Activist Teachers Essay

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While their causes may vary widely, activist teachers are generally understood as instructors who engage social justice issues and incorporate these ideas into their teaching practice. Democratic ideals are at the heart of an activist teacher’s practice, in that the concept of social equality is paramount. Activist teachers’ intentions lie on a spectrum between the needs of the individual and of society in general; their actions may involve collaboration and participation within and outside of schools. Activist teachers have historically been social reformers-suffragists, labor activists, and civil rights advocates, and their work with individuals seeks to create democratic change in society.

Activist teachers work toward creating places where individuals from various cultures meet and provide a space for these individuals to respectfully inform one another. The teachers are aware that schools can be sites of social reproduction but work against this dynamic. They facilitate and situate questioning of the status quo. They have a multifaceted relationship with their students. Activist teachers may use one or more of the following concepts in their teaching:

  • Social justice
  • Equity including race, class, and gender
  • Facilitate and question the status quo
  • Cultural sensitivity
  • Interactive and creative methodology
  • Democratic classrooms
  • Critical pedagogy
  • Feminist theory
  • Politically progressive ideology
  • Dialogic methodology
  • Reflection

Women have been prominent in the development of educational activism as they have incorporated social reform issues, including suffrage, labor, women’s rights, and civil rights into their practices as educators. Jane Addams (1860–1935) and Ida B. Wells (1862–1931) were two of the founders of the Settlement House Movement, the Women’s Club Movement, and the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), educational endeavors that helped to establish community networks to support racial and gender equity. These endeavors challenged prevailing educational methods that were aimed at social efficiency and compartmentalization.

George S. Counts (1889–1974), an American educator and sociologist, was well known for his assertion that teachers should be agents for social change. In 1932, during the Great Depression, Counts combined three speeches into one volume titled Dare the School Build a New Social Order. In it he asserted that some form of democratic collectivism should replace traditional capitalism in American society. Further, he believed that teachers should be agents of social change in that they should shape their students to be receptive to the idea of collective control of the economy. Thus, schools would become the birthplace of cooperative endeavors and democratic ideals. While this approach was criticized as indoctrination, Counts believed that in essence all education is indoctrinating and therefore should be used to move toward a more fair and equitable society.

Activist teachers strive to be sensitive to the interconnectedness of race and gender in classrooms. This idea is highlighted by many current feminist activist educators, including bell hooks (1952– ).

An activist teacher’s classroom practice includes interactive methods and democratic ideals. It is aimed at balancing the needs of individuals and society as a whole. All members of the group must have shared activities and equal opportunity to give and take. These ideals are predicated on the work of John Dewey (1859–1952). Like Dewey, an activist educator would denounce rote learning for a more interactive and experiential approach to teaching and learning. Just as Dewey advocated, an activist teacher would also place emphasis on thinking, reflection, democratic ideals, and on the value of community.

In addition, action is linked with certain values. For activist teachers, education should be centered on lived experience and should have an emphasis on dialogue that enhances community in that it leads people to act in ways that would support justice and encourage human potential. Paulo Freire (1921–1997) is associated with this type of educational activist practice.

The Highlander School, founded by Myles Horton (1905–1990) and Don West (1906–1992), is an example of activist teaching in practice. Horton and West believed that education should lead to action. Their original mission was to educate rural workers to lead the way to a new social order. This mission was expanded to teach leadership skills to those who would challenge segregation and other oppressive aspects of society. In the 1950s Horton and his colleagues established the citizenship schools movement, an effective literacy campaign that emphasized the right to participate in a democratic society.

Currently in the United States, several organizations exist to support the endeavors of activist teachers. These include the Center for Anti-Oppressive Education, Teaching for Change, and Rethinking Schools.


  1. Casey, K. (1993). I answer with my life: Life histories of women teachers working for social change. New York: Routledge.
  2. Counts, G. (1932). Dare the school build a new social order? New York: John Day.
  3. Crocco, M. (1999). Pedagogies of resistance: Women educator activists 1880–1960. New York: Teachers College Press.
  4. Sachs, J. (2003). The activist teaching profession. Buckingham, UK: Open University Press.

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