Sonia Nieto (2006)

Teaching as Political Work: Courageous and Caring Teachers

Teaching is inherently political work. Although I do not mean to be unnecessarily provocative in making this assertion, after 40 years of teaching as both a K-12 teacher and, later, as a teacher educator, I have become convinced of the truth of this statement. Teaching is political in the sense that power and privilege—through decisions about funding, curriculum, class size, testing, tracking, and other matters of policy and practice—exacerbate rather than ease social class and race inequalities. In effect, then, education helps determine the life chances of young people based on their identities and zip codes. Teachers are an important part of this mix because what teachers say and do every day can have a tremendous impact on the lives of their students. Moreover, many of the students in our nation’s classrooms reflect the tremendous structural inequalities that are today becoming more apparent than ever before. It takes more than a little courage and tremendous amounts of care to teach the most vulnerable students, and that is the subject of this paper.

In this increasingly standardized time, how one defines teaching has important implications for both public education and professional development. Teaching as political work suggests that the current definition of “highly qualified teacher” as developed and propagated by the federal government through the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law (a definition that includes deep subject matter knowledge and passing a certification test) is insufficient because it fails to take into account other qualities that also matter in becoming a competent teacher. The current definition of “highly qualified teacher” is also insufficient because it fails to take into account the sociopolitical context of education, which includes the tremendous diversity of language, social class, ethnicity, and race, among other differences, that are a fact of life in many school systems in our nation.

As a teacher educator, I’ve had the good fortune to work with, and learn from, many extraordinary teachers. In this paper, I describe what I have found to be some of the qualities of teachers who make a positive difference in the lives of students, particularly those students who’ve been marginalized by their schooling experiences. In order to do this, I will also respond to some essential questions that I believe are at the heart of teaching. For example, what is social justice in education? What does it mean to teach for social justice? How can future teachers be prepared for diverse classrooms? And, most important, why should these questions matter to all of us, whether we are educators or not?

Because the concept of social justice figures prominently in my work and in my responses to these questions, I begin by defining what I mean by this term, particularly as it relates to education. | Read the full paper»