If Teaching is a Human Act, I Need a Sea Change

I have always seen myself as a compromiser, as a person who can bring together different perspectives and create harmonious outcomes from seeming chaos. However, as I reflected on this approach following the readings by Freire, I feel this is less virtuous and more of fence-sitting neutrality. I have always seen my use of diplomacy and deference as a strength, that this was the best path forward through incremental growth and change. In the classroom, I try to create consensus, and try to respect both sides of an argument regardless of my personal beliefs. But Freire makes the point that neutrality is not only dangerous, but incompatible with effective teaching. He writes, “What is my neutrality, if not a comfortable and perhaps hypocritical way of avoiding any choice or even hiding my fear of denouncing injustice. To wash my hands in the face of oppression.” The notion of being openly political as an educator is terrifying. I think I have always felt that there was something inherent in the role of the teacher to be above the fray, to avoid the struggle and contentious bits or to avoid them for the sake of peace-keeping. I guess I had never thought about the ethical implications of that in a serious way until now. What if by not taking a stance, I am inhibiting learning rather than encouraging it?

Moreover, how does my neutrality appear from the perspective of the student? If you asked me last week about how I felt about neutral versus political perspectives from a teacher, I would have said that have always appreciated neutrality. As a naturally curious person, the neutrality of my teachers and professors past seemed to leave fertile ground for me to plant my own roots without their influence. But having reflected now on Freire’s treatise on teaching as a human act, I wonder if that belief of mine was founded on some false reality. Because to be honest, I know where all of my favorite and most effective professors fell on contentious issues. While I did not feel pressure to accept their worldview (and thus could plant my roots without fear of doing so as an ‘automaton’), I nevertheless was conscious of their beliefs and can still recognize them today. If I were to surmise one of Freire’s main points, it is that you do not need to hide your personal politics, but that a good teacher will nevertheless reckon with how they might affect how their students perceive them. So perhaps rather than be neutral (as I had previously perceived), these teachers were merely being open-minded and democratic, allowing me to make up my own mind as they themselves had done (and as lifelong learners continue to do). The respect that they showed may then manifest itself in a safe learning environment, where I know I would not be discriminated against a student. It seems, therefore, that the fertile ground where I planted my roots of comprehension and discovery was the product of my teacher’s political humanity, not neutrality in the absence of it.

Yesterday the world celebrated Armistice Day, marking the end of The Great War. It seems appropriate then, that I also reflect on freedom and how it must be balanced with authority. Freedom does have its limits, but as an educator I must find a way to ethically integrate those limits without creating a sense of loss. Freire writes “freedom becomes mature in confrontations with other freedoms.” To me, this means that real freedom has to be impinged in some ways, but that the individual has authority in how those decisions are made. That is why “consequences are what make decision making a responsible process.” It is not possible to have freedom without authority or vice versa.

As I continue to grapple with Freire’s philosophy as teaching as both a human act and one of love, I know I will struggle. Change for me has always been a gradual thing, partly owing to my stubbornness, but I have also believed that slow and steady was the best way to make lasting progress. It is not an exaggeration to say that issues of neutrality vs. politics and authority vs. freedom hit me as totally radical, but I also find it hard to argue with Freire’s points. So as much as I’d love to take measured approach, I believe what I need to do as an aspiring pedagogue is a sea change – to radically change my approach for my own benefit and for the food of my students.

10 Replies to “If Teaching is a Human Act, I Need a Sea Change”

  1. Firstly, I appreciate your plant metaphors! Secondly, I don’t think there is a way to truly state how much I empathize with what you wrote. As my spouse has previously told me , I could be a professional fence-sitter. I find great value in compromise and neutrality for many ideas. However, over the past year, I have come to terms with the need to vocalize my beliefs; sometimes a silent ally is more detrimental than a vocal opponent. I feel empowered by your personal challenge, and I hope I will be courageous enough to do the same.

    1. I’m glad to know others are having similar revelations. Below, Kaleigh made a great point that for many issues, such as racial injustice, there is no gray area. Topics like that highlights how fence-sitting can be detrimental, and hopefully will motivate me to strive for continual (and less gradual) change. Thx for the comment!

  2. I really enjoyed your post. I too, have had similar thoughts regarding neutrality in the classroom. However, I also realized while reading Friere that – as you mentioned – I knew where my best professors fell on contentious issues. I think the key is creating the kind of space where students are comfortable to be themselves, and think for themselves. At the same time, (as one of my favorite professors and mentors has told me), there are some issues where there is no “gray area” – only right and wrong – for example, racial injustice. On those issues, if they arise in the classroom, I think it is important to convey clarity and conviction in our beliefs.

    1. Kaleigh, I couldn’t agree more! While I found that Freire leaned further to the Left than I do on some issues (on capitalism, for example), I think that he made a lot of convincing points about progressive ideology. Racial injustice, colonialism, and human rights were all touched on to some degree, and at the core of teaching as human act is that we provide respect unconditionally. He also wrote that “Nothing can justify the degradation of human beings. Nothing.” Part of what I really appreciated about these writings is that they are pushing me away from fence-sitting and towards making a personal stance. It will better enable me to convey my convictions on these black and white issues (as you eloquently write). Thanks for the response!!!

  3. I appreciated this blog post and agree with many of the points. I do think that a “comfort zone” of complete political neutrality is not enough, and that it fails to grapple with the full social context of the work we are doing/what we are teaching. For myself, when I include politically charged topics on my syllabus, it often makes me feel slightly uncomfortable or afraid of offending someone, but I also feel that these conversations are important for students to have. Of course, when I decide to introduce politically charged topics, I have to prepare myself for the fact that many students will not agree with my views. I believe strongly that it is not the teacher’s role to argue for only one point of view to the exclusion of all others. However, as you say, it is possible to let students know where you stand without necessarily being overbearing or rigid about it (with some exceptions for issues that are not up for debate such as basic human equality). Many of these conversations, however, seem to have filtered into the humanities without necessarily being taken up to the same degree among communities of scientists (that I am aware). With the connection between the practice of science and environmental sustainability, capitalism, the politics of funding streams, etc. it is clear that scientists navigate politics as much as anyone. I wonder if there are ways to use the problem based learning we have discussed to bring out these social elements further. Should scientists and science professors be spending more time discussing the politics of their work? What are the upsides are downsides of this?

    1. Excellent points, Ecophilosopher! Two of them stuck out: “Many of these conversations, however, seem to have filtered into the humanities without necessarily being taken up to the same degree among communities of scientists (that I am aware).” I totally agree, though I do think that in my department (Biological Sciences at VT), there are a lot of young and highly motivated faculty that seem to be much more empowered than in previous generations of faculty. I also think that the push for increased inter- and transdisciplinary research will help to minimize the disciplinary differences between natural and social sciences.

      “Should scientists and science professors be spending more time discussing the politics of their work? What are the upsides are downsides of this?” One thing I have noticed recently in my field is a growing recognition of how racial injustices have manifested in STEM fields. My first experience was with Twitter movements like #BlackBirdersWeek and #BlackInTheIvory, and these have now grown into even larger dialogues. As an ecologist, there are specific politically charged issues that have now come to the forefront – including field safety for underrepresented groups, colonialism in field research, and the false dichotomy between excellence and diversity. As I see it, the major downside of having these conversations is that they’re uncomfortable. But the upsides could be massive for future generations of scientists! Thanks for the thoughtful comments!

  4. Yikes! I think there is still a lot to consider here before just walking into the classroom after and election and telling your students who you voted for…. Not that you said you would do this, but I want to point out that sharing opinions about political issues, calling things injustices, and even talking about your activist work is different than explicitly endorsing a political party, candidate, or organization that you know is heatedly contested. In terms of creating a safe space in the classroom, telling versus showing goes a long way. for example, I never directly talk about our current president’s opinion on the issue but I do have the students read about the Mexican Border wall and watch a documentary about climate refugees. It doesn’t matter who I voted for, and the students don’t really need to know that in order to understand how important cross-border migration and its causes are. So, I would just ask you to consider the learning aspect before any personal need to be “yourself”. Unless you truly think that the core of your identity is who you voted for.

    1. Thanks for the comment HokieInstructor! In my post I use the term ‘political’ in a general sense, and not specifically about my party affiliation or who I voted for. I didn’t mean for it to sound as though I would share that info and potentially ostracize my students. To be honest, it sounds like the approach you’ve taken is exactly what I’m trying to go for. Your example about the border wall and climate refugees is exactly the sort of thing I’d like to use. Raise the important issues, but do so in the context of real and evidence-based resources. 

      However, I also feel that are some issues where there is a portrayal of two sides of an issue, though from my perspective that is not the case. As an example, I won’t hide my support for the movement for black lives or pushing for increased diversity in STEM fields, even though it may lead to some students being somewhat ostracized. I really appreciate the pushback, and I hope that this response has clarified my stance. Ultimately, the ‘sea change’ that I want to make is rooted in an effort to become a more effective teacher, and you make some excellent points about how politics in the classroom can make one less effective.

  5. Thank you for your thoughts! I enjoyed your post. I think most times teachers try to seem neutral and make the class reach a consensus because they try to prevent a potential conflict or manage an existing one. The readings of this week made me realize that we should foster an environment where people can freely debate and argue from different perspectives and maybe adopting a more flexible conflict resolution approach. I think being able to compromise is still a great trait and it is definitely helpful to everyone in many aspects of life. We should just give the students more room to debate different perspectives in the realm of critical pedagogy.

  6. Hello,

    I think that all of this largely comes down to the way touchy subjects are handled. Teachers are people, and people have opinions. So, to portray complete neutrality on contentious topics would basically be lying. I believe that it is generally understood that everyone has opinions. However, where it becomes inappropriate and adverse to fostering a good learning environment is when teachers try to force their beliefs on the students. When expressing an opinion, teachers should be open and honest, but should also make it very clear that their opinions are just that: opinions. And it should also be made clear that having opinions that differ from the teacher’s is acceptable. There are also times when, while it is okay for teachers to have and express opinions, those opinions just aren’t really relevant. It would be inappropriate for a teacher to repeatedly bring up contentious issues that have no relevance to what the class is learning. But as long as these topics are discussed in the appropriate setting and with the right kind of respectful atmosphere, I believe that it is fine for teachers to express their true feelings.

    Austin Garren

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