Freedom to Teach

For teachers to be effective, they need the space and time for thinking and learning on their own, the support of their school systems, and the respect of their communities. Unfortunately, says an award-winning educator, many teachers find themselves adrift and beleaguered by the false promises of reform.

by Ileana Jimenez ’97

I went into teaching because I wanted young people to learn that they have the power to make the world a better place. I wanted to teach them that reading, writing, and activism can have far-reaching effects on the way we live. As author, educator, and activist bell hooks writes in the book that inspired me early on in my career, Teaching to Transgress, education is about praxis and freedom. For, as hooks writes, we are all “striving not just for knowledge in books, but knowledge about how to live in the world.”
Unfortunately, today’s teachers are so beleaguered with the empty language—and expectations—of circus slogans like “Race to the Top” and “No Child Left Behind” that it’s a miracle if we have any time to teach our students how to live in the world. Support is minimal, opportunities for intellectual growth and professional development are limited, and the pressure to raise test scores is stifling. Yet, in the face of all these challenges and political chicanery by so-called education leaders who, in many cases, have never taught one day of school, teachers manage to do their jobs. In fact, increasingly we do more than teach; we find ourselves fighting the racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia that often burdens—and sometimes kills—our students. We’re not just teaching content, we’re also providing care.
In some ways, this has always been the case, but the issues today are far more urgent. If educators are indeed in a race, it’s to save our students’ lives. We’re on the front lines when it comes to stopping the bullying of young lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students. We’re usually the first to know when students have tried cutting, attempted suicide, or abused drugs and alcohol. We read the stories they write about sexual abuse and rape. Whenever I read about queer youth suicides happening on college campuses or about intoxicated frat boys chanting misogynistic rallying cries, I think about all the work that we have yet to do in our schools. If we can teach our young people to take care of one another, then we can change the culture in which we live.
I have spent the past fourteen years as a feminist educator. Smith sparked my mission to provide young women with a life-changing education, but achieving that goal hasn’t always been easy. During the early years of my career, I struggled to find a voice in privileged, largely conservative schools that didn’t think critically about race, class, gender, or sexuality. The students who often flocked to me were the girls of color and queer girls—and, at times, a combination of both. They felt estranged. To be honest, I, too, struggled as a closeted teacher of color who learned quickly that my politics didn’t always mesh with the schools in which I taught.
With the fatigue of living a double life—that of teaching young women how to find themselves while hiding myself in the shadows—I learned that I needed to teach in a school that would allow me to bring my whole self to the classroom. What brought me to this realization was professional development. All teachers need spaces in which to find their voice and vision. Mine have been the annual National Association of Independent Schools’ People of Color Conference, which helps support independent school educators of color, and the Bard Institute for Writing and Thinking, which helps teachers develop inquiry-based writing practices. I’ve also found a home in places such as the National Women’s Studies Association as well as the Women, Action, and the Media (WAM!) conference, which attracts like-minded progressive leaders and feminist bloggers. Spending time with the mentors, scholars, and activists I’ve met through these groups has allowed me to come out as a queer feminist teacher of color and has helped me develop as a visionary advocate for change in schools.
I worry that we aren’t taking care of our teachers as professionals, that we no longer provide opportunities for teachers to think, learn, and grow. Our expertise as educators has often become secondary to arbitrary standards that have nothing to do with bringing innovation to our classrooms. If our charge is to lead our students to become young scholars, then we, too, should be seen as scholars. We need to catapult teachers to a position where we are viewed as public intellectuals, contributing to the larger discourse about teaching and learning.
To this end, schools need to provide teachers with the financial capital, cultural currency, and political cachet that will allow us to become thought leaders in our schools as well as in our communities. We need to create teacher-driven research centers within our schools where educators can gather to exchange ideas and share our practices with colleagues as well as with schools and colleges globally. The work we do should also be presented to parents and other community stakeholders who need to see that the important decisions we make are informed by our expertise.
Like college professors, teachers need time to research, plan, and write. If we create this culture of scholarship within our schools themselves, instead of only at schools of education, we might just generate a revolution, one in which we declare our authority as educators and cultivate a presence as leaders in our field.
I am currently on my own intellectual journey in Mexico on a Distinguished Fulbright Award in Teaching. A fairly new addition to the Fulbright award family, the Distinguished Fulbright provides experienced teachers with the funding to conduct research and lead professional-development workshops at local schools in a host country. As a guest researcher at Programa Universitario de Estudios de Género (PUEG), which is the gender-studies department at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), I have been interviewing high school girls on issues of gender and sexuality. I am also taking courses through PUEG as well as attending a plethora of lectures and events related to gender and education at the university and throughout Mexico City.
I intend to bring what I discover back to my school in New York, the Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School, which was founded by Smith alumna Elisabeth Irwin, class of 1903. When Irwin started the Little Red School House in 1921—and later, the high school in 1941—she envisioned school not as a place but as an experience. She wanted children to interact with one another and with the city around them rather than sit in rows. Today, this coed school still remains a leader in progressive education, upholding values such as social justice and human rights. Indeed, each year, the students in my high school course on feminism conduct an activist project supporting Girls Educational and Mentoring Services (GEMS), which works to end the commercial sexual exploitation of children in New York. I feel honored to be carrying on Irwin’s vision of inviting young people to create change with one another and with their communities.
Once I return from Mexico, my goal is to integrate my research into my feminism course as well as into my school’s conversation about diversity and equity, interdisciplinary studies, and global education. I also hope to write an article that will contribute to the larger conversation about gender and education. In the course of six months, I am fulfilling the dream I have for all educators: that of finding a room of one’s own for research and reflection that will lead to freedom in the classroom.
But I’m one of the lucky ones. So few teachers get these kinds of opportunities to fill their intellectual wells, which is truly unfortunate because the benefits can be so profound. I know that by teaching with a feminist lens, I have made a difference in my students’ lives. A Latina former student of mine is now at Cornell, where she is studying both the hospitality industry and women’s studies because she wants to change the face of business as a feminist entrepreneur. A white male former student joined a reproductive-justice organization as a volunteer, and an Indian former student started her own organization, Resolve Network, which empowers women affected by conflict to create networks of peace.
My classroom is both a space for learning and a space for action. What I have created has inspired my students to develop their own change-making visions. In my life as an educator-activist, I have reimagined what is possible in education no matter the struggle because I know that my students will take the next step. Of course, my students read and write, but they also act. Not all of my students will become activists, but they will become actors in their communities.
All teachers should be given the autonomy to create a vision alongside their students that will change the world. I say enough with the criticism, enough with bad-mouthing the work teachers do, and enough with racing. Teachers need the time, funding, and space to create classrooms—indeed, schools—that transgress rote and tired expectations of both young people and themselves. It’s time to let teachers shape their practice and their field. It’s time to let teachers be free.
Ileana Jiménez ’97 is the founder and sole blogger at Feminist Teacher. In 2009, she was named one of the 40 Women of Stonewall by the Stonewall Foundation.
Spring 2011 SAQ