“A teacher in struggle is also teaching.” Lately, this phrase has been on my mind.
On Nov. 17, I marched with the Wall Street occupiers and thousands of other New Yorkers. We were protesting the occupation’s eviction from Zuccoti Park and proclaiming that the movement was as alive as ever. I cannot claim any deep involvement with the occupation movement, but it has inspired me. Marching the streets of New York with tens of thousands of students, teachers, nurses, janitors, and other occupiers inspired me even more.
Like many teachers, I often get pessimistic. Budget cuts, attacks from the media, and an ever-growing pile of ungraded assignments make the idea of progress seem like a fantasy. Watching the Occupy Wall Street forces build a movement over the past couple of months has reminded that cynicism is not only unproductive, but it is always rooted in illusion.
Day after day, we teachers grade our papers, teach our lessons, create predictable routines for our students, and so it’s natural that the world would start to look stale and stagnant. Yet all teachers know that stagnation is an illusion. Month after month and year after year, we see new life emerge from these repetitive routines. Behind their tired eyes, our students learn until one day, seemingly out of the blue, those tired, distracted children have become writers, scientists, and actors. It’s why we chose this occupation.
Growth is real; movement is real. As teachers, we are responsible for directing that growth in small, but significant ways. A student who three months ago claimed to hate reading is now frustrated because we’re reading The Odyssey too slowly. Two other students are gossiping in terrible, ninth-grade Spanish. Small moments, but the Occupy movement has shown us that small moments can turn into big things.
No matter how lazy or unmotivated they seem, our students (like all people) are curious and enthusiastic. They’re excited about learning and frustrated when they don’t learn enough. They hate being bored; they hate thinking there’s more to life and they can’t figure out how to find it. Like the occupiers from Wall Street and Oakland and Tahrir Square, our students (in their best moments) have had enough of sitting at desks and filling in scantron sheets. They want to build something new.
A teacher in struggle is also teaching — this phrase comes from the Spanish, “El maestro luchando también está enseñando.” This was the chant of Mexican teachers in the state of Oaxaca who fought corrupt government officials and union leaders who went along with these officials. They occupied the main plaza in Oaxaca City, setting up tents and camping for weeks at a time. They marched with electrical workers, parents, students and other Oaxacans who believed that their democracy was failing — that it was, in fact, an illusion. I thought about these teachers when I was marching towards the Brooklyn Bridge two weeks ago.
On Nov. 30, I will be marching again as part of the “Budget Cuts Hurt Our Schools” coalition of teachers, students, and parents from Leon M. Goldstein High School for the Sciences. We are opposing Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s budget cuts and the ongoing lack of advocacy for city schools from the mayor’s office that together threaten once again to slash funding from hospitals, transportation, firehouses, libraries, and especially schools. Teachers, students, and parents from schools across Brooklyn will be marching to save our schools, but also to save our city. Transit workers (whose union has endorsed the rally) will be joining us, as will firefighters, health care professionals, and other concerned New Yorkers.
As teachers, our job is to care for students. Sometimes that means planning lessons; sometimes that means grading papers. Sometimes it means struggling through a lesson while the students stare at us like zombies. We know how to struggle. This is our occupation.
Right now, caring for our students means more than simply planning lessons. It also means making sure the world into which they graduate has something to offer them. It means making sure their horizons aren’t limited by city and state officials who cut school funding. It means showing our students that the democracy we advertise to them, from their first day of kindergarten through their senior year, is not merely an illusion.
Please join us on Nov. 30. We plan to meet at 4 p.m. outside the Coney Island/Stillwell subway station and march to Abraham Lincoln High School, a mile away. A teacher in struggle is also teaching.