There a few people who still put “just” in front of “teacher”, as if that adverb adequately sums up the totality of what I am.
When I am in front of my students, I’m not just a teacher. I am an activist.
When you hear of the word, activist, you probably think of someone carrying a poster that highlights their position or maybe a marcher with a megaphone, exclaiming the injustices that are being fought. You may even think of the local or national clergymen who utilize the pulpit to extend messages of equality.
I am none of those things but when I stand in front of my students, I am an activist.
It was July 2014, the first year I taught middle school History. I have always taught Reading/English Language Arts so the change to History wasn’t a big deal for me - so I thought. In planning for my students, I decided I wanted my classroom culture to be rooted in student discussion and writing, with a connection to the past through critical thinking and analysis. Because I was teaching Ancient Civilizations, the preparation and connection had to be intentional - explicit and literal steps that had to occur in order to foster the environment I desired.
We would begin each day with a 10 minute discussion on a current event I had previously chosen that would connect to our lesson, free writing our thoughts initially with an exit ticket that summed up the day, emphasizing central skills such as cause and effect. Planning that summer was intense and was challenged on August 9th, 2014.
The death of Mi Brown completely changed the culture of my classroom. My 6th grade boys were angry and hurt - I witnessed tears and fury run concurrently, coupled with anxiety and fear - all in the presence of a stranger. They didn’t know me that well, we had only been in school a few days. But like a shaken up bottle of soda, there was pressure underneath the surface, ready to explode on the first person that opened it.
I wanted that soda.
The death of Mi Brown ignited discussions of oppression, poverty and systemic oppression that they didn’t know exist - against the backdrop of the Stone Age and Ancient Egypt. We spoke of Menses and Ramses then Eric Garner and Oscar Grant. The dichotomy was rich.
One day, my 6th graders came in frustrated and fired up. Recent neighborhood shootings had them enraged yet feeling powerless. They asked, “What can we do?”
As a founder of a non-profit organization for the empowerment of girls, I gave an answer based on my experience. That afternoon, in a classroom. S.E.R.V.E Campaign was born.
A group of students, under my leadership, founded a non-profit organization that would give voice to their concerns.
Students Everyday Refusing Violence Everywhere.
Campaigning to bring about change is an activist - whether in the classroom or on a stage.
That school year, the S.E.R.V.E. Campaign held events at the school to increase school awareness. The 6th grade co-founders would increasingly speak at school-wide events, thus increasing their leadership aptitude. Unfortunately, the fire simmered and died when the school was “fresh-started” again the following year, with new leadership and teachers.
I often wonder what could have happened if I was still there? What voices would have been heard? What change would have been made?
A true activist though, continues to move forward - affecting a difference where they can, with the audience they currently have.
Now, in 2018, I stand before my 34 students and for 10 minutes we talk about current events, the neighborhood, their emotions and history. We talk about the importance of education, the cycle of poverty and making good choices. I introduce them to trailblazers who are making a difference in our community through their work and invite them to come back anytime. And each day, I end our discussion with “So what will you do with this information?”
My 5th grade students may not be founding a non-profit organization but I pray they are beginning to understand the power of one.
“A leader leads where they are”, thus, there is no difference in activism.
Because I’m not just a teacher, I’m an activist and I affect change wherever I am.