the gravity of injustice that exists in our society.

Every time you choose to disengage you send the message that the learning that may come from it has no value. (Nothing there for you to learn).

Every time you choose to disengage you miss the opportunity to better understand exactly how science or all other academic content is directly and indirectly connected to equity and justice.

Every time you choose to disengage, you miss the opportunity to check your assumptions and biases, stifling your social and emotional growth.

Every time you choose to disengage, you shrink from your responsibility to bridge links between schooling and social justice.

Every time you choose to disengage, you send the message that what is happening in the lives of your students is not connected to what is going on inside your classroom.

I understand that what is going on in the world can be overwhelming. I understand why you want to disengage, but every time you consider disengaging, remember your students who can’t because their lives are directly impacted by it. Think about your role in helping them to think critically about the world around them.

I ask that you reconsider your disengagement. Watch the news. Read the newspaper. Follow a blog. Engage.

Schools are a training ground for the world that students will encounter. If you are not teaching them how to navigate it, what exactly are you teaching?

Jemelleh's post is part of CTQ's blogging roundtable on equity and social justice in education. Join the discussion by commenting on this blog and checking out the other blogs in this series. Follow CTQ on Facebook and Twitter to see when each new blog is posted and use #CTQCollab to chime in on social media. 



Justin Minkel Justin Minkel commented on September 29, 2017 at 3:47pm:

You laid out the "Why" beautifully; thoughts on the "How?"

Jemelleh, you make a compelling case/reminder for bringing the whole complex world into the classroom. I'd love to hear some examples of how you have taught your students to contemplate and navigates issues of social justice and equity. 

I can imagine many teachers somewhere between you and the teacher you describe--certainly willing, but not necessarily feeling able, to figure out how to bring social justice into PreK or 8th grade Earth Science.


Bill Ivey commented on October 15, 2017 at 1:10pm:

The Gordon School

... is a PK-8 school in East Providence, RI that uses Banks's Five Dimensions of Multicultural Education (the link below includes a description if you scroll down) as a lens to bring a social justice/equity focus to everything they do. Like all schools, they are still learning and growing, but the Five Dimensions have helped provide a focus to support their commitment (and, where needed, help deepen that commitment as well).

I would strongly suggest to those teachers who so genuinely feel a deep commitment to bringing social justice into their classroom but aren't sure how that could happen that they look into Banks's work, on their own if need be or with colleagues as possible.

Jemelleh Coes commented on October 16, 2017 at 10:46am:


Thanks for the question Justin! I thought 8th grade ELA so much of the content taught fit easily into talking about issues of equity and justice. When we read The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, we talked about economic injustice and disparity in the surrounding communities and in schools. When we read Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper, we talked about injustice related to dis/ability and looked at the perspectives of dis/ability from the people who experience it and the people who don't. Literature lends itself nicely to these issues. I first noticed that it could be infused into science when I taught Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman. The book is about environmental injustice, amongst other things. The topic of the environment is a major part of science. I worked with a science teacher to provide the rich scientific content to help undergird the issues that we discussed throughout the book. It was natural, seamless, and most of all, meaningful. 

Carl Draeger commented on October 2, 2017 at 1:56pm:

Next steps

Justin nailed it....understanding the problem is only halfway. It begs the question of how to keep engaged through a quagmire of social justice issues which will remain unchanged with out pushback. I, too, look for further ideas on how to stay engaged while taking other teachers with you. 

Jemelleh Coes commented on October 16, 2017 at 11:03am:

Other ideas

Here is a great place to start, Carl:

Also, here is an incredible book list that might also help with the next steps in talking about issues of equity and justice: 

At the end of the list are books for educators that might help you define next steps. 

Carl Draeger commented on November 2, 2017 at 9:06pm:

Grateful for your post

Thank you for your thoughtful blog. It has moved my thinking from allowing disengagement to intentionally applying some backbone in telling the Emperor that he has no clothes on...EVERY.SINGLE.TIME. There are no allowable excuses as the stakes are too high.

I am familiar with the resourse you listed and am looking forward to my Winter Break when I can cozy up to some of the books on the list. 

Tricia Ebner commented on October 3, 2017 at 5:44pm:

I have to wonder . . .

If this situation is truly one of "I don't see the relevance," or really one of fear. It is much easier to say, "I just don't see the relevance" than it is to say, "Maybe I should, but I"m afraid I'll say or do the wrong thing and offend someone."  I can relate to the fear. I've felt it myself. I find the indifference--especially in these times--hard to fathom. 

How do we nurture others past the fear? How do we get others to step out of indifference? Justin's question is really the million-dollar one. 



Jemelleh Coes commented on October 16, 2017 at 10:56am:

Nuturing past the fear...

This is such a great question! It's one that I'm still figuring out, but I have made a few attempts that seem to be working. The one that seems to be working the best for me right now is having an accountability partner(s) in this work. They are people with whom I have a solid relationship built on trust and respect who hold me accountable for ensuring that I am attending to issues of equity, constantly. Most of the time, they are different from me in many regards. Together, we balance the idea of "challenge and support". That is, they "call me in" (the kinder version of calling one out) and help me think through what they see as missed opportunities. It's hard, but I owe it to my students to consistently become more conscious and aware of issues that impact them. I wrote a piece in Education Post that is related to this idea of accountability. Here is the link:

Bill Ivey commented on October 10, 2017 at 8:23pm:

Past the fear

As some of you know, my school is a day/boarding girls school. Having a boarding program means we provide weekend activities for the kids (any of them who want to come), and one of them is the Weekly Vigil for Racial Justice in town. One week when I was with the kids, we were treated to a lovely speech by a Nazi, and I know he was a Nazi because he gave us the Nazi salute when he finished. I was talking about this with our Director of Communications, and saying that while I was scared, it was not so much of what was happening but of what might have happened. "What's the worst that could happen?" she asked, "You get punched in the face? I've been punched in the face. It hurt. I got over it."


That question, "What's the worst that can happen?" can be useful guidance. To me, in the kinds of situations about which we're talking, the worst that could happen would be kids of colour, or LGBTQ+ kids, or disabled kids, *any* of my kids... would have no way of knowing I valued their lives and their authentic selves, could feel lost and alone, might succumb to depression and even to suicidal thoughts. I'm lucky; my school is progressive and in a predominantly liberal area. But even if it weren't. Parent complaints and personal comfort vs. my kids' lives. Put into those stark terms, what else can we do?

In the background, we can be supporting each other through whatever level of personal fears and concerns we are facing. What's worked for you? What didn't and what did you learn? What article or book was helpful? Is there professional development out there that might help? Can we create a groundswell of support for inclusion-based PD in our school?

That's how I deal with it, anyway. And again, I do recognize, my school is the sort of school where, when the Sophomore English teacher says "I'm teaching a social justice curriculum this year," no one bats an eyelash. Rather, we all smile and nod, and ask what ideas he has.

Hope this helps at least a little.

Justin Minkel Justin Minkel commented on October 15, 2017 at 12:56pm:

The fear of emotions

Bill and Tricia, 

It's telling that you both addressed fear in your insights. (Will Anderson's column, the latest, in this series, is titled Fear: A luxury we can't afford.)

A therapist I respect said it's often useful to ask "What's the worst possible outcome?" when deciding between two courses of action. Bill, you nailed it. Is it worse to be punched in the face or to have permanent damge done to your students' spirits?

A friend quoted a podcast she loved that made a simple point: "In most situations, if you realize that the worst thing that will happen is that you'll feel a feeling, you lose a lot of fear."

I see us, as adults, doing everything we can to avoid feeling or expressing the emotions that my 1st graders boldly go ahead and embrace. They tell me when they're scared. They cry when they're sad. They get angry, they feel ashamed. They also cheer and dance about so simple a thing as a Read Aloud they're excited about.

We don't have to fear emotions. They're fuel, like wood. They can be used to burn down a synagogue, but they can also be used to warm the ones we love, even to save a life from the encroaching cold.

Tricia Ebner commented on October 20, 2017 at 7:11am:

Such good points . . .

Asking "What's the worst that could happen" really helps put things in perspective. There are some consequences---I could feel a feeling---that we manage. (And Justin, you're right: first-graders often handle feelings better than adults!) Other consequences are huge.

I know some of the decisions I've made in the past came from a place of fear--that I would offend someone, that I would be out on a limb without support of colleagues or administrators. I am working to get past that fear myself. As Will has pointed out, it's a luxury we cannot afford. 

John Holland commented on October 20, 2017 at 8:09pm:

How is not the only question

Thank you for your post. I think another important question to ask is when do you engage. I don't necessarily think NOW! is always the best time to challenge someones strongly held opinions. I think that sometimes we need to be patient and wait for a time that "calls" us to speak. By this I mean that when you stepped into that conversation with that teacher she was secure in her perspective, convinced that she was in the right, surrounded but people ready to disagree. Unless we are able to really get to know someone we can never really know how they arrive at a perspective. Here are a few personal suggestions on how.

Build a relationship around commonality. This teacher was obviously a strong teacher. By connecting with her in way that an ongoing relationship could be built would create more opportunities for "When" to engage. Specifically I might ask if she blogged or shared her practice publicly so that you could see who she is from a more holistic view point. 

This is a perspective I learned from home visits in Head Start. Even the most hostile person is more likely to be open when they feel safe in their own home. 

Connect around students. The question is one of the most powerful ways to influence a person's thinking. By asking questions about students and then connecting her practice to her students one might find that she actually believed in social justice but did not call it that. Maybe she called it home school collaboration or maybe even, as Gloria Ladson-Billings described it, "Just good teaching."

Be aware that just because we speak the same language doesn't mean we say the same thing with the same words. When you talked about social justice she related this to the news. This is not where my mind went. It could be that her understanding of social justice is not sufficiently nuanced enough to have a conversation. When I encounter this type of problem with other teachers I often rely on a story, not overtly related to the topic, to make a point. This happens best when I "reach" out of my self into the common space between us or shared experience and then retell the story so that it is seen from a new perspective. Teachers have an (awful but professionally necessary) habit of talking around things especially when it comes to the messy parts of teaching. We say things like saying "she has a lot going on at home" "to refer to everything from drug dealing in the home to a parent who works three jobs and the child is cared for by extended family. When a teacher acknowledges the challenges of these experiences to students and adjusts their practice to build on a student's strengths that teacher is practicing social justice. Although he/she may not call it that. 


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