Teachers and Activists

Ta-Nehisi Coates identifies as a writer, but not as an activist:

Screenshot 2016-07-23 at 10.38.56 PM

This seems entirely sensible to me. Being a writer does not make you an activist, even though Coates’ writing is obviously politically relevant.

And (I’ll add) it’s good that to have both writers and activists. They answer to different calls and do different work. I wouldn’t want every writer to be an activist. I wouldn’t want every activist to be a writer.

Should every teacher be an activist? (Jose didn’t ask this question, but he got me thinking.)

We live in a world that finds it useful to use mathematical achievement as a loose guideline for how much money you should make. So, yes, there is something inherently politically relevant about teaching math. If you teach well, you have the chance to slip a person through the social machine.

Kids form their identities in our classes. School is part of the government. Every experience that a child has in school either supports or contradicts the hypothesis that their country has their best interests at heart. So there are political stakes to teaching math.

Does that mean that every teacher should be an activist? (Could be an activist? Is an activist?)

Perhaps this is a matter of semantics. What makes someone an activist? I take it the term refers to those who actively agitate for political outcomes. And perhaps that term can include many different forms of agitation, and maybe that can include the act of teaching math itself. Maybe teaching math in a certain way is a form of activism.

Personally, though, I think this runs the risk of mishandling the political energy of math educators. Teaching well is something teachers are already trying to do. What do we gain by seeing this as political activity?

I would rather see a more limited and ambitious use of the term. To be a teacher and an activist is to be a teacher who organizes or campaigns towards a political goal. And more teachers should be activists: they should form groups that push teacher organizations, districts and schools to adopt better policies.

Activism is important. It takes skill, not everyone can do it, and lots of people should. At least, that’s the activism I’m interested in.