As a former high school English teacher and now as a teacher educator, I have been contemplating two key blind spots when it comes to the advocacy work we English teachers do on a daily basis. Rather than advocating for our students and for the new teachers we work alongside, we must focus on advocating with these key stakeholders in our schools and classrooms.
“Oh, they’re so cute”
I’ve had the privilege to work with youth via intensive youth participatory action research (YPAR) programs. As part of this work, students, teachers, and fellow researchers often present to various audiences on the needs in classrooms today.
The “so cute” sentiment is the initial one that adults often express toward the young participants, but this attitude dismisses the power of young people demonstrating and voicing their political agency. Former NCTE president Ernest Morrell instructed the students of the UCLA Council of Youth Research not to let people leave their presentations and face-to-face meetings without receiving their “marching orders.” As students discussed inequities within their schools, pinpointed specific findings in their research about demonstrations of care and support from teachers, and argued for the need for counterhegemonic approaches to classroom instruction, audience members shifted from they’re so cute to how can I be an ally. This is the power of youth advocacy, and I believe it is a mandate for why we teach and how we do so.
Whether you are a teacher, teacher educator, researcher, or parent, do not discount the civic agency of the students in our schools. Regardless of their age, the students we interact with daily are powerful allies whom we must advocate with; rather than assume that our adult advocacy work will somehow save the day for helpless youth, we are far overdue in recognizing that our students are capable of civic innovation.
Dodging the Political
Often in my work with preservice teachers, the politics of teaching and the advocacy work that takes place outside of the classroom seem to my students like unnecessary accoutrements to the hard work of classroom teaching. After all, they believe, the veteran trench-dwellers at the newly hired teacher’s school can take care of that other stuff. . . . This is a continuing concern for me.
Just as with elementary, middle, and high school youth, teachers are never too young to be advocating with their colleagues. As my coauthor, Cindy O’Donnell-Allen, and I have discussed in our book Pose, Wobble, Flow, advocating alongside and for the teaching profession is a necessary value we must instill in those presently entering the teaching profession. To be clear, not advocating with other teachers is a political choice (and, in my opinion, a foolhardy one). If history is any indicator, the role of labor management, organizing, and unions within the teaching profession has profoundly shaped the pathways toward equity in our classrooms.
As an organization and as a large collection of teacher educators, it is our mandate to ensure that the new teachers matriculating from our teacher education programs are entering schools aware of their civic agency and political responsibility. We need to emphasize the notion that “advocacy with” as a teacher is both a requirement and a privilege. By working alongside our students, our new teachers, and other stakeholders within today’s school systems, NCTE members will continue to lead the ongoing struggles for justice-driven English education.
Antero Garcia is an assistant professor at Colorado State University and was a former high school English teacher in Los Angeles. Antero will be speaking at the Middle Level Meet Up on Thursday at the Annual Conference and at the Studies of Literacies and Multimedia Assembly on Saturday evening (he encourages anyone interested in advocacy and multimodal literacies to attend!).