Teaching Should Be Political

How to talk about race in the classroom

illustration of a school desk as a raised fist
Vahram Muradyan

The first day of my first year of teaching began with a bundle of nerves and a half-eaten honey bun. At 5:30 a.m., I drove from the cheap apartment I shared with five roommates to the high school in Prince George’s County, Maryland, where, 22 years old and just a year out of college, I’d been hired to teach English. My trunk was full of colorful posters, flip charts, and laminated quotes from my favorite writers. I was hoping to make my stuffy, windowless classroom a more inviting space for my students.

As I drove, I practiced how I would present myself, searching for the sort of first impression that would make me seem authoritative yet approachable. Could I be the “cool” teacher, inviting students to share what was happening in their lives, but also a figure of authority? Could I be empathetic, sensitive to the difficulties transpiring in their lives, yet not let such circumstances create a spiral of low expectations? Could I emphasize the importance of doing well on the state exam, while also making sure my students knew I didn’t believe that learning could be measured by a multiple-choice test on a single day of the year? I am only slightly embarrassed to say that in search of insight and inspiration, I had watched several Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman movies in the weeks leading up to that day.

These memories came back to me while reading Becoming a Teacher, by Melinda D. Anderson, an education journalist based in Washington, D.C. Anderson follows LaQuisha Hall during the 2018–19 academic year, just after Hall had been named Baltimore City Public Schools Teacher of the Year, and into the following, pandemic-disrupted year. Hers was hardly a representative experience. Except that in important ways, it was.

Anderson’s profile, part of a Masters at Work series of slim volumes, reaches back to Hall’s uncertain first days in a high-school classroom, more than a decade and a half ago, to trace a transformation. A core theme of the book is a notable, and by now almost unavoidable, shift in perspective taking place among Black educators—and other teachers, too—working in places that have endured decades of systemic racism, economic disinvestment, generational poverty, crime, and violence. Starting out as a 21-year-old transplant from North Carolina, Hall hadn’t understood what became steadily clearer to her: The work of teaching, for her and for her teenage students, was most meaningful when it was part of a larger commitment to addressing the realities of the historically oppressed and underresourced communities they were growing up in.

To be ushered by Anderson into Hall’s current classroom at Carver Vocational-Technical High School is to see drawings of African masks ornamenting the wooden door, and posters of Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” and Langston Hughes’s “Harlem” hanging on the walls. The library is jammed with young-adult novels by Black and Latino writers who know how to speak directly to readers navigating difficult lives, often without much support—and plenty of whom have lost friends to prison and tragic death. “West Baltimore can be a crushing place to be a Black teen,” Anderson writes. In her classes, Hall calls the boys “kings” and the girls “queens.” They can count on their teacher not merely to give them grand titles, but to challenge them in ways that build their confidence both as students and as citizens.

Hall is not someone who thought she was born to teach (few of us are), and she faced her share of challenges in those early days in the classroom. A college graduate unsure of her next step, she had been alerted almost by chance to a program that offered a tuition-free master’s degree from Morgan State University, in Baltimore, to applicants who agreed to teach in the city’s public-school system for a minimum of five years. A degree and a guaranteed job were too good to pass up. When she arrived in Baltimore to teach English, Hall told Anderson, her students could “smell fresh meat.” Fairly naive about classroom management, she didn’t yet appreciate the power of clear rules and expectations. Building rapport with students who sometimes mistook her niceness for meekness was hard. Figuring out lesson plans consumed entire stressful weekends. Like so many early-career teachers do, she sought a sense of control in premade syllabi, curricula, and pedagogy—overrelying on rote approaches and heavily weighted exams at the end of each unit.

But by leaning on veteran teachers for guidance, Hall gained self-assurance: She could deviate from required reading and give students the freedom to choose texts that engaged them more, she discovered, and still demand rigor. She began to see the transformative role she might be able to play, getting students to buy into the academic work she placed in front of them and, no less important, helping to change their sense of their lives. And then came the Black Lives Matter movement. As a colleague at Carver who came to count on Hall’s guidance told Anderson, “I go into the classroom with the mindset: ‘How can I give my students the skills and the knowledge to critique society, and then feel empowered enough to do something about it?’ ” Teachers like her, and like Hall, who stayed on in the classroom, resisting the churn so common to their profession, could aspire to wield real influence.

Anderson doesn’t mention James Baldwin’s “A Talk to Teachers,” but Hall was very much acting on his urgent suggestion in that 1963 essay. “Now if I were a teacher in this school, or any Negro school, and I was dealing with Negro children,” Baldwin wrote, addressing a group of educators, “I would try to teach them—I would try to make them know—that those streets, those houses, those dangers, those agonies by which they are surrounded, are criminal.” Note that “try.” Helping students see that it is not the Black child who is a criminal, but the larger society that this child has been born into, eludes tidy teaching scripts. But Hall came to believe that striving to do that was central to her work.

In a scene that Anderson recounts, Hall seized on a local event that took place in May 2019—when the media referred to a large group of teenagers gathering at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor as a “juvenile disturbance”—to have her students engage in a discussion of material far from the standard English curriculum: a reading about Kalief Browder, a teenager from New York City who spent nearly three harrowing years of physical and psychological abuse in jail on Rikers Island. He’d been accused of stealing a backpack in 2010—and then committed suicide two years after his release (and after charges were dropped). Her class also watched a news clip about the Central Park Five, the young Black and Latino teenagers who had been falsely accused of raping a white woman in 1989.

The “Socratic seminar” that followed—some students talking, others listening, then swapping places (a process intentionally aligned with Common Core standards)—reflected Baldwin’s spirit. Black children in neglected places, he argued, needed to comprehend that they were not responsible for the social conditions in which they lived. They had to understand these realities, and develop the skills with which to navigate them, but they did not have to accept them as static, as inevitable. Hall was prodding her class to take in larger historical and social contexts, to recognize that the things they experienced in Baltimore didn’t happen in isolation. “At the Inner Harbor, they called us criminals,” one student said, and noted that in the Netflix series about the Central Park Five, When They See Us, “the cops called them animals.” Another weighed in: “My brother’s going to have to do time again, 5–10 years, for just being in the wrong place at the wrong time.” A different student added, “The whole entire system is corrupt.”

Discussions like these can sometimes get stuck, or go off track, I discovered in my own teaching, as did Hall, and even when they’re as thoughtful, honest, and robust as this one turned out to be, if a teacher isn’t skilled in this sort of facilitation, they can land in bleak places. For students and their teachers, the quest is to balance the need to understand a pervasively unjust system and the need to nurture an awareness of agency. “The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible,” Baldwin wrote, “is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it—at no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change.”

As an educator, I came to think that no mission was more important than this one, or more daunting. And in my early days of teaching, as much as I wanted to be the sort of educator Baldwin was calling on me to be, part of me wondered if I should attempt to keep my classroom as a sort of island, set apart from the often grim realities beyond it.

But the more time I spent with my students—almost all of them Black or Latino (many of whom were undocumented or came from mixed-status immigrant families), and more than 70 percent of them eligible for free or reduced-price lunch—the less possible and productive that approach seemed to me, as it did to Hall. “That’s just how it is here, Mr. Smith,” one of my students said to me, and a semicircle of matter-of-fact nods rippled across the classroom. A fellow student had just been shot and killed in a drive-by. It was not the first time a young person from the school community had been killed, and would not be the last. I had never taught the young man whose life had been taken, but I remembered the sound of his laughter—his high-spiritedness had been contagious—in the hallway between classes.

After hearing the news the night before, I had decided to scrap my original lesson plan so I could open up my classroom as a space where we could collectively mourn. Students paid tribute to their peer and expressed disgust toward the shooters. There were tears, raised voices, and monologues of grief. I had them write as we tried to find a way to heal and move forward, pushing against the fatalism so many of them justifiably felt. Indeed, within the span of the next two weeks, one student’s parents were deported, another’s family was evicted from their home, yet another student was arrested, and several revealed to me that they had been coming to school without having eaten the night before.

I had not been trained for this, but in the course of finding my way in class, trying to put the books I assigned into conversation with current events, I read Pedagogy of the Oppressed, a foundational text of what is called critical pedagogy. Written in 1968 by the Brazilian philosopher and educator Paulo Freire, and translated into English in 1970, it was based on his experience teaching Brazilians living in poverty, most of them adults, how to read and write. Freire emphasized that the “struggle for their liberation” required students to recognize the stratified status quo not as a “world from which there is no exit, but as a limiting situation which they can transform.” At its best, I found as I worked with teenagers, critical pedagogy helped me appreciate that, even as students are engaged in the process of learning, they are also engaged in the project of unlearning so much of what they have been taught about society and about themselves. And it is in that unlearning that agency can be reclaimed.

I threw the curricular staples at my students, and as they worked at mastering unfamiliar material from other centuries, we also tied it to contemporary issues. We read Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and linked it to civic engagement. We found connections between Henry David Thoreau and contemporary political protests. Richard Wright’s Native Son led into a discussion of mass incarceration, and of a sense of powerlessness in a society that feels like it was built to crush you. Sometimes the students’ written reflections and contributions to class discussions would blow me away with their honesty and their sophisticated level of historical and political analysis. Other times, the conversation was muted, and I worried that I had given my students too much to process. But those moments of uncertainty, I thought, were better than the silence of students given too little to engage with, too few encounters with ideas that might help them better understand themselves in relation to the world.

The pandemic, the protests, the economic downturn—the events of this year have made any notion of the classroom as an oasis moot. They have meant that teachers, many of them trapped on screens, are surely feeling overwhelmed and unsupported. At the same time, as I’ve learned by talking with teachers across the country, the compounding crises have spurred many of them to recognize the need to revamp lesson plans, to think in new ways about how to incorporate the debates over inequality that affect their students so directly. Ours is not the first time of ferment in which teaching to the test, as in the standardized variety, has seemed inadequate—and let’s hope that if, or when, political urgency ebbs, pedagogical aspirations do not. As Hall puts it, too many of her students are “already up against the greatest tests that people can experience, which is surviving in a city that is out to kill them every single day, or make them look bad.” Baldwin reminds us that the crucial work of educators is to fortify their students, joining them in the quest to make the society into which they were born fully account for the conditions it has created.

This article appears in the December 2020 print edition with the headline “Bringing Politics Into the Classroom.”