Teaching Social Justice: A Critical Issue: Grace Chambers

This past summer, seven of our undergraduate teacher education students and one intrepid faculty member spent a month in Peru studying the educational system and discussing their own philosophies of education. They spent time writing and reflecting on their journey, and we followed along! Read on for excerpts and blurbs from Dr. Gibson and the students’ blogs. (You can read more on Marquette Meets Peru)

Grace Chambers

There is no one in the world who can learn about every injustice through lived experience. Oppression and injustice are global, and they vary geographically.

Educators often find themselves stuck in a bubble of schools that serve students of color or low-income families when talking about teaching for justice. When, in fact, teaching for justice in a privileged setting is equally important. Educational professionals and philosophers are beginning to uncover the greatest problem in teaching for justice: that it is not done in privileged schools. Professor Katy Swalwell of Iowa State University discusses this in her work, saying that “Social justice educational initiatives often focus on giving a voice to students of color and low-income students” but this alone is not enough to create change. “Regardless of their engagement, poor people have virtually no political power. The very wealthy are the ones with more political power and this gap is increasing,” Swalwell says. In order to engage middle and upper-class people in social justice initiatives, teachers in privileged schools must take it upon themselves to integrate conversations about justice into classwork. Middle and upper-class schools have significantly more resources than low income schools, and therefore have no reason not to integrate justice teaching into the curriculum. There are unlimited resources that guide teachers in teaching for justice, especially with access to online resources and a 24-hour news cycle, teachers can easily keep content relevant. Others may argue that teaching for justice is too much extra work, but there are simple ways to integrate social justice topics into every classroom in privileged schools, especially with the resources that are available.

Privileged students need to be taught for justice because they are the ones benefiting from injustice. Teaching for justice is a practice that can ignite student’s passion for work that dismantles systems of oppression. The idea of teaching for justice is not to create an army of social justice warriors, but to create a disruption in the current systemic oppression present in the United States. Schools, are a government system, and therefore are a part of systemic inequity. Teaching privileged students about social justice teaches them in a way that causes a disturbance in the system. Many privileged students are reluctant to learn about how their privilege allows them to benefit from oppression because it implies that they are bad people. Teachers need to explain to students that they have a say in how much they will benefit from oppression. This will help them to start to rid themselves of guilt, as well as frame the teaching in a way that does not make the students feel like they are being attacked. Students are also reluctant because they are young, inexperienced members of the world. Diane J. Goodman, in her article “Helping Students Explore Their Privileged Identities,” says that students will often be in “Denial that they make a difference,” when in fact, every person of privilege who is working for social change has an impact. Teaching for justice empowers students in a way that other learning does not. Learning about social justice can make privileged students examine their lives to realize the immense power that their privilege gives them. With teachers giving students as much information as they can access, students can decide how they will use their power and privilege.

Teaching social justice will not always result in privileged students taking it upon themselves to dismantle systems of injustice, and it does not have to. Privileged status and whiteness are just as much an identity marker as being from a low-income family or a person of color, however these facets of identity are frequently ignored because being white and middle to upper class is seen as “normal.” Teaching students about their own privilege is providing them the opportunity for self-exploration. “Self-exploration is central to our growth as individuals, our relationships with others, and our ability to promote equity” says Goodman. Students of privilege, especially white students of privilege, view their existence of normal, thereby “othering” anyone else. People of privilege often don’t discuss their own privilege because it leads to discomfort and feelings of guilt. One of the goals of discussing privilege is to help students sit with their negative emotions, and instead transform them into something constructive. Goodman says that students may “fear they will get stuck in these feelings or be subject to blame if they explore the privileged aspects of their identities,” but if students are never able to hurdle feelings of guilt or shame, they will become complacent in benefiting from systems that oppress less privileged citizens. Even if students do not agree with justice teaching, the practice still critical to development because every person should be aware of how much privilege they possess. It is often only those who lack privilege who are aware of who has privilege and who does not. Students should learn about privilege like any other facet of personal identity, what they choose to with it is up to them.

Some students at privileged schools will fall into some categories in which they lack privilege. Not every student in a school will be white, male, heterosexual, cisgender, able bodied, neurotypical, Christian, or from a middle to high income family. Privileged students can also be members of oppressed and suppressed groups. Teaching students to both acknowledge their privilege and lack thereof can help them in identifying themselves, their passions, and the person they want to grow to be. The self-identification process is an important part of schooling, especially for adolescents. Students who are members of groups with varying levels of privilege need to learn about both the areas where they lack privilege and the areas in which they have it. Teaching social justice will give all students the greatest understanding of how they are benefiting from privilege, steering them away from feelings of guilt of helplessness, prompting them to take a stance and come to terms with their full identities.

There is no one in the world who can learn about every injustice through lived experience. Oppression and injustice are global, and they vary geographically. Without an education, we are prone to ignorance. While we were in Cuzco, we visited two low income schools. At one school in particular were exposed to some of the racism that exists in Peru. Students and staff alike had an unwavering obsession with mine and my classmates’ racial identity, only to have their inappropriate expressions of curiosity encouraged by the school director who insisted that myself and my three white classmates were “the real Americans.” This incident among several others led to a seminar conversation about whether or not low-income schools should teach social justice. Both of the schools we visited have less money and resources than the privileged and working-class schools we saw in Lima, and the school days are shorter. With limited money, time, and resources, is it imperative that children are still being taught about things like racism and injustice? If a teacher only has a half day in a classroom as opposed to a full one, shouldn’t all that time be devoted to academics? We danced around these questions for days, arguing from both sides, taking positions and then adjusting them based on readings and classmates’ thoughts. We reached no conclusion as a collective whole, but I stand by the idea that every child who is capable -by means of their minds and bodies, not income status or school location- of learning about injustice should have the opportunity to do so in class. In less privileged schools, the focus for educational content is on diversity and representation. This idea has not reached every classroom and it is still not enough. Students can be constantly learning about justice in every subject. The ideas that I laid out earlier in this essay apply just as easily to schools without privileged students as they do to schools with them. The key is integration. Any subject matter can be intersected with injustice and taught to students through that lens. In low-income schools and/or schools that have many students of color, the teacher can integrate contemporary injustices in the student’s communities into classwork, making it engaging, relevant, and important. Techers that are committed to their students will take it upon themselves to exercise this practice.

With that in mind, teachers must also consider the importance of teaching social justice to non-privileged students. Even though resources and time may be limited, knowing that a teacher can integrate social justice into academic work will create a more meaningful educational experience for children. In chapter three of her novel, “Changing the Odds for Children at Risk,” Susan B. Neuman says that “If we’re serious about improving children’s odds, then we must focus on enhancing background knowledge and conceptual understandings that are integral to academic learning.” Students in low income schools already lack the educational opportunities available at higher income schools, but teaching students about their own local, state, and national context gives them an advantage in their learning. This can become an asset for the school and eventually the community the school is located in. If students are knowledgeable about issues affecting themselves and people close to them, they will have more power to change systems. They will also have access to a greater field of knowledge, as well as the ability to better define themselves in their community and in the world. In Peru, we talked a lot about asset-based community development and being the protagonist of your own story. Programs teaching social justice and teaching for justice embodied those characteristics in a similar way that teaching justice does in the United States. Teaching social justice in schools that serve less privileged children gives the students the power to become protagonists of their own story, and, if they choose, to become assets to their own community and school development.

After all the theorizing, lesson planning, writing and re-writing, we are still left with the question: Why should teachers care? Why should teachers put in extra time and energy to teach for justice? Teachers who teach students without privilege usually have an easier time answering that question. As a teacher, it is your job to study your students. Study their interests, cultures, communities, who or what motivates them, how they learn best, etc. With this comes expanding your mind to learn about something unfamiliar, especially for white, middle-class teachers like myself. Teachers who teach students without privilege have a responsibility to be mindful of that fact in their teaching. The easiest way to do that is to teach students for and about justice, simultaneously showing compassion and igniting passion. Teaching for justice empowers low income students, students of color, female students, queer students, and differently abled students in their own studying. As for privileged students, why should we care? Privileged students are already privileged, and unless the teacher is already an advocate for justice, he/she/they may not always feel the responsibility to teach for justice. Here’s the thing, teaching students about social injustice and efforts for social change encourages them to use the same skills they have been taught since before preschool. To engage in productive and constructive conversations about injustice, one must engage in practices of compassion, empathy, active listening, conversation, questioning, and kindness. This promotes student learning and reflection. These are skills that every teacher wants to see in their students, skills that students learn as children. Teaching privileged students about injustice will encourage students to expand their knowledge of the world and practice qualities that make an exceptional learner. Swalwell says, “The goal {of teaching for justice in a privileged school} isn’t to get all kids to think the same way or to have the same political beliefs, but to get them grappling with the same questions and make sense of the same data related to inequalities.” In this sense, to teach for justice is simply to teach.


Neuman, Susan B. Changing the Odds for Children at Risk: Seven Essential Principles of Educational Programs That Break the Cycle of Poverty. Praeger, 2009.

Goodman, Diane. “Helping Students Explore Their Privileged Identities.” Association of American Colleges & Universities, 30 Dec. 2014, www.aacu.org/publications-research/periodicals/helping-students-explore-their-privileged-identities.

Hunt, Angie. “Teaching Privileged Students about Social Justice Necessary for Change, Says ISU Professor.” RSS, 2016, www.news.iastate.edu/news/2016/01/13/socialjustice.

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