This post is by member Terri Pantuso.
What are the pedagogical implications of advocacy? Beyond teaching my students where to locate sources and how to structure an argument, what is my role as an educator? I have struggled with these questions for the 25 years that I have been teaching. Recently, as in last Wednesday, I could no longer ponder them without acting. It all began with a writing conference.
Last Wednesday, I spent 45 minutes conferencing with a student about his research paper. This is a first-year composition course and we’re at the annotated-bib-to-rough-draft stage, a point at which many students struggle to figure out how their papers will take shape. Oftentimes in these conferences, I ask students to tell me the motivation behind their topic. This particular student (Joe) was writing about the impact of the end of DACA. Through that conversation, he told me his story.
Four years ago, Joe’s mother woke him up in the middle of the night and said, “We have to leave now.” They fled Mexico and ended up near McAllen, Texas. Why did they leave? Because his father had just been killed by the cartel. Why was Joe’s father killed? Because he refused to cooperate.
Three years ago Joe’s mother was deported. Joe somehow managed to make it through high school and get into Texas A&M University, where he joined the Corps of Cadets. Joe has been planning to enlist in the army when he graduates from TAMU because that is how he can become a citizen. His visa status basically labels him as a refugee.
Joe has no family here—no one—yet he makes it to every single one of my 8:00 a.m. classes after doing the morning workouts/rituals of the Corps. Joe completes every assignment on time and seeks help constantly as he apologizes for his English (which is, honestly, better than that of many native speakers). Yet, he can no longer join the military to get citizenship because the current administration killed that hope. Joe is willing to die for this country because he believes—knows—how fortunate he is to be here. Because of recent policy changes, his funding options were limited and he still owes the university money—money that he does not have.
As I sat across the desk from Joe, who remained completely calm the entire time, my mind was racing, grasping for ways to help this student. What could I do to make a difference? How could I help and, in the process, help him to write a stronger paper? I had to focus on the paper in order to fight back tears of rage. We discussed some of his options, and I sent him on to his next class.
Once Joe left, I contacted student assistance services. I spoke with someone who assured me we had resources to help but she would need Joe to come in to see her, so I gave her his contact information. I also spoke with a colleague and my department chair, both of whom felt equally outraged, both of whom immediately got to work looking for local resources outside of the university. All of this took place on Wednesday.
Friday morning, Joe came to class, and I pulled him aside to ask if he had spoken with student services. He replied no because he does not answer calls from numbers he doesn’t know, but he assured me he would contact her after class. However, and possibly more important, he told me that he had secured 90% of additional funding toward his current semester debt by going to two of the offices that I suggested. He went on his own after speaking with me, after discussing how the process should work. He was very grateful, and I felt very relieved.
By Sunday morning, I’d had a couple of days to mull this over and realized how many lessons were learned in that brief encounter: we revised his thesis for his essay; we researched additional resources/sources; and we—HE—found a resolution, temporary as it may be. How does this relate to teaching?
Obviously, we must have a positive rapport with our students in order for them to be engaged learners; however, I believe that engagement is reciprocal. I NEED my students to push me, to drive me to the point of outrage that I immediately leap (literally and figuratively) into action on their behalf. I believe that teaching IS advocacy, and that’s why I know it’s a calling and a passion.
As we navigate the uncertainty of our current political climate, advocating on behalf of our marginalized students is an imperative, not an option. I believe as educators we subscribe to our own Hippocratic Oath that includes a healing aspect via knowledge. As we show/help our students find a way to help themselves, we cannot avoid being pedagogical advocates.
Terri Pantuso is a veteran secondary and postsecondary educator who currently teaches English at Texas A&M University. She is passionate about teaching her students and daughters how to be critical thinkers and engaged citizens.