Oppressor or Revolutionary: What are you?

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I became a teacher because I believe in the transformative power of education. I became an educator as a form of activism. I am not the type who goes to demonstrations and waves signs in the air–that’s just not my thing usually (although I can be moved to go do that occasionally, as with the Million Hoodie March. See inserted picture of my kids at their first political protest!). I prefer to work quietly and steadfastly, one student or class at a time.

I am an educator much like I am a runner. I have never been a fast runner, but I can go steadily for a long distance. That’s pretty much a metaphor for my approach to life–my relationships, my career, my parenting–I focus on being steadily good with slight bursts of amazing or sucky. I don’t do anything with the jarring force of a lightening bolt; I move gently to foster change.

As a teacher, there have been times when I felt I was a cog in the oppressive machine. I believe strongly in public education–education for the masses–therefore I continued to work in a public high school although my students became more and more poor and the focus shifted to more and more testing. Those kids needed good teachers, and I believed myself to be a good teacher. I taught them to master the test through practice, templates, cheerleading, and test taking tricks. But even in the framework of empowering the students to get through this inane exercise, I felt like I was complicit in the oppression of testing and how biased it was against my city students. I struggled with that.

I would like to believe I am a revolutionary–that is my ideal image of myself in the classroom. I teach those whom some claim to be unteachable and they learn, they engage, their minds jump and kick and turn with knowledge, but I work within systems (once the NYC Department of Education, now the City University of New York system) that are both liberatory and oppressive. How do I reconcile that?

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