Educator-Activism: The Linchpin of a Rewarding Career

By Sarah Thomas

When asked to meet an “Ides of March” deadline, I scarcely could have imagined the foreboding tone–this reference to Julius Caesar’s murder– would be more apt than humorous.

Just a few days before my March 15th deadline, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln shut down.  For the semester.

It’s common knowledge Midwestern universities are proud of their resistance to external interference. Blizzards or edification? The experienced bet on the latter.

But close indefinitely, schools did.

And within just a few weeks, our lives radically altered through coronavirus impacts.
While we all are getting our bearings, taking care of individual needs, and finding our way during this wildly disorienting time, there is a kind of symmetry in writing about educator-activism.


Because educator-activists are attuned to disruptions and external interferences—Sarah Thomas 1observe them as a call to reflection and responsible professional action. While Covid-19 is an unprecedented disruption and interference, preparing to resist and overcome antagonistic forces is well-practiced for the educator-activist.

Tracing through nearly thirty years of practice, it’s clear I’ve always been an educator-activist. I’ve learned that to protect democratic education and sustain meaningful learning, we need fighters in our field, and I’m proud to be one.

I’ve served as a professor of practice in Secondary English Education and Foundations for over ten years, and before that, taught for nearly twenty—mostly as a high school English teacher with a short early career stint of middle school teaching. My partner landed his dream job, so we lived a few years in Austin, Texas when George W. Bush was governor and NCLB was piloted.

Through my tenure at Lake Travis Middle School, I now understand that period as catalyst for shaping my educator-activist identity.  Though nearly twenty-five years ago, I still recall my time there in two vivid parts: pre-NCLB and post-NCLB.

Pre-NCLB, my school was known for its creative and experimental ethos, its multi-disciplinary approach to learning, its valuing of student-centered and teacher-designed pedagogy, and its resistance to bureaucratic methods slicing learning into slivers. Students were taught the scientific method, then experimented in constructivist projects now described as “maker-spaces,” learned from visiting artists, created portfolios to exhibit learning process and achievements, and weren’t distracted with the trifles of lifeless worksheets and invasive bells. Austin’s temperate climate allowed us to flow naturally into the center courtyard–the hub for all of our classrooms–for recess or what we now hyperbolize as “nature bathing.” The science teacher brought favorite critters out—the tarantula was king—and my Language Arts colleague often played her acoustic guitar, as she played weekend gigs on 6th Street, the site of nationally-renowned South by Southwest music festival.

So, that was the nostalgic part.

The post-NCLB part, where all Texas schools piloted State Standards, is less vivid than the previous scene.  Pervasive tension instead of dynamic imagery remains most memorable. The atmosphere changed—felt heavier and unfamiliar. Invasive, even dehumanizing. I remember an incremental shift in organizational structures—more meetings, more discussion about “getting on the same page,” more observed relief from less talented teachers desiring control in curriculum clarity and classroom life; more outrage from teachers well-known for their relational, intellectual, and creative gifts.  My much-beloved guitar-playing colleague started looking into graduate school in the fine arts; the magical science teacher retired early; my first mentor, our 8th grade team leader who remains among the most inventive and relationally elegant teachers I’ve witnessed, resigned.

They just couldn’t see promise in our field’s future with such massive, decontextualized intrusions from the state, then federal government, from policy makers unqualified to make sweeping  professional demands.  These well-meaning structures and dictates aiming to leave no child behind felt ironic from the beginning.  Who, indeed—first through disenfranchising excellent teachers–would stand to get ahead, the exiting gifted and relationally talented teachers wondered. What legitimate scholarship or even anecdotal experiences would support standardization as an inspirational and motivating framework for teaching and learning?

And they were right.  Still are right.

I was only in my fourth year of teaching at that point.  I was too young to lose hope.  And like my FDR-revering grandfathers, I could close down a tavern arguing for a more humane world. So, I started preparing for a career of resistance and professional activism.

I went to grad school. For ten years.  I thought I could educate my way toward resolving the problem of our increasingly mandate-loving field which pressures teachers to lead through fear of non-compliance and students to lose investment and heart.

The longer I taught and felt too hemmed in, the more I felt compelled to lead through field-loving resistance.  This orientation led me to critical and relational pedagogy, aesthetic philosophy and constructivism.  I devoured Paulo Freire, bell hooks, and Ernest Morell; couldn’t get enough of Antonia Darder, Parker Palmer, and Nel Noddings; then became saturated with Maxine Greene, John Dewey, and Elliot Eisner.

Conversations with scholars like these turned into a lifestyle.  And a refuge. When national mandates kept slicing teaching and learning into small and fractured slivers, these wise perspectives kept pushing for teaching the whole human, for placing relational and life-enhancing work above test preparation, for honoring my developing expertise and innovative capacities in service of radiant and rewarding education.

What I’ve learned through the sustained tensions defining my career is that educators must fight against playing themselves small in service of bureaucracy above education.

I’ve learned that self-identifying as an educator-activist is supremely important for enjoying the work long term.

And with that satisfaction, I’ve learned that life-touching is made possible when teachers—who have the expertise– stand up and take field-loving risk for the integrity of their profession.

Since a vibrant education led by highly qualified, innovative teachers, not bureaucrats, is the bedrock of a healthy democracy, I remain proud to have committed my life to a field that needs me to be a fighter.  That needs me not to shrink from self-identifying as an educator-activist.

Has the process been easy?  Absolutely not. Like many white mid-to-upper middle-class women raised to be a people pleasers and conflict avoiders, I’ve had my share of sleepless nights, major disappointments, and conflicts. As a recovering people pleaser and conflict avoider, I also now realize those hardships were not as hard or risky as they seemed at the time.  Still, identifying as an educator-activist can feel “maverick” and lonely to the point where I’ve considered changing careers.

But as Teddy Roosevelt once said, “Anything that’s worth having is worth fighting for.”

While fighting for the integrity of educational excellence and against the de-professionalizing of teachers represents the lion’s share of my educator-activism, another fight needs laser-beam and unrelenting attention.

As educator-activists, we lead most honorably and effectively when students, their families, and our communities observe us fighting for wellness and justice in multi-marginalized communities.  While classroom life is enveloping, I’m now acutely aware educators must be value-adding and advocating community agents. All those years of advocating for teacher agency and curricular integrity was well worth it; and yet, if I had it to do over again, I would more fierce-lovingly advocate for students’ well-being and thriving beyond the classroom.

My shift in educator-activism now addresses community-impacting issues, our families, and ultimately, our classrooms.  My professional context has widened.  And like the ebb and flow of the ocean’s tide, I am seeing the more I reach out in support of my larger community, the more healthy reverberation spills into the classroom.

A watershed moment amplified this growing part of my educator-activist identity in February of 2019. Alarmed by dehumanizing rhetoric and threatening policy targeting immigrant students and families across the nation—which reached an unthinkable fever pitch through “Zero Tolerance” policy producing thousands of family separations–I felt gutted.  I couldn’t look away from this human rights atrocity and remain only or even primarily focused on my campus responsibilities. So much more was demanded from us. Our students, their loved ones, were being traumatized across the nation. I felt immense shame and ethical conflict when focusing on unrelated aspects of my work.  Given how normalized dehumanizing rhetoric and practices from our President had become and how unchecked, I knew his abuses of power would continue with impunity.

I felt nauseous.  I couldn’t sleep. I felt guilty as a bystander.

Previously, a Lincoln High School Social Studies educator and I were working in close collaboration through the Husker Writing Project featuring university professors working alongside secondary educators.  The experience was reminiscent of my Lake Travis days. Over the course of two years, these university—high school partnerships yielded innovative curriculum positioning students as writers for authentic community audiences.  When opportunity arose to join a national Teach-In coordinated by Teachers Against Child Detention, the experience felt like a natural outgrowth of that civic-engaged work.

The event was orchestrated by the 2018 National Teacher of the Year, Mandy Manning, and involved Teachers of the Year across all fifty states. The Teach-In ended in a march to the Juarez/El Paso border alongside Mexican educators, where we formed a circle of solidarity at the border I will never forget.

It was at that point I made a commitment to return and amplify my community engagement and activism in Lincoln, Nebraska.

On the plane, I wrote an editorial about the Teachers Against Child Detention Stand In for our local paper. That publication inspired a TEDx Talk eventually shared at the Lied Center for Performing Arts with a handful of speakers from wide-ranging fields addressing disruptions.

While writing my TED Talk, famous cellist, Yo Yo Ma’s, image surfaced and brought with it a reminder of my commitment as community educator-activist.  Cello against concrete with no accompanying orchestra, he played his instrument at the southern border.  In fact, he rearranged his concert series to take place at southern border spaces that year—to hold space in the music of hard questions and moral courage.

Yo Yo Ma offering his passionate instrumental voice at the border became an apt metaphor for the community educator-activist.

After TEDx, I inquired through social media if others were interested in building coalition with area churches for weekly “Stand Ins” supporting immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees.  The idea was to remind our community on Sunday mornings that injustices persisted against those fleeing desperate circumstances in Central America and Mexico, and affirm community values of love, inclusion, diversity, and compassion.  Signage would be positive, attempting to counter the race-baiting and fear-mongering stoked at our highest levels of government. Offering responsive positive messaging felt urgent, as upticks in documented bullying, racism, and hate crimes in schools and communities pervaded nation-wide.

Nearly one year and over sixty weekly Stand-Ins later, the initial vision featuring immigration advocacy and justice grew into more formalized structures: three mutually reinforcing grassroots human rights organizations under the Stand in for Nebraska canopy:  Stand in for Lincoln, Stand in for Omaha, and the Nebraska Poor People’s Campaign.  Leadership across these organizations reflects horizontal structures—Community Organizing Circles (COCs)–comprised of diverse, multi-generational members leading different organizational facets.

The binding tie centralizes advocacy for Nebraskans on the margins. Challenging oppressive realities (systemic oppressions) impacting Nebraskans through persistent advocacy, education, voter registration and turn-out support, and policy demands to empower the most vulnerable are central modes across the three organizations.

Fierce and unyielding love is our driving force advancing demands for justice, for wellness, for Martin Luther King Jr’s vision of the “beloved community.” Fierce love, we believe, is the most hearty, sustainable and transformational human force.

Fierce love also drives realization of Bryan Stevenson’s four pillars to change the world by:

1, Challenging and changing toxic narratives: Stand in for Nebraska members repeatedly ask, ‘What stories are being told about groups of people that diminish and disempower—that warrant refutation, a community counter-narrative?’ For educators, ‘How will we use our positions as educator-activists in and out of school to help advance a healthy counter-narrative and robustly advocate for impacted students? Stand in for Nebraska uses these questions as a compass for planning value-adding community actions. In effect, educators may become more trusted change agents working in coalition-building roles. These are the role models our students desire to see—ones who will stand up and stand in for all students’ well-being and thriving.

2. Getting inconvenienced: To change toxic narratives and develop empowering infrastructures naturally requires presence: showing up over….and over….and over.  Getting inconvenienced. It’s important to interrogate how we spend time in and beyond our school communities. Does our lifestyle reflect multicultural community engagements and meaningful relationships? Pushing beyond inclinations to gravitate to and enclose ourselves in familiarities is essential to build educator-activist self-identification.

As we interrogate our lifestyles and priorities, the next inconveniencing question is how much time are spent actively working to disrupt systems of oppression?  Reading Ibram Kendi’s book, How to Be an Anti-Racist, is implicative in this way. Becoming an educator-activist requires identifying systems and cultural norms favoring one group and hindering others through community engagement and activism.  The educator-activist is one who notices and names patterns in school and community contexts reinforcing inequities. Such professionals don’t merely identify them but then actively work to change them.  For instance, he/she may notice more black and brown males are taking on-level or remedial reading courses. Why is that true? And rather than blaming the student or observing the pattern as inevitable, the educator-activist gets curious, creative, and collaborative—sees the inequity as opportunity for disruption and innovation.  A project is born…

While that disruptive work may feel daunting within layered professional commitments, such an emphasis need not become a second job.

In a developing educator-activist’s personal life, re-routing a family routine to involve an evening at the Yazidi Community Center, when invited can feel inconveniencing and uncomfortable; and yet, the growth likely will be significant. Participating in a fundraiser for RAICES, an organization offering legal representation for immigrants seeking asylum instead of going to the movies may inspire more hope and community connection.  Supporting a First Friday community art exhibit featuring diverse up-and-coming artists will inspire new ways of looking at the world and potentially more expansive curriculum ideas for the classroom.  Participating in a State Capitol demonstration supporting the MMIW Movement (Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women) and defending indigenous rights offering an education and perspective that may change your life. Such experiences certainly changed mine. Instead of grading papers one Saturday afternoon, my partner and I decided to attend an MMIW demonstration at the State Capitol to learn and show or solidarity. Months later, I now am working on a partially funded project in which leaders of this movement are developing curriculum for community education to empower Native women and girls. My role now is to use my writing and networking skills to secure more funding for a five-year vision. The vision involves building a community center for Native women fleeing domestic violence and starting a new protected and empowered life. The center also will offer employment opportunities securing socioeconomic mobility for Native women.

So, the above are examples of small lifestyle shifts an educator-activist seeks to make.  One never knows, then, how such small shifts can afford substantial solidarity-building and innovations serving multi-marginalized communities.  By extension, then, students observe classroom role models who “walk the talk”—who are fighting for a better world in and out of the classroom.

Branching out from our routines and “getting inconvenienced” is never easy but most always rewarding if we aspire to be strong advocates for all of our students and their families.

3. Getting proximate: By disrupting our routines and extending the scope of our community experiences and connections, we get close—proximate—to issues and people with whom we may partner to build connection, understanding, effect change, and disrupt systemic oppressions. Getting proximate in multi-marginalized communities requires much humble persistence involving listening, inquiry, and learning above all. Such efforts often feel uncomfortable for awhile, as one’s otherness is evident and blind spots are exposed.  Embracing the discomforts and working on genuine trust-building gifts us with invaluable perspectives, stories, insights, and relationships.  Diversification of experience enriches our scope of understanding and worldviews and affords priceless competencies—especially empathy– through our development as respected and trusted instructional leaders.  Getting proximate builds community networking and infrastructures that, over time, yields possibility and hope in and beyond our school communities.  Healthy leaders have, among other things, the capacity to empathize. Getting proximate is an indispensable move in an educator-activist’s development.

4. Staying hopeful. Reaching in—doing the necessary introspection and personal work to understand one’s culture and others—while reaching out–prioritizing community networking with others over time–are rejuvenating and hope-affirming lifestyle patterns.  Primarily identifying as academic leaders, over time, is draining, isolating, and imbalancing.  Extending our scope of connection and value-adding influence feeds educator-activists in ways that nurture heart and mind leadership and impact.  As my father would say, such energies expended “fill our buckets” as we work to create a better world and, in doing so,  carve 0ut a fulfilling long-term career.

Through my career arc, I’m convinced embracing Stevenson’s four pillars to change the world—in and beyond our classrooms—helps educators develop self-identification as activists, as morally courageous fighters who can better leverage their advocacy resources and influences.  I implore more celebration of the good fighter in all of us, as student, community, and democratic education’s integrity depends upon it.  Lisa Delpit’s  recently published anthology, Teaching When the World is on Fire, opens with this poignant observation—an urgent call for educator-activists to rise. “Too many schools, day in and day out, are organized to smash creativity and courage, initiative and ingenuity.  This is the brutal masquerade called school offered to the descendants of formerly enslaved human beings, First Nation peoples, and immigrants from colonized communities.” (4) For it is when we fiercely love the whole child in and beyond our classrooms and fierce-lovingly resolve to build coalition in support of all students and their families, that American culture will better realize a more complete advocacy and national impact.

Sarah Thomas is an Assistant Professor of Practice in Secondary English Education at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where she teaches pre and in-service teachers. As a teacher educator, Dr. Thomas’s passions feature innovative curriculum design, mentoring new teachers in the field, and examining how democratic and international contexts inform 21st-century education.  Exploring new cultures with family, students, and solo is a great passion.  Most recently she enjoyed co-leading study abroad experiences in comparative education with UNL students in Costa Rica and South Africa and enjoyed a professional writing workshop in Prague, Czech Republic. During this sheltering in place period, she misses her adult children, Samantha and Jack, spends a lot of time hugging on her golden doodles, taking long walks with her partner, Jay, and finding ways to creatively advance Stand in for Nebraska activism. Protecting incarcerated populations is our major focus during the pandemic.



Author: darinljensen

I am a writer and a teacher who is interested in issues of class and social justice.

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