By Jaydra Johnson, Illustrator: Adriana Vawdrey
In 2016, less than a quarter into my first year of teaching, one of my students was suspended for heiling Hitler at the fall pep assembly. Meanwhile, across the country, Trump’s campaign of hate was accelerating while administrators told student athletes they couldn’t kneel during the national anthem, and like many other teachers, I regularly found swastikas in smeared pencil on my classroom desks.
This is how I began a careening and collision-filled year of exploring what it meant to be a white, anti-racist educator. In my 20s. In a predominantly white, wealthy school. In the time of Trump.
Through tremendous struggle, I discovered some of what worked and what didn’t in the classroom. I discovered that challenging white supremacy guarantees resistance from white people. I also discovered that resistance can be softened. Perhaps most crucially, I discovered my own power to trip and fall and get up and get up and get up.
One incident I think about often occurred in October while I was teaching a unit about Black writers that highlighted resistance and included some study of the Jim Crow South. This unit included poems and literature by Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou, slam poetry and hip-hop by modern artists, and primary source documents from the Jim Crow era. During the debrief of the Jim Crow era jigsaw activity, a student’s comment about “reverse racism” led to a heated class discussion. I gave students a definition for racism that included the notion that racism requires one group to have power over another. I told them, “Black people can’t be racist toward white folks because of our nation’s legacy of denying full rights to people with darker skin.” My class exploded with voices from both my white students and my students of color. We volleyed ideas until the bell rang.
I left class that day energized — it was the most engaged that class had been all year. I felt I had fulfilled my duty as a teacher for social justice and a white ally, creating the conditions for students to question the stories they had been told, to reimagine their own worldview, to get uncomfortable. I had made them think.
But during tutorial period the following day, Sam came in with a couple friends to follow up about our class discussion. White, male, and mad, notebook tucked in the crook of his arm, Sam read to me the definition of racism from the dictionary that he had transcribed from the Internet, then offered, “So you’re wrong. Black people can think their race is superior, so they can be racist.”
I understood Sam’s anger and confusion. These 10th graders lacked the background knowledge to understand a systems-level definition of racism, and I had ultimately failed to give it to them, despite my best efforts. Sam was a white male from a working-class family who felt oppressed and alienated in this school of mostly affluent students. His special education designation pushed him even further to the margins. He couldn’t believe that he had any privilege at all. All he knew was that his single father struggled to make ends meet, that he lived in a dog-eat-dog world and was on the wrong end of the fight. I didn’t move Sam’s mind that day, but as he walked out of my classroom after about 20 minutes of back-and-forth, I did feel like we had a solid conversation, that I had asked some good questions about who has the power to define words, and kept an open mind and heart throughout our dialogue.
The next afternoon, my email pinged me with a message from the principal’s secretary. My presence was requested at a meeting the following day about my lesson on racism. I reached down to recover my stomach from its plummet to the floor.
Six weeks into school and I was already in trouble? Would I be put on the naughty teacher list? I was already a first-year probationary teacher, was there such thing as probation probation? Would I be handed a textbook and told to fall in line? How could I defend my own teaching choices when I admittedly felt I had no clue what I was doing?
I immediately ran across the hall to my colleague’s classroom. Sarabeth’s curriculum was similar to mine, and I was full of questions about how to proceed. She advised me wisely and gently, cooling my hot panic and sharing her experience of meetings such as this. Of course, students pushed and wrestled with the content, she said. Our curriculum was challenging the paradigm of white superiority and including some new perspectives. Later that afternoon I reached out to a social studies colleague who was always in trouble for his radical curriculum. He explained that when you’re teaching against the grain, this is normal. “Bring a union rep,” he said.
I prepared the lesson plan, materials, and rationale that my administrator requested and showed up for the meeting with what poise I could muster, the recommended rep in tow.
“Oh! You didn’t have to bring him,” my principal remarked in surprise as my rep and I entered his office.
Strike two, I thought. Hoping this wasn’t some grave offense on my part, I offered back, “Oh, well, this is my first meeting of this type and I thought it would be best to bring someone, just in case.” The principal kindly accepted my plea of ignorance, and moved on to explain why I was there. He had received a message from Sam’s dad stating that the definition of racism from my lesson was harmful to their family. He just wanted to get more information to speak in my defense before he called the parent back. I made my case, handed over the materials I collected, and left the meeting feeling grateful for my administrator’s support, but still shaken and unsure.
Was I doing the right thing? How could I have messed this up so badly? What was I going to do? Should I pull back on the political in my classroom? It is an English class after all, not social studies. Maybe it would be better for everyone to just read The Great Gatsby and answer questions, saving the social justice for when I could do it “right.” The hypercritical first-year inner monologue chattered on, but my principal’s support and colleagues’ empathy galvanized me to keep going.
Students’ resistance to that unit and others continued. Late October’s lesson featuring rap artists’ video and lyrical protests against police brutality fell flat. The choice writing assignment at the end of the Black writers unit was “confusing” or “stupid” and only a handful ultimately made it to my inbox. Our January gender studies unit received a chorus of “Nothing like this happens anymore,” and much student writing seemed produced only to placate me.
By the end of first semester, I felt completely inept at teaching for social justice, especially in a school where students of color report feeling both invisible and hyper-visible, underrepresented and misrepresented at once. I wanted to build a classroom that made my students of color feel respected, loved, and celebrated while also facilitating a critical analysis of our world. It was hard to see though the daily turmoil how all this was landing with them. My relationships with my students of color felt tepid at best, and I worried constantly that I was doing more harm than good. This felt like a double fail.
Weeks of that year are wiped from my memory due to my anxiety and exhaustion, but I do remember the foggy confusion: How could everything I bring go so wrong and lead to so little student engagement and work?
Perhaps I didn’t open my students enough to learning; perhaps they felt I had just been trying to put them in their place or push my own agenda. Throughout the year, my students made themselves heard, one way or another. And it was not just my white students and not just in one class; it felt like every student was in on it. They pushed back by rolling their eyes, refusing to work, and generally spinning the classroom into chaos. I was told to write referrals, manage more, manage less, scaffold more, change topics, change seating charts, call home, ask for help. Nothing seemed to work.
Steadily, my classroom’s climate worsened and my efforts to control it seemed to do the opposite. Each class meeting, restorative justice circle, hall pass restriction, phone call home, and visit to the dean was like a burst of wind on a bonfire, the flames of my classroom perhaps visible from space. Parent emails flowed in with questions about my lessons and my competence. Parents asked for meetings. Students complained to administrators. I was labeled as a social justice warrior, an incompetent teacher, and a failure when it comes to engaging kids.
And the worst part was that I agreed.
But I kept going to work. I kept trying to make lesson plans that honored the voices of the unheard, asking kids to empathize with people’s stories, and to share their own. My copies of Rhythm and Resistance and Reading, Writing, and Rising Up became tattered and tagged. I begged for help from all my teacher allies to help save my sinking ship. SOS.
In January, I actually wished to be hit by a car, injured just seriously enough to take a medical leave. In February, I sobbed on the floor during my prep periods. As the year dragged on, I drowned: in advice, in piles of papers, in emails, and in the certainty that I was the worst teacher who had ever lived. Students dropped my class. I flailed. For a while, I stopped teaching about anything that really mattered to me. For spring break, I drove alone through the firs and fog to the Oregon Coast. I hoped to be cleansed by astringent air and whipping grass, to feel right-sized next to waves and horizon and miles of rain-pocked sands. On a cloudy afternoon, I walked to the beach where I howled at the ocean in anger, in grief.
By the time April rolled around, I was empty. I sputtered and stalled out and lurched forward again, fueled purely by the kindness of my small community of teacher friends and heroes. All year I had relied on them for help, and they had given it, joyfully. Reyanna gave me lesson plans, Sarabeth gave me hugs, Linda whole units, and Matt unending enthusiasm. Julia listened with her whole heart, and Emily journaled with me daily. I also leaned on a local group of like-minded teachers, the Critical Educators Collective, and found some sense of solace and efficacy through our activist work and mutual support. Every time I approached my community anew with some failed lesson or bruising critique, I worried I was draining their reserves. Not so. These teachers were gravediggers in reverse, shoveling the dirt off and hoisting me out of the pit. I stood up and breathed. Heave-ho.
By May, I was getting better at knowing how to teach a critical course without steering the ship too forcefully toward my own dream destination. As if by magic, some of the foggy confusion also cleared, and I found myself making fewer “mistakes,” perhaps because I started to take a more gentle attitude toward myself. I relaxed into my classroom’s chaos, spending less time controlling and more time trying to connect with kids, bringing their lives into the curriculum. When I did this, authentic learning bubbled up in student poems, narratives, and essays.
One unit that really showed me a new path forward was a praise poetry mini-unit that spring. Our model texts included examples of poetry-as-activism. Hiwot Adilow’s “My Name” talks back to a society that consistently abuses her name, one loaded with cultural and familial significance, with lines like:
I am tired of people asking me to smooth my name out for them.
They want me to bury it in the English
so they can understand. . . .
My name is insulted that you won’t speak it.
My name is a jealous god.
Another model I used, Denice Frohman’s “Accents,” sings the praises of a mother’s English, inspiring students with metaphorical language and a deep reverence for home. Frohman writes:
My mom holds her accent like a shotgun
with two good hands.
Her tongue, all brass knuckle
slipping in between her lips
her hips, all laughter and wind clap . . .
Her accent is a stubborn compass
always pointing her toward home.
These women know how to praise what society diminishes, despises, and ignores. I hoped my students would take on similar topics, perhaps using their own poems to address body image, educational inequities, or poverty. We discussed the content and style of models like these to get inspired, and I shared my own poem drafts. Then I stepped back.
Instead of dictating the topics I hoped for, I allowed students to praise what mattered to them, whether it was their favorite video game, their dog, or, my personal favorite, Cheez-Its. Alex wrote an ode to villains like “the Joker [who] went from nobody to nightmare in record time.” I could have lamented their reluctance to talk back about “real issues,” but instead I felt a joyous community swelling up as students performed their poems, gave shout-outs, and laughed their butts off. I also saw how without my nervous dictation, students still got at the issues I hoped they would, using their pencils to praise their homes, their names, their role models, and their various cultural identities. Jack sang the praises of Kendrick Lamar, a critical and political artist-as-activist, in an:
Ode to K Dot
Who is humble
Who teaches the world to love themselves
Who has the funk within him
Who is vibin’
Who is a thunderstorm of words
Who blesses us.
Students also wrote about their Puerto Rican heritage, transgender identities, and broken-yet-lovable alcoholic parents. Most importantly, though, my students found joy, a key ingredient of solid social justice pedagogy. As the school year wound down, I realized that despite the days and weeks of struggle and failure, I had done something real: I had survived the most difficult year of my life. And I was going to come back.
Things didn’t improve that year because I quit teaching with a social justice lens. They improved when I realized that being a teacher for social justice didn’t mean a forceful fist-in-the-face version of education, demanding that they share my analysis of the world, or a particular definition of racism. They improved when I began, slowly, to figure out what good social justice teaching really looks like: students’ stories told and honored, new perspectives taken and validated, poems penned and performed. A little more grace for myself didn’t hurt either.
It’s impossible to tell how much of the chaos in my classroom was due to my limited skill set, how much to my exhaustion, how much to my social justice curriculum, and how much to a standard rite of passage for new teachers.
But through this long year, I did discover that when I shut kids down, or portray one group only as perpetrators, some students will resist. What I needed to do in that moment months earlier was pivot into a place of exploring their notions about racism through compelling content, helping them develop their own ideas and connect their lives to our curriculum. I didn’t realize that I had all year to help students uncover the deeply unequal state of our society through poetry, primary source documents, novels, and films, all the while highlighting the contributions of allies who could become role models for my kids.
At the time, it felt urgent to squash any hint of oppressive language or ideology in my classroom and in my life, and it was. The 2016 election seemed to embolden those who hurl hate speech, craft xenophobic legislation, and otherwise act out violent and hateful ideologies. But what I didn’t yet know was that in the classroom, a full-stop approach was insufficient. I needed a full-start approach instead, a nosedive into the voices of the unheard both past and present.
What I should have also known, of course, is that when I challenge white supremacy, some students and colleagues and parents will push back, and I needed to get used to that. My colleagues of color engage resistance every day, in addition to maintaining resilience in the face of micro and macro-aggressions, and it’s my — it’s our — responsibility as white educators to stand against the pushback we receive when we teach for social justice. That said, I also needed to let those at the margins tell their stories and let kids question, relate, and conclude on their own. My moralizing wasn’t going to do it. Helping them explore questions about racism and hear stories from survivors might.
I fell far that first year, skidding on my knees into the gulf between my ideals and my abilities. I still have a vision and purpose, to teach toward love and justice, but my expectations and methods are on a constant learning curve.
Some days, I notice the small ways I have grown as a result of trial, error, and seeking help. Some days, I buckle under lessons falling flat, lackluster feedback, and that same old first-year feeling of uncertainty and doubt. But I am increasingly staying focused on treating myself and my kids with a little more love. I try to rock them gently from side to side, following the waves, opening up their horizon so they can guide the ship themselves, away.