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Usable Knowledge

The Power of Teachers to Transform

How a pedagogy based on racial justice can help end systemic oppression and fulfill the promise of education for all
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I first read The Mis-Education of the Negro, Carter Woodson’s groundbreaking 1933 book, as an undergraduate at Howard University, and it radically changed my life and my view of myself as a human being.

“There would be no lynching, if it did not start in the schoolroom,” wrote Woodson, the founder of Black History Month in the United States. “The same educational process which inspires and stimulates the oppressor with the thought that he is everything and has accomplished everything worthwhile, depresses and crushes at the same time the spark of genius in the Negro by making him feel that his race does not amount to much and never will measure up to the standards of other peoples. The Negro thus educated is a hopeless liability of the race."

A seed was planted, and I began to contemplate becoming a teacher.

I was re-introduced to Woodson’s work by the historian Jarvis Givens. We were sitting in his office at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, discussing his research on Jim Crow teacher activism, or what he terms "fugitive pedagogy." We also discussed the similarities between fugitive and transformative pedagogy. What was synchronistic about our discussion was that 16 years prior, Givens was my student — sitting in my Honors U.S. History classroom as I taught a transformative pedagogy of my own. At the time, I had no idea that my sharp-witted 16-year-old student from Compton, California, would go on to become a professor at Harvard University — where I am currently a doctoral student in educational leadership. 

The key to ending racism and racist acts of violence within our society is to examine what is taking place in our classrooms.

After our conversation, I thought long and hard about the words of Carter Woodson and reflected on the impact of transformative pedagogy on advancing racial justice. During this reflection, I realized that as teachers, the decisions that we make every day have a more direct impact on the lives of our students than the hierarchical bureaucracies that we typically work in.

What we choose to teach, how we interact with students, and how we treat families — all of it plays a crucial role in how children come to see the world and how they engage with it.

Woodson’s assertion that racist acts of violence begin in the classroom echoes an essential truth that is often overlooked when critiquing American education: Ending racism and racist acts of violence within our society begins by examining what is taking place in our classrooms.

Seeking to dismantle a power imbalance that legitimizes racist acts of violence, without addressing those classroom practices and the racial hierarchies in our curricula, perpetuates systemic racism. Only a transformative pedagogy, founded on racial justice, will allow us to realize our ideals of diversity and inclusivity.

Through transformative pedagogy, we create citizens who understand the value of these ideals — and who embody them through social justice.

As the education scholar Omiunota Ukpokodu has noted, transformative pedagogy empowers students to critically “examine their beliefs, values, and knowledge with the goal of developing a reflective knowledge base, an appreciation for multiple perspectives, and a sense of critical consciousness and agency.”

What we choose to teach, how we interact with students, and how we treat families — all of it plays a crucial role in how children come to see the world and how they engage with it.

Transformative pedagogy not only benefits students from marginalized backgrounds, it also benefits students from dominant backgrounds. White students also receive a mono-cultural curriculum that reinforces white superiority. As a result, racially motivated acts of violence, such as those we saw in Charleston, South Carolina, and Sanford, Florida, appear justified in the eyes of many. If teachers in predominantly white schools implement a transformative pedagogy, we can counter the racism inherent in these acts.

So what does it mean to teach as a transformative educator?

  • It means critiquing traditional pedagogy and continuously engaging in reflection and self-examination.
  • It also means engaging in the continual process of social critique and developing an evolving sense of advocacy and social responsibility.
  • Most importantly, for transformative educators, the status quo is never good enough, and it certainly is not good enough for their students. They want a better education system for all children.

Woodson understood that violence against African Americans began at the base level of ideas. I think violence against all marginalized groups begins at this level, and that violence and power are encapsulated in the funds of knowledge that exist within our classrooms. However, I also believe that addressing the diversity of oppression without addressing the imbalance of power resulting from racial injustice only perpetuates systemic inequities in education, social services, health care, legal institutions, and all other systems.

If we want to see a more socially just society for all, we must first undo racism. We must start in the classroom, and teachers must indeed teach to change the world.

Transformative pedagogy for equity

  • Ending racism and racist violence starts with looking at classrooms and curricula.
  • Educators can lead by critically examining their materials and practices.
  • Educators can explicitly view their work as equity work.

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