Who Counts as a Social Justice Educator? - ASCD
Skip to main content
ascd logo

March 1, 2021

Who Counts as a Social Justice Educator?

We need to ensure that our teaching keeps up with our preaching about equity.

premium resources logo

Premium Resource

Who Counts as a Social Justice Educator? thumbnail
Credit: Copyright(C)2000-2006 Adobe Systems, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

She was "a must-see," her colleagues told me. "National Board certified." "A real progressive educator."

At the start of class, her middle school students quietly settled into a circle, with icons like Gandhi and King peering over their shoulders from larger-than-life posters.

She welcomed me warmly to her classroom, expounding on her love for the unit.

She launched the lesson with a single question: "What is your definition of universalhumanrights?"—enunciating these last three words with electricity as she scrawled them on the whiteboard. "How would you define this term?"

She took her seat as her students immediately jumped into discussion. She observed silently, assiduously tracking student remarks on her clipboard.

"Perhaps it has something to do with rules for astronauts when they are in outer space," proposed one student.

"I wonder if it has something to do with how humans should interact with alien species, like when they are exploring other planets," suggested another, to laughter from his peers.

"Maybe it prevents aliens from attacking other aliens' planets?" hazarded a third.

The increasingly silly inferences continued, drifting further into the void. Throughout it all, their teacher refrained from intervening, instead smiling as she jotted down their comments.

Twenty minutes in, I walked out—the intergalactic theorizing still ongoing.

The Gap Between Rhetoric and Practice

We live in an era in which countless educators, like the one above, yearn to connect their practice to the fight for social justice. Under our former president—who repeatedly spouted racist, sexist, and xenophobic rhetoric—neutrality felt impossible. Especially in urban, high-poverty schools—where I have worked as a teacher leader since 2008—our Black and brown students seemed directly targeted. The killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and others over the past year only intensified our hunger for action.

Yet hunger alone only goes so far. Who actually counts as a social justice educator? The term "social justice education" is infamously hard to pin down. Some definitions take a more classically liberal stance, for example, seeking to equip and empower all students regardless of their identity to function as self-determining participants in society (Bell, 1997). Other definitions take a more radical position, envisioning education as a necessary political tool in deconstructing society's more oppressive hierarchies and institutions (Cochran-Smith, 2004).

Either way, I worry at times that we are adopting this label in an incomplete sense—so focused on rhetoric and progressive ideals that we lose sight of our responsibilities to the students directly in front of us. For example, I remember being enthusiastically welcomed into another classroom wallpapered colorfully in flags of the world.

"Today, we are going to continue our study of colonialism," the history teacher told the class.

She briefly reviewed the homework and then started a PowerPoint presentation which continued to auto-play for much of the lesson. She leaned back in her desk chair and smiled out at her students as they silently copied down notes from the slides.

"Do you have lessons like this often?" I whispered to a student near me.

"Like every day," she sighed back.

Both of these educators shared with me their pride in covering content related to social justice, but their actual teaching practice raised significant concerns. In the first scenario, the teacher's reluctance to intervene in student discourse—even when wildly digressive—led to the waste of instructional time and arguably undermined the gravitas of the subject matter. And in the second scenario, the teacher ironically relied on deadening, disempowering methods of instruction while teaching about the overthrow of unjust rule.

Now consider these other examples from my experiences working in urban schools and visiting dozens more over the past decade.

  • An outspoken feminist booted more young men of color from herclass than any other teacher in the school.

  • A teacher who threaded stories from the Black Power movement through his lessons never read his students' special education documents.

  • A vocal advocate for transgender rights took months to give feedback on her Black and brown students' essays.

Who am I as a straight white male to point the finger here? I raise these examples not out of a desire to express self-righteousness. Every day, I fall short of serving my students as well as I can. My pedagogical sins are countless. I have failed to provide adequate supports to students with disabilities and English language learners. I have misgendered a student. I have made inconsiderate assumptions about students' home lives. As I grow as an antiracist, feminist, trauma-informed educator, I make fewer of these errors, but they still occur.

To be clear, my argument is not meant for those who resist social justice nor those who are only just beginning to dip a toe into this work, who still trip over their words every time they attempt to discuss issues of race or sexual orientation. Instead, it is meant for educators at the other end of the spectrum—those who already proudly call themselves Black Lives Matter supporters, LGBTQ allies, feminists, and the like.

How frequently do those of us who publicly wave the "social justice educator" banner fail to serve and support all of our students? At times, many of us who are vocal and even strident about social justice—in faculty meetings, in the staff lounge, on social media—are failing to recognize major gaps in our own practice, significant daily injustice in our own classrooms. While our rhetoric and perhaps our approach is progressive, the daily reality for students is not, nor are the results.

Sometimes it seems we are focused so much on social inequity beyond our classroom that we forget about our instructional responsibility as teachers to ensure that all students are learning. We highlight structural forces yet lose sight of the souls directly in front of us. We speak out against social injustice yet at times end up reproducing societal inequalities and opportunity gaps among our own students. We say we care about change yet we at times ignore the locus of control where we likely have the most leverage—our own classroom. We say we value Black and brown lives but are not doing all we can to develop the Black and brown minds right in front of us.

We can fall into the trap of potentially undermining our social justice message through the blatant underserving of our own students. I recently received an invitation from a colleague to a local "Social Justice for Educators" conference. The program contained session titles like these:

  1. Intervening in Microaggressions

  2. Poetic Counter-Narratives: A Writing Workshop

  3. A Time for Truth: White Supremacy, Settler Colonialism, and Genocide Against Indigenous Peoples

  4. The Power of Language: LGBQ/T+ Inclusion

I was excited to see these topics but was left wondering why there weren't also sessions on instructional strategies to ensure that all students learn. At a social justice education conference, shouldn't we also find sessions on topics like edtech for accelerating algebra skills, small-group strategies for English language learners, study supports for students who struggle with executive functioning? Wouldn't sessions like these help us bring about a more just and equitable society as well?

Fostering a "Beloved Community"

The classroom in its ideal form is heaven on earth. It is a mini-utopia, what Martin Luther King Jr. described as the "Beloved Community." It is a place where all students can be safe, known, valued, loved, and engaged. In theory, the teacher is continuously gathering data and differentiating each lesson so as to hit every single student's zone of proximal development like a bullseye, to provide that perfect balance of supports and challenges to maximize every learner's growth—for 100 percent of students, 100 percent of the time.

This is ultimately an impossible vision, one we fall short of daily, but one we should not stop striving toward. How can we get closer? As historian Ibram X. Kendi has argued (2019), the answer lies in "persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination" (p. 23). Here are two critical steps for educators:

1. Adopt a Listening Stance

Constantly seek input from those around you. As scholar Robin DiAngelo (2018) has written, feedback loops are critical in order to "recognize and repair" the blind spots in our practice. Set up regular peer observation rounds with colleagues and push them to give you candid, constructive feedback—not the typical, safe positive reinforcement. Set up a student-led advisory group that meets with you weekly during lunch to provide feedback on your teaching—what's working and what can be improved. Academic Christopher Emdin (2017) calls these co-generative spaces co-gens, and he encourages students to develop specific action plans for the very next lesson. These conversations have raised important issues about my own teaching—whether micro-moments when my silly attempts to use student slang have gone awry or larger design flaws in some of our project-based work. You might also invite parents, grandparents, and other guardians into the classroom space as elders to inform how you continue to refine your teaching.

2. Count Things

Surgeon and writer Atul Gawande (2008) argues, "If you count something interesting, you will learn something interesting" (p. 255). Social justice needs spreadsheets. Learn how to dissect standardized test score data like a scientist. No exam is perfect, but their results are often a great starting point. Are all students growing in your course? Are there gaps between your special education and general education students? If you don't trust existing exams, build your own assessments and rubrics, but keep counting things. If you have a school discipline database, dive into your stats there. Are you disproportionately targeting certain student groups with certain consequences? Colleagues can help with the counting—for instance, recording whether you praise or call on certain groups of students more than others. Often my most restless students enjoy tracking data, too, as a positive way to stay busy. Instead of receiving redirects from me, they now get to call me out on my unconscious biases!

As much as we are able, we must welcome critique rather than shrink from it. Let us, like the Franciscan friar Richard Rohr (2011), pray for "one good humiliation a day," and then watch how we react to these moments of inevitable failure. Hopefully we can model genuine gratitude—however humbling the feedback—and utilize these difficult moments to better serve our students.

Growing as Both "Preachers" and "Teachers"

"Social justice educator" in the end is an aspirational ideal, something we should continue to strive for, even if we never reach it in its fullest perfection. In the words of Michelle Obama (2018), it is about "forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously toward a better self" (p. 419).

I do not wish to silence those who speak up most passionately for social justice. I am not saying we need to hold our tongues on societal inequity until we have mastered the art of teaching, nor am I saying that we should focus only on our students as individuals and ignore broader social forces.

Let us instead adopt a "both/and" approach to being a social justice educator. Let us grow humbly as both preachers and teachers. We need to be vocal advocates for equity and meticulous practitioners of our craft as educators. Let us, like scholar Gholdy Muhammad (2020), take inspiration from 19th century Black literary societies and seek to build both academic skills and resistance to oppression, to celebrate both content knowledge and student identities. Let us walk around with How to Be an Antiracist in one hand and Teach Like a Champion in the other.

We must adopt culturally sustaining curriculum and also ensure that our instruction equips all students to be readers, writers, mathematicians, and scientists. We need to be as passionate about data-driven instruction as we are about teaching Latinx history, as attentive to the research on effective literacy practices as we are to bringing diverse voices into our texts.

With this more expansive vision, we can better move toward justice in both our classrooms and our broader society.


Bell, L. A. (1997). Theoretical foundations for social justice education. In M. Adams, L. Bell, & P. Griffin (Eds.), Teaching for diversity and social justice: A sourcebook. London, UK: Routledge.

Cochran-Smith, M. (2004). Walking the road: Race, diversity, and social justice in teacher education. New York: Teachers College Press.

DiAngelo, R. J. (2018). White fragility: Why it's so hard to talk to white people about racism. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Emdin, C. (2017). For white folks who teach in the hood—and the rest of y'all too: Reality pedagogy and urban education. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Gawande, A. (2008). Better: A surgeon's notes on performance. New York: Picador.

Kendi, I. X. (2019). How to be an antiracist. New York: One World.

Muhammad, G. (2020). Cultivating genius: An equity framework for culturally and historically responsive literacy. New York: Scholastic.

Obama, M. (2018). Becoming. New York: Crown.

Rohr, R. (2011). Falling upward: A spirituality for the two halves of life. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Henry Seton Headshot

Henry Seton is a humanities teacher-leader, writer, and presenter. He formerly chaired the humanities department at the Community Charter School of Cambridge in Massachusetts.

Want to add your own highlights and notes for this article to access later?