2019 SJA – Winter Marshall-Allen, Alaska
What spurred you to become an educator activist?
I became an educator activist when I first realized that zero-tolerance policies do not work with our most “at-risk” students. At the time, I was viewed as too understanding and too lenient toward these students by administrators. From my own life path, I can relate to the student who works nights and has a hard time making it to homeroom. I believe it is more effective to show compassion to students and allow them the opportunity to learn from mistakes, rather than enforce harsh rules that work against them.
In my classroom, being an educator activist means advocating on behalf of my students with special needs. These students require dynamic and extensive programs aligned with their life goals in order to be successful. They rely heavily on the cooperation of multiple entities and individuals providing direct services. If an educator is not actively involved, these programs and services can fall apart, hindering student growth and future success.
Some students, particularly those from low social-economic backgrounds, may have multiple obstacles to overcome, such as unstable homes or having significant adult responsibilities. As educator activists, we need to recognize their needs, ensure they are heard, and work to ensure their full inclusion as members of our community.
Why should social justice activism matter to educators?
I would not have my current job and opportunities as an educator were it not for the efforts of social justice and civil rights activists who preceded me. I had an Individualized Education Plan for visual impairment thanks to the American with Disabilities Act. Now, I am able to advocate for those who might be seen as less able or undeserving because they differ from societal expectations. State schools for the Blind and for the Deaf still exist where we lack inclusive communities, adequate resources and educational opportunities to meet the needs of these students in a public school setting. Social justice activism in education matters because educators are our best tools for building inclusive, productive communities that value all individuals for their unique contributions.
What role do students play in movement building, especially in light of the current political environment?
Our students play a huge role in movement building. The high school where I serve recently celebrated graduation. The salutatorian, in his address to the audience, named all the seniors who had died due to gun violence this past school year. This young man proclaimed that his senior class is part of the change needed to keep schools safe and restore environmental equilibrium to our planet. Our students are very aware of the problems we face as a society. With access to social media, our students can make an impact far beyond what we might have thought possible when we graduated from high school.
What is the role do personal stories play in social justice activism?
Personal stories amplify social justice issues and activism. Sharing experiences can make situations relatable and allow people to understand or catch a glimpse of another person’s perspective and feelings, possibly invoking some compassion within them to act upon these new feelings. Providing a space for empathy allows individuals to advocate calmly, in a manner that is more effective than being aggressive. If we don’t share our stories and we don’t take time to listen to other peoples’ stories, we will continue to live in a world that is very limited in knowledge and understanding. Our world will lack the richness that being inclusive and culturally sensitive can afford us all.
What is the biggest issue facing public education today?
I see two major issues facing public education today. The first is funding, on both the state and federal levels. Education funding speaks directly to the societal value we place on our public education system, and on the teachers who dedicate their lives to enriching our most precious resource: our children. Students deserve to have a consistent, high-quality education. This means highly educated and well-compensated teachers, who deserve the opportunity to fully invest in a community and not have their jobs be at risk every year.
The second issue is restorative justice, across all educational settings and demographics. We must fundamentally change how our institutions value multiple intelligences and cultural diversity. Not everyone learns the same way. We now recognize this and actively work to address learning needs through personalized learning. We need to apply this same concept to curriculum, including how we ask students to interact with materials. We need instruction and curriculum that are culturally responsive. When students have a voice and choice in displaying concept mastery, that builds self-confidence and the ability to advocate for their unique strengths. Restorative justice includes the removal of zero-tolerance rules that single out students disproportionately based upon ethnicity, gender and other factors beyond a student’s control. Such rules feed the school-to-prison pipeline, negatively affecting our most at-risk populations. Restorative justice provides students with educators who reflect their community and cultural values. No student should say: “I never had a teacher who I could identify with.”
What song gets you fired up to do this work?
This song resonates with me because small actions can have huge impacts. A kind word, a smile or a pat on the back are examples of small actions. It’s unfortunate that many times these small acts of love are withheld because we might be too scared or feel too vulnerable to express our feelings of kindness and love. Our emotions can become a hindrance, reinforcing walls and biases. When we stand confident in our ability to be kind and humble, we are showing great strength and resiliency.
What message would you most want to tell educator activist starting out?
I would tell a new educator: “You matter!” It takes everyone actively working together to achieve our goals. As educators, we teach the importance of doing the right thing and how it is not always easy or popular. Fighting with one’s heart is the most rewarding and significant display of love we can show our students — because we give of ourselves. Advocating for education and seeing how that affects my community and my students reaffirms that the struggle is worth it.