Must Teachers be Activists?

As one of Generation Citizen’s summer interns, I have been working on a project to help GC better define and characterize “democratic classroom culture.” As a veteran GC Mentor and Education Studies concentrator at Brown, I have encountered the term countless times in lectures, class discussions, and GC trainings. Many agree that democracy in education is an admirable ideal. However, in attempting to understand how to foster democratic culture in the classroom, I have realized what a nuanced and complex task it actually is.

After researching democracy in the classroom, I concluded that its basic characteristics are respect, choice, equal rights and freedoms, relevance, participation, and reflection. All of these seem obvious enough, but as I reflected on my experience both as a student and a GC Mentor, I realized how lacking some of those characteristics were in our education system. But why? After all, characteristics of democratic classrooms essentially mirror those of democratic governments. Sure, democracy is difficult. Read any newspaper and you’ll see that the jury’s still out on the status of the great American experiment. But why should democracy in the classroom be so hard? What is so difficult about a democracy of, say, twenty-five people? The answer is at once disheartening and enlightening: the model of public American education since day one has been that of authoritarianism. Think about it: one teacher standing in front of rows of desks, telling students exactly what they will learn and how they will learn it, chastising students when their attention spans do not last fifty minutes, and failing students when they cannot learn from a lesson and a pedagogy that was designed by a person they have never met.

I realize I have painted a pretty grim picture here. But I also think it is more common than most of us (especially those of us in education) would like to admit. I do not think that teachers are authoritarians, but rather, I think they are part of an archaic system which forces them to assume that role. Thus, it is incredibly difficult for teachers to break the mold of authoritarian education. In some cases, it might even cost them their jobs. But if teachers don’t revolutionize our schools, who will? The powers that be in education are busy arguing about what is best for students while ignoring the most valuable experts: students themselves. The only way our education system is going to best serve the needs of the students is by institutionalizing student input.

‘Education’ is derived from the Latin root ‘educo’ meaning to bring or draw out. Teachers should work tirelessly to bring out the voices of their students. Indeed, many already do. But until the American education system is turned upside down, teachers in democratic classrooms will find themselves in positions of activism, fighting to ensure that the voices of their students are heard above all else. So, teachers: keep up the good fight. It is one that students cannot afford to lose.

~Parker McClellan, Mentor and Chapter Director at Brown University and Summer GC Program Intern