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.