Wednesday / May 22

You Are Called to Be an Ally

Educators are primed to be strategic allies in the battle for social justice. We possess three strengths, that, if identified and intentionally cultivated, could dramatically alter the lives of our most vulnerable students: those marginalized because of the color of their skin, their home language, the religion they adhere to, their family’s income, their sexual propensities, their ability levels, or any other number of ways in which students are made to feel they do not fit in, do not represent the norm, or have little to no value.

The strengths we possess include our disposition, preparation, and position (McDermott, 2017).

By Disposition Educators Have Big Hearts

Ask teachers or educational administrators why they have become educators and the responses are surprisingly similar – to make a difference, to create a better world, to do something meaningful for society in general and for children in particular.

Educators purposefully choose a career of service, rather than entitlement. This choice demonstrates that educators are magnanimous. Why else would they go into a profession that is often underpaid, underappreciated, and under intense scrutiny?

Social justice allies benefit from having a big heart. A big heart, an orientation to care about and be on the side of others, is a powerful starting-off point for anyone interested in uncovering and eliminating inequity.

By Preparation Educators are Taught to be Strategic and to be Allies

Most of our pre-service and in-service professional learning provides insight into how to be strategic. We carefully craft lessons with an end in mind, whether that end is direct transmission of knowledge, skill development, or augmenting students’ ability to be critical. As administrators, we have a vision for the culture of our department, school, or district. We care about learning outcomes. We examine policies and procedures and individual actions and responses to ensure that they are consistent with the overall vision.

To be strategic means to consider long-term goals and the means to achieve them. Educators are strategic in large and small ways everyday. Once educators decide to address and dismantle inequitable practices, their ability to be strategic in doing so becomes a clear and important asset.

If we examine what educators are strategic about, it becomes clear that they are focused on outcomes for students rather than personal gain. Sometimes we do things for students, but our ultimate goal, like the goal of most allies, is to step out of the way so that students can be independent. We want them to create their own learning goals, and use all that they possess in order to achieve them. Good allies remain on the sidelines, waiting to be asked to intervene.

Educators who are allies in the battle for social justice do not shy away from teaching about justice and using it as a means of preparing their marginalized students to give voice to their experiences and to work toward changing the systems that keep certain groups in their less-than-favorable places.

By Position Educators Possess Access and Power

In addition to disposition and professional formation, we educators possess another strength: by virtue of the role we play in the institution of school, we have access and institutional power.

As educators, we come in contact with every student, those whose lives have been privileged and those who have suffered the spirit slashing that comes from being marginalized. This access is a blessing. It means we can sensitize those deeply ensconced in the “fog of privilege” to see what lies on the other side of this fog. Similarly, we can support the efforts of those living on the margins to tell their stories, to seek redress, and to give value to their experiences.

We can do all of this because educators possess a certain amount of power and sway. When we close our classroom doors, we can create the learning spaces that allow students to deeply consider inequity. We can call into question the policies and procedures that work against social justice. In school, we choose our words. We choose activities. We choose who gets to speak – and who does not. We choose what to make a fuss over and what to ignore. Interestingly, we retain this degree of autonomy despite the current political climate that often makes us feel as if our voices have little or no authority, worth, or authenticity.

Allies in the battle for social justice have a keen interest in all of their students, especially those that have been historically underserved by the educational establishments. At the same time, allies in the battle for social justice have a nuanced understanding of power. They deliberately choose to exercise power with others, as opposed to power over others.

Starting From Strengths

Starting from strengths is liberating. Identifying and activating strengths costs nothing but the payoff is tremendous. Affirming strengths creates a neurobiological sparkle of positive feelings, a cultural shift, and a renewed belief in one’s capabilities to tackle a daunting task (Jackson & McDermott, in press).

Educators who are aware of their individual and composite social justice strengths are well positioned to become strategic allies in the battle for social justice. Intentionally naming and identifying social justice strengths is an important first step in the process.

One way of doing so is to conduct a social justice strengths inventory. This asks that educators consider the degree to which they possess each of the three strengths within them: disposition toward justice and fairness, preparation as strategic allies, and position that provides them with access and power.

Social Justice Strengths Inventory

To inventory your individual strengths or the composite strengths of your department or school, answer honestly each of the following questions:

  • Disposition
    • What are some ways I have demonstrated that I have a big heart, or care deeply about my students and their families?
  • Preparation
    • In what specific ways have I been taught to be strategic?
    • In what specific ways have I been taught to act on behalf of others?
  • Position
    • In what specific ways does my position allow me to work on behalf of and with others? (McDermott, in press).

Based upon your responses to these questions, you can evaluate how you can build on your strengths so that you can move to the next level of practice as a strategic ally in the battle for social justice.

Educators care about social justice. They are committed to toppling unjust systems. One of the most productive ways of beginning this process is to name and evaluate the ways in which you possess the three strengths that support educators who want to be strategic allies in the battle for social justice: disposition, preparation and position.

Jackson, Y. & McDermott, V. (2015) Unlocking student potential: How do I identify and activate student strengths?  Alexandria, VA: ASCD

McDermott, V. (in press) We must say no to the status quo:  Educators as allies in the battle for social justice. Thousand Oaks, CA:  Corwin Press

Written by

Veronica McDermott is a retired school superintendent who continues to focus her efforts on school transformation, social justice, and equity. She is a frequent keynote speaker and workshop leader at national and international conferences devoted to issues of leadership and learning for equity and social justice. She is the author of many articles, chapters and opinion pieces, as well as co-author of two books designed to change the way educators think about, talk about and interact with our students who are not thriving. Her legacy project is to eradicate the crime of squandered potential. Veronica is the author of the upcoming Corwin book We Must Say No to the Status Quo: Educators as Allies in the Battle for Social Justice.

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