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The Importance of Self-Reflection When Teaching Social Justice Topics

Teaching social justice in the classroom can lead your students to become social advocates and learn that they can lead to change in the world.

While not a new topic, the need and desire to address social justice concepts and teach lessons with social justice components are taking greater and greater prominence in many classrooms. 

Teaching social justice in the classroom can lead your students to become social advocates and learn that they can lead to change in the world.

This guest blog post was written by Rebecca Gettelman, who is a middle and high school teacher from the Midwest. She has been teaching for over eleven years.

These important and timely lessons can help develop more socially aware and justice-driven students and future leaders. As important as these issues are, they can be very emotionally fraught, requiring a great deal of sensitivity and awareness to teach successfully. 

One of the most important things that you can do as a teacher before beginning to teach social justice lessons is to spend some time reflecting on yourself and what you plan to teach.  

This period of self-examination can not only help make your lesson more effective and avoid certain pitfalls, but it can also help make you a better teacher.

Below are six basic reflection questions, along with some background and rationale that I encourage you to think about as you prepare your social justice lesson. These are as relevant to a stand-alone lesson as they are to an entire unit plan. 

Free Teaching Social Justice Resource

I encourage you to download and use a more detailed version of this reflection from Teachers Pay Teachers – Teaching Social Justice: A Self-Reflection Article and Activity for Teachers. It is free and can provide a more in-depth and directed reflective exercise as you prepare.

Question One: Why Do I Want To Teach These Activities?

Putting into words your rationale and objectives for a particular lesson will help give direction and focus to all components of that lesson. 

It will also help provide you with an argument for the importance of what you are teaching should you get any pushback from students, parents, or even your administration.  

Additionally, rationales and objectives can help you determine if your students are getting what you aim for them to get out of the lesson, as well as help prevent you from getting significantly off-topic or into unprepared-for territory as you teach.

Question Two: How Have I Laid The Adequate Groundwork For This Activity?

A common mistake when teaching lessons related to social justice is not adequately preparing yourself, your students, and your classroom environment for the material. 

These can be emotionally and politically charged topics, all components of which you need to be prepared to address, or you can do harm even when you have the best intentions. 

  • Is your classroom a safe space for discussing these topics? 
  • Have you provided your students with the relevant historical, cultural, and social context? 
  • Are you, as the teacher, prepared to lead the discussion in a sensitive and knowledgeable manner?  

These are not “no-prep” topics that can or should be taught in an off-the-cuff manner. Emotional, topical, and environmental groundwork is a must.

Question Three: What Biases Do I Have Myself?

There is a song in the Broadway musical Avenue Q called “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.” While there is a significant component of humour to this number, complete with a kick line and puppets, it reminds us that we all come with our own biases and preconceptions, no matter our backgrounds or intentions.  

Things like gender, ethnicity, race, sexual identity, religious and educational background, social and emotional upbringing, geographic and community identity, and so many more things affect our life experiences and shape who we are as individuals and our thought processes and behaviour. 

Only by intentionally and specifically recognizing these can we minimize their effects on our teaching and conduct.

Question Four: In What Ways Have I Personally Benefitted From Or Been Harmed By Bias?

As with Question Three, recognizing bias and its effects on ourselves is crucial to address social justice successfully. Pinpointing the benefits and harms that bias has caused in our own lives is an important first step in identifying the emotions and thought processes that these events have developed within us. 

Emotions and opinions are valid and important, but if we only allow them to manifest subconsciously or recognize them as irrefutable facts true to everyone, then they can impact our lessons and teach in unintended and possibly negative ways.

Question Five: Which Of My Students May Struggle With Or Even Be Triggered By This Lesson?

Even with the best intentions, even with a very carefully researched and thought-out game plan, even when you have done a spectacular job of preparing yourself and your students for this type of lesson, there is a chance (possibly a good chance) that you may have a triggered student in your class when teaching social justice lessons. 

That doesn’t mean you should shy away from these important topics; it does mean that you need to be prepared for them. How will you watch for triggered students (even ones you don’t expect), and what will you do if and when this happens? Being vigilant for these students and having a plan in place will help you address this eventuality appropriately and with sensitivity.

Question Six: What Changes Might I Need To Make To This Lesson To Fit It To The Needs Of My Students And The Situation?

Each group of students and every situation is different, with different backgrounds and needs. No matter how perfect your lesson, no matter what expert prepared it, and no matter how spot-on it has been in the past, you need to tailor your materials for teaching social justice to your present students and circumstances. 

You are the expert on your students and your classroom – don’t be afraid to make changes to fit the needs of these specifics.

Resources For Teaching Social Justice

Click here to find more of Rebecca Gettelman’s social justice resources.

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