We see this phrase “teaching is a political act” often times when teachers are defending a political stance they have taken on social media or in the classroom. However, while this phrase is often utilized, it seems that its meaning is often obfuscated by rhetoric. Before anyone enters the teaching profession, they must really understand why teaching is inherently political and how it automatically influences the way one interacts with students.
One must first define what it means to be political in relation to teaching. It does not mean that one simply talks about political parties, or issues, or engages in commentary about our political leaders. The meaning is much broader. To teach is to be political. As teachers, our most essential task is to develop our students’ ability to think. The topics or curriculum we choose (or have chosen for us) is the vessel through which we advance that thinking process. That process, that is the political act. This occurs no matter what style of teaching we choose or teaching philosophy we possess.
If you, as a teacher, engage your students in critical thinking, you are engaging in a political act. If you teach them rote memorization, you are also engaging in a political act. By being a teacher, you are influencing your students’ thinking and modifying the way that they process information. You are changing the way that they think, how they internalize words and meaning, and whether they are silently passive or actively engaged. That will then change how they see the world and how they participate in society, and how they see themselves within that society.
As teachers, we make many choices in our teaching. However, one might argue that we make the decision between two paths. Do we see our students as objects or as subjects? Are we filling them with knowledge, like an object, or are we teaching them to tools to process knowledge – like a subject?* When we teach students like objects, we are teaching them to passively accept, to comply. We are teaching them that the world happens to them and that they cannot influence that experience. This understanding they will then transfer to other aspects of their lives – whether it be their reaction to our government’s decisions or their own personal relationships. When we teach our students as though they are subjects, we are teaching them to engage, to react, to reject, and to push for change. When folks talk about social justice, this is the path they have chosen.
Therefore, if you have chosen to become a teacher, you have chosen to become a political being. Even if you reject all of the above, you are still influencing your students’ thinking and the lens with which they see the world. You cannot remove politics from your profession.
The path that one chooses does carry over into how one examines our current political situation. If we as teachers, teach our students to think critically, to support their opinions with evidence, and to constantly and consistently question their thinking, then we are teaching them to be active participants in the dynamic, frustrating, and ever-wavering political situation that is our current political framework. We have leaders who lie, who reject evidence, who are not critical thinkers. That is a problem that our students should be able to address and question. As teachers, we need to support them in that effort, we need to help them to develop the tools to process this world. That could not be more fundamental.
*Paulo Freire discusses these ideas much more eloquently than I. If you didn’t read Pedagogy of the Oppressed in college, you should probably pick up a copy.
How do you teach your students to think critically?