The pre-work: The me work

Over the next month, teachers will be taking part in a social justice roundtable discussion in the CTQ Collaboratory and on Twitter with #CTQCollab.

We all want to be that teacher. The fact that you’re spending time right now reading about what it means to incorporate social justice in your classroom means you want to be better. Not that you’re not good right now – you’re actually great. And now you want your students to change the world (and don’t we all!) and you’re ready to put in the work to teach them how to change the world. And I applaud you for that… But…

Before we can teach for social justice, teach our students to, as Paolo Friere calls it, “write the world”, we need to teach our students to “read the world”: our students need to learn about social justice and begin to recognize and lay claim to the injustices, the inequities, and the –isms. But, before we can teach about social justice, we need to teach with social justice. We need to recognize our students for who and what they are. If we are to get students to act on issues they see as important, we the teachers need to know what the students deem to be meaningful and important. But, before we can teach with social justice, we need to establish meaningful relationships with our students. We cannot build a culture in our classroom conducive to making change if we don’t get to know our students. Meaningful relationships are paramount to dynamic teaching. But (and this is the last one)…

Before we can make meaningful relationships with our students, we as teachers have to understand our own dispositions and biases. No, we need to do more than just “understand” them, we need to lay claim to them. We need to own them. And I can’t tell you what your dispositions are. But (ok – this is another  but, but it’s for a different reason), I can tell you what dispositions are, what my dispositions are, and how I have laid claim to them, especially as they relate to teaching for social justice, and I can challenge you to examine your own practice to find out what your dispositions are.

So what are dispositions? They are the core values, ideas, and notions – the underpinnings of your being as a teacher – that shape your beliefs, intentions, and actions. And they are reflected in your beliefs, intentions, and actions. Our dispositions can be tricky to navigate. It takes a lot for us to truly examine what we value and how those values hold water when examined in conjunction with our beliefs, intentions, and actions. But it is imperative for us to constantly reflect to see if these dispositions we want to claim really do hold water.

In my personal journey, I have found that the following six dispositions hold for me. These dispositions also allow me to teach with, about, and for social justice. I am not telling you my dispositions to say you must hold the same, rather to understand what it means to look at and formulate your own dispositions.

  1. All students deserve my attention, love, respect, and care. More so, no student deserves to be treated less than the next – by myself or anyone else. Every student I teach is the best student I have ever had. 

Many teachers would like to lay claim to this disposition. But I challenge you to test this. I have. And in challenging it, I had to face the fact that I hold biases. And to be brave, vulnerable, and demonstrate the power of this, I am going to show you an area that I have to be very mindful of when it comes to this.

I have a bias. First, a little background. I grew up poor. That’s enough background. I could go on, but know that I grew up poor and had to struggle to get where I am and could not afford to take any of my education for granted. That said, when confronted with students who come from wealthy backgrounds and flaunt it in a manner that becomes flippant towards the teacher or the education, I can become a lot more irritable in my interactions with these students. I know this. So, I have to put myself in check.

  1. It is not a sign of weakness to care. It is a sign of strength. In fact, only the truly strong can care for students because it takes tremendous strength to do so.

I’m a guy. And supposedly guys don’t care. They don’t eat quiche. They don’t cry. Because it’s not macho. I challenge that notion. Gender aside, I say it’s weak not to care. If you don’t care, then you can’t be hurt. Then you don’t have to do the work. Anything worth fighting for must be cared about. As a PhD student, I have had to do a lot of digging. In myself and my profession. What I’ve found is that most urban mathematics educators have not yet adopted the following philosophical motivation, as laid forth by Gutierrez (2013) when she states, “If you’re really serious about teaching, you have to tie your fate to the fate of your students”. In urban education, it takes the strong to care, as Noddings (2015) points out, the strong to truly tie their fate to their students in such a sympathetic way.

  1. I can make a difference. I can be a positive influence. I can help students succeed, no matter what society has dictated for them.

As they say, the proof is in the pudding. And thanks to social media, I have the pudding. Below is just a small sample of students and their interactions with me after they left school that showed me I made a difference, big or small.

“I wanna give you (a present)… you were my favorite teacher back in high school. I wanted to get you something as a thank you…” Three years later, and this student still wants to thank me.

“I thought you might want to know I got a 100% on my first Calculus test”. A former student of mine, a Latino male, first year in college, wanted me to know as soon as he took his first math test how well he did.

“Hey, it’s ____. I have always felt bad about the way I said (or didn’t say) goodbye to you. I just wanted to let you know I appreciate everything you did for me… I wouldn’t be the person I am today if it hadn’t been for you.” What the student is referring to is that I reported her when I found out she was suicidal. Going back to number 2, this was difficult, because I cared, and because I cared, I knew I had to report her. And she hated me for doing so, and that’s what I thought her opinion was of me, until I got this and then I knew, I know, I make a difference.

  1. I cannot treat every student the same (which is not a contradiction to number 1 – in fact, when you consider number 1, it’s a necessity).

Every student has a story. I seek to find out that story. Through interactions. Through writings (yes, I ask my kids to write). I seek to find out their history and their present through meaningful formative activities, activities that get the kids to tell me how they think and feel about what we are doing, how they feel about what we are doing, how I can reach them better. I have to know their story. Take for example the following story written for me by a student in their Math-ography (a mathematical autobiography):

“…Pre-calc was another story entirely. I think I spent the year confused mostly because the way he taught wasn’t really helpful. Rather than teaching the class lessons, most of the time he would give us an assignment on the board to do and would put up an example of how to do it and expect us to do the problems… Then during junior year I met you as my math studies teacher… I was learning really well when you were there, but then got completely lost when we got a new teacher. Now you’re my teacher again.”

What did I learn here? Lots. I learned what this student valued in a teacher. I learned that she valued me as a teacher. That it was hard for her when she lost me as a teacher. That she needs someone to check in on her, not just talk at her. That it is important that she can talk to her teacher. And so much more. So, how can I treat this student the same as every other who may not have the same story, the same needs, and the same background?

  1. It is my job to move every student as far as I can along their road through learning.

I’m a beer drinker. I live in a city with a lot of beer and a lot of breweries that I frequent and I always see the same thing when I watch people taste. Here’s what they do. They try the first one and they say how it’s refreshing, lightly hopped, with citrus undertones. And then they try the second one and they say how much better or worse it is than the first one. No longer is the conversation about the elements of that beer, rather how it compares to another beer. And we as teachers tend to do the same with our students. We look at where the students are in relation to the others. Or worse yet, we look at students in relation to their grades. “She’s a C student”, “She’s at the top of the class”.

I prefer to look at each student standing at the precipice of a road. The end of the road may be different from one student to another (and usually is). And in that road are blocks, potholes, detours, construction, etc. It’s my job to help guide them down that road, fix some of the potholes along the way, and help them to arrive at their destination. Where they are on that road is a direct reflection of me as their teacher.

  1. I am responsible for the academic and behavioral outcomes of all of my students.

I think this says enough. So, in lieu of explaining this, I leave you with a small poem I wrote about my feelings here:

Math is out there

We know that

And we know that math

But our students don’t


And a majority of what they do know

What they’ve been taught (what they’ve learned?),

Has been given to them,

Particularly by way of the white, European male.

So we, as teachers, have two choices –

Give them something that lacks relevance

Positions us as the Mathematically Empowered

There you have my dispositions. I know these are my dispositions because I constantly test them. What I use to test my dispositions I have dubbed, “The Pencil Test”. Allow me to explain.

Think about your classroom. Think about two students. The first is that kid who always comes in to class late, bedraggled, never having homework done, and always needing something. That something is usually a pencil. And every day this student asks for a pencil. And you’ve given this student at least 50 pencils already this year so you pull out the two-inch golf pencil with no eraser and throw it to the student across a room. The second student is your best student, always on time, always does her work, always polite, and never needs a thing: until today. Today, this student asks for a pencil and you pull out your best pencil, the one you got for teaching 10 years, that gold-plated mechanical pencil that’s engraved with your name. The pencil test says, if we are willing to give such a great pencil to the second student, why are we not willing to do so with our first?

When faced with interactions, it is our actions and our reactions that truly show our dispositions. It’s important that we reflect upon these interactions. That we dissect them. That we not seek to place blame, but to understand why.

So, now it’s your turn. I leave you with two challenges before you begin this long road towards teaching for social justice.

  1. Determine your dispositions. Write them down. Talk about them. Share them with others. Share them with students. And if you’re serious about social justice, see that they align to the charge of teaching for, about, and with social justice. I feel my dispositions place me in a space where social justice is a natural consequence of what and how I teach. It may not be for you. Don’t force something that you’re not comfortable with or that you are unable to confront.
  2. Reflect. Use that Pencil Test. Be sure that you are living these dispositions. And if you’re not (and that’s ok), challenge yourself to live them or re-evaluate your dispositions.

And once you are committed to understanding you, all those “but’s” will go away. Once you understand your dispositions and biases, you will be ready to build relationships with students and then you will be able to teach with social justice and then you will be able to teach about social justice and then you will be able to teach for social justice and then you will be able to change the world.


  • jozettemartinez

    The Me Work…

    There are so many things that I love about this piece. First I love how you speak directly to us as teachers and you share in the struggle and in the success of bringing our kids from point Ato point B.  Then, I love how you take all of the work that you have laid out and have put it into a workable six step plan that is easy to implement in any classroom.  When it comes to social justice and cultural responsiveness I think that there is a real fear around that work, especially for teachers who are not of color- it might seem like it’s an extra step or something additional that they will have to do Along with all of the things that they have to teach.  You have shown us that it’s not additional –  cultural responsiveness is the work!  It is the vehicle with which we deliver the information we want kids to know.

    Well done friend!





    • Josephbolz

      I think you’re right when you

      I think you’re right when you say:

      I think that there is a real fear around that work, especially for teachers who are not of color- it might seem like it’s an extra step or something additional that they will have to do Along with all of the things that they have to teach.”

      That may be something we want to look at – it would be great to have a thought partner to think that through and examine what that looks like!

  • nvtutolo

    The “Me” Work

    It’s difficult for us to realize that we all come to the table with our own biases that are shaped by the truth of our existence.  It can be an uncomfortable reality to reflect and see where your biases have shown up in the classroom.  However, we must be persistent in getting better for the students.  The personal discoveries we make, may not be easy and the work is definitely not glamorous, but if we truly want to reach the students we teach, we must check ourselves.  I would like to add one final thing to your list.  When we discover that we have done wrong, intentially or unintentionally, we should not be afraid to apologize.  It does not make us weak– it reminds the students of our humanity.    

    • jozettemartinez

      The apology

      Unintentional bias and prejudice is just as damaging as intentional and I love that you call out the importance of the apology when light has shown and an aha moment has been had.

    • Josephbolz

      I wish more time was spent on

      I wish more time was spent on this – in teacher preperation and in teacher trainings. Learning to understand your self. Learning to understand your biases. Until this work can happen, we can’t expect miraculous changes in education.

  • kleinnj


    Thank you!  Thank you so much.  I have struggled with my role with students in the realm of social justice. Your maxims are a fantastic reminder of what teaching should be.  I am going to spread this far and wide!

    • Josephbolz

      Thank you – your words of

      Thank you – your words of encouragement mean so much. I’m always here to help if you need anything!

  • AnneJolly

    The ideal disposition

    I think your article describes the ideal teacher disposition . . . give all students attention, love, respect, and care. Don’t try to treat each one the same, but treat each one in a way that will move her or him along the road to learning and caring in return.  

    I struggled to do that every day.  I sometimes taught 180 students per day plus a homeroom.  I had each group for 50 minutes and had to monitor the hall between classes.  Still, I was effective in establishing positive relationships with my students.

    But what you are suggesting goes beyond positive relationships – it goes deeper than that.  I need to get to know and understand my students and to influence them in constructive ways – to take away some of their anger and absorb some of their hurt.

    I wonder – what would a school look like that would allow a teacher to really get to know students in that deeper way? What kind of a situation would a teacher walk into every morning, and how would she or he spend her/his day? What support for teachers and students would be in place?  

  • emilyvickery

    The Me – Critical to Working with Others (Including Teachers)

    Thank you for your post. Deconstructing ourselves provides the necessary groundwork in understanding others – to acknowledge our conscience and hidden bias – to create perspective beyond our own experience. The dispositions you outline, I would suggest, should also occur among faculty and staff. Again, thank you for a thought-provoking post.

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