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Selling Out and Other Sins of the Justice Oriented Educator

by Brian Gibbs - August 14, 2018

This commentary engages the "sell out" phenomenon that often plagues justice oriented educators: not being able to engage in all forms of resistance and interruption often weighs on teachers engaged in critical teaching.

We were sitting in a stylish coffee shop in the arts district of Los Angeles. It was cute and hip, everyone with tattoos and stylish haircuts and we were both totally uncomfortable. I was conducting a once-a-semester interview for a five-year longitudinal research project focused on justice-oriented teachers teaching in hostile, unwelcoming, and standards-driven school environments. The goal is to find out if and how these teachers can maintain a pedagogically and curricularly critical perspective amidst the pressures of the current neoliberal-conforming (Apple, 2008; Au, 2008; Harvey, 2005) school climate. Thus far, the data collected paints a less than hopeful picture. The teacher participants in this study are by and large being worn down. The long haul does not look good.

Across from me is an ethnic studies teacher with a deep commitment to justice-oriented teaching. She looks around at our environs a bit sheepishly, sighs, and says, I wonder what my students would say if they saw me here& Didnt we study the negative ramifications of gentrification, Miss? What are you doing here? Arent you part of the problem?

She had chosen the location. It was close to her home, an urban neighborhood in which she was born and in which she teaches. When she arrived she warned me that she was hot, sweaty, and possibly smelly. I was marching, she said, adding somewhat self-consciously, Im a critical educator by disposition but a reluctant activist. The march was protesting the separation of families and the incarceration of undocumented humans at the border. Yeah, I got a text from Maricela, a colleague and friend who is also a member of a critical pedagogical collective of teachers who organize a yearly student-run workshop and curriculum share. I wouldnt have gone otherwise. Does that make me a hypocrite or sell out? I struggle with it so much. I read and write and run workshops for ethnic studies& isnt that activism? she asks. Im tired, depressed, and struggling&its been a hard year& in my classroom, in the world, in my life&

All nine participants in the study, now in its fifth year, teach students of color in urban public schools, and all but one are of color themselves. All participants had been teaching for between eight and 19 years at the start. Two have left teaching to pursue graduate degrees, one took a year leave of absence to collect himself, one has shifted to a more stable school-within-a-school supporting students whom he says have less needs, something which he feels guilty about. All nine participants speak often and at least once per interview of leaving teaching. All express guilt and feeling that they are not doing enough. This sentiment, plus their success and commitment to classroom teaching, their sheer joy when they are teaching, is likely what keeps them returning to their classrooms.

All participants began the five year research cycle engaged in reform efforts at their schools. I was impressed by this as all participants had been teaching for some time and had survived, as one participant described it, numerous reform cycles. As the semesters passed and the study continued, all nine participants began to adopt the rida stance described by Duncan-Andrade (2007); they in effect pulled back and hunkered down, striving to protect small parts of the school, such as their curriculum, their pedagogy, their special program. This is when the themes of guilt and selling out began to grow. The participants felt guilty for, as one participant put it, choosing not to participate in the larger school. It was just too much heartbreak, too much time, too much losing, this teacher told me.

All nine participants repeatedly identified the creation of curriculum and pedagogy as a priority. As one participant indicated, I work to envelop my students in justice issues, to develop a critical disposition, and to learn how to struggle& to grow their agency. This takes time. So much time that I think about not doing it every time I start to write a new unit, a participant joked with me recently. Seven of the nine participants identify as activists outside the classroom but vary in terms of their activities. Four are leaders in politically active groups that meet at least once per week and engage in events often. All indicate that being a social justice teacher means taking an activist stance in school, engaging less than critical educators on campus, critiquing campus policies, and engaging in activist work outside of school.

Several participants self-reported that they dont do enough activism outside of school. They tell me this with pained looks on their faces and not a little shame. What follows this admission are their reasons, often in a quick rush. There is anguish, anger, and evidence of self-loathing in their responses. They feel as though they have sold out and, to make it worse, they have to admit it to me. A participant recently told me about how, several years ago, he interrupted the ASVAB test being given at his school. The ASVAB is an aptitude test used by military recruiters to gather information about students and pursue potential recruits. The students had been encouraged to take the test, but hadnt been told what the test was for or how the results would be used. The test was also given by a uniformed military officer. Both of these things were against district policy. The teacher intervened and explained the situation to the students, many of whom refused to take the test, and the uniformed officer was asked to leave. After telling me the story, a wistful look descended upon his face. He shared that his activism to keep his school from becoming militarized had slipped. I havent even followed up on when the test is given and who is recruited& in years, he shared in a whisper.

Gloria Ladson-Billings, the famed pedagogic theorist and scholar who developed the concept of culturally relevant pedagogy (1994) has shared that she is often asked why she only researches and writes about the education of black children. Her response was quick and direct, thats all that I have time to do well. Other children and educational problems deserve attention and action, but there is only so much I can do, she seems to be saying. At the 2017 meeting of the American Education Research Association (AERA) scholar and university professor Chris Emdin shared something similar in a presentation he gave. He described a friend who spent money to fly and protest every police shooting of a black man. His friend had flown all over the country and been among the crowds of protestors demanding justice. But, Emdin shared, his son and wife had suffered as they struggled to make rent and pay the bills in his absence. Theres a role for everyone, Emdin told the crowd, find what yours is. Its what we all need to do. Some to protest, some to write, some to teach, some to research.

We need to help teachers see and fully understand, as Audre Lorde put it, that caring for myself is not self-indulgent, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare; that engaging in what a teacher can do, and also making choices about what not to do, is not selling out, but is in fact the promise to continue. This is the promise we need as the struggles of the day continue to mount. We individually cannot do everything. However, we must choose to be a part of something larger than ourselves and, as Emdin advised, do our part and do it well.


Apple, M. (2006). Educating the right way: Markets, standards, god, and inequality, (2nd Ed). New York: Routledge.

Au, W. (2008). Unequal by design: High stakes testing and standardization of inequality. New York: Routledge.

Harvey, D. (2005). A brief history of neoliberalism. Oxford: University Press.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1994). The dreamkeepers: Successful teachers of African-American children. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 14, 2018
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22468, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 7:30:45 PM

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About the Author
  • Brian Gibbs
    University of North Carolina
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    BRIAN GIBBS is an assistant professor at the School of Education at the University of North Carolina.
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