As educators we play a very large role in standing up against exclusion, prejudice, and injustice or at least that’s what we should be doing. How exactly do we accomplish this though? Well we can start by examining our own biases and prejudices within ourselves and try not to bring these biases in the classroom. Students in our classrooms will come from various cultural, racial, economic, and religious backgrounds. Students may also come in with different disabilities, sexual orientations, and gender identities. Students may come from non-traditional families as well, maybe they were adapted, or will have 2 moms, or live with their grandparents, etc. Keeping this in mind we can begin to think about if we would judge a student with 2 moms, a student with a disability, or a student with a racial background different of our own. If we are judging students or parents based off these things, then we may unknowingly treat these students with disrespect, value their opinions less or make them feel as if they are a worthless part of the classroom. If this is how students feel then they will not want to go to school, share their thoughts, and continue to learn, in addition they may begin to slack off or stop trying. Recognizing our own biases as educators is crucial in making all students feel as an accepted part of the classroom, and making all students feel safe. Recognizing our own biases also helps us walk into the classroom ready to listen, value, encourage, and educate all students in the class, not just a select few. As Poplin and Rivera state “we want teachers to begin to see themselves as part of the solution to a very old problem, not only of concern over the past, but of optimism for the future” (Poplin, Rivera, 2005, p.34).
Moving forward, we need to teach students if nothing else the basics of Human Rights Education. Every student should know their basic human rights and fundamental freedoms. The basics of human rights education is to do just that. “The provision of HRE is, therefore, important for shaping the attitudes that will contribute to the development of a human rights culture based upon the values of freedom, equality, dignity, non-discrimination and tolerance” (Srtuthers, 2016, p. 135). In my past experience as working in a classroom I’ve found that a great way to teach children the importance of the values of freedom, equality, dignity, non-discrimination and tolerance is through literature and discussion. For example, when I student taught in a third-grade classroom I read the students an article on Ruby Bridges. A young African-American girl who grew up in Louisiana during the 1960’s shortly after schools had been desegregated. When her parents made the decision to send her to an all-white school, so that their daughter could receive a higher education, protests broke out, Ruby and her family were threatened. It was to such an extreme that she had to be escorted to school by federal marshals. All teachers, but one refused to work at a school with an African- American student, and all parents withdrew their white students from the school. We were able to discuss this article and students were able to feel empathy for Ruby and put themselves into her shoes. I asked students questions such as “how do you think Ruby felt being the only student at school?”. Students replied by saying things such as “she probably felt sad that no other teachers wanted to teach her” or “she probably felt scared going to school because she was threatened and needed people to help her get to school”. I also asked students questions such as “do you think people protesting Ruby going to school was fair?” Students replied by saying things such as “no, it’s not fair that people were protesting, and didn’t like Ruby just because she had black skin. People shouldn’t not like other people just because of her skin color”.
Another example of when I used literature to teach children the importance values of freedom, equality, dignity, non-discrimination and tolerance is when I student taught fifth-grade. At this time students had begun to read a chapter book titled Wonder by RJ Palacio. A fictional story about a fifth-grade boy named Auggie, born with a rare medical condition that causes his face to look different from everyone else’s he knows. Auggie is about to enter a mainstream school, where he has to deal with bullies, try to make friends, and try to convince his peers that despite his appearances he is just like the rest of them. While reading this book with the fifth-graders they could really relate to the character of the main story because they were the same age. I would have students volunteer to read and stop them at various points to promote discussions “what do you think this character meant when they said this?”, “how do you think this made Auggie feel?”, “why do you think this character is bullying Auggie?”, etc.. By doing so students could put themselves in Auggie’s shoes, but more importantly were able to recognize ways in which they should treat others, and not be quick to judge.
Finally, to stand up against exclusion, prejudice and injustice teachers must be willing to advocate for their students. “Social justice advocates know their subject matter, are responsive to the needs of their student population, hold high expectations for students, possess the ability to critically analyze the ways in which structural inequality is reproduced through schools” (Storms, 2018, p.33). Speaking from experience, I can say that this step is crucial for teachers to partake in. When I was in fourth grade, I was diagnosed with a learning disability. My parents had noticed that I was struggling in school and wanted the school to test me. Since none of my teachers thought there was a problem, the school refused. When I entered fourth grade my teacher also recognized that I was struggling in school. When she brought this to my parents’ attention and suggested I get tested for a possible learning disability, my parents had told her that they had been trying to do this for years, but the school refused. My fourth-grade teacher then brought this to the school’s attention who refused to test me, but she kept advocating and fighting for me until this was done. Since she advocated for me we were able to find out that I have a learning disability, and I was able to receive proper accommodations and resources throughout middle school, high school, and even some that carried over to college. For me that teacher made all the difference in knowing her subject matter, and responding to my needs, and I plan on doing the same for my future students.
As educators we must stand up to exclusion, prejudice, and injustice by recognizing our own biases, teaching basic human rights education, getting students to think in different points of view, and advocating for our students whenever necessary. It is not enough to partake in one of these steps, but rather combine all 3 of these. By doing so we can help to make all the difference in the future of our students, and help students feel like valued members of society.
Mary, P., & John, R. (2005). Merging Social Justice and Accountability: Educating Qualified and Effective Teachers. Theory Into Practice, (1), 27.
Storms, S. B. (2013). Preparing teachers for social justice advocacy: am I walking my talk?. Multicultural Education, (2), 33.
Struthers, A. (2016). Human rights: A topic too controversial for mainstream education?. Human Rights Law Review, 16(1), 131-162. doi:10.1093/hrlr/ngv040