Can an Independent School Teacher Be Socially Just?

Fall 2020

By Moses Rifkin and Lisa Sibbett

Schools are uniquely positioned to change the world, and the opportunity to make positive change draws many teachers to the profession. For the 15% of American teachers working in independent schools,1 however, these sincere aims can feel stymied by independent schools’ exclusivity—exclusivity made ever more clear as COVID-19 and the recent uprisings for racial justice have revealed deep inequities in our society. As a longtime independent school teacher (Moses) and an academic who researches teaching and learning in independent schools (Lisa), we have experienced firsthand the doubts that can plague independent school educators: Am I part of the problem? What impact is my work having on my students and society? Should I leave independent school teaching entirely? These are legitimate questions, and worth asking. Our view is that while independent schooling does undoubtedly function to reproduce inequity, education in independent schools can and should serve the needs of social justice. In this article, we encourage independent school educators who are committed to social justice to consider staying where you are and using your position to help bring about the world you want to see.

When we refer to “social justice,” we mean to indicate the critique and disruption of structural inequity as it pertains to a range of identities: race, class, gender and gender expression, sexuality, ability, religion, age, citizenship status, language, and so on. Robust social justice education helps students see how certain groups and individuals benefit systematically from unearned opportunities and how others are harmed. Furthermore, it helps students take steps to undo the systems producing this uneven landscape. According to this framing, celebrating the contributions of people from different cultures is valuable but is not “social justice education” per se. Defining social justice with precision is important because when we conflate celebrating diversity with disrupting injustice, we risk conveying the message that as long as diverse faces are seen in our hallways and diverse voices are represented in our curriculum, no further work remains to be done. On the contrary, meaningful social justice education requires exposing oppression, envisioning a better world, and taking steps to bring it about.

Independent school teachers have often expressed their concern that their institutions cannot accommodate this robust concept of social justice education. Admissions at independent schools are inherently exclusive, and tuition costs are prohibitive for many students and their families. This exclusive quality and the elite status that accompanies it are what attract some families. Even when independent schools tout a social justice mission, they nevertheless serve to concentrate resources and exacerbate inequities; even when they admit a diverse student body, students from nondominant social groups rarely feel truly included.2 According to independent school teachers we’ve spoken with, these realities make many of them deeply uncomfortable. Progressive educator Paulo Freire spoke to this discomfort in 1970 when he wrote: “No one can be authentically human while he prevents others from being so.”3 Independent school teachers’ worries are justified, and we share them.

Indeed, independent schools’ efforts to contribute to building a more just society sometimes inadvertently reproduce inequities. Terms like “social justice” and “diversity, equity, and inclusion” appear with increasing frequency on independent schools’ websites and publicity materials. Service learning, school-sponsored trips to impoverished countries in the Global South, and increased admissions of students of color are all held up as examples of independent schools working for social justice. Yet in most cases, these efforts do little to expose, critique, or disrupt injustice. Are students learning why homelessness exists on their service trip to the food bank? Are they asked to consider the long-term health of communities in the countries they visit—or to explore how their visit might exacerbate inequity by reproducing white savior narratives? Are independent schools exploiting students with historically marginalized identities to check a box? While such programs may reflect good intentions, if they do not help students to critique and disrupt the systems that reproduce inequities, they are not advancing the needs of social justice.

Given these problems with independent schools, and the urgency of fighting injustice, teachers with social justice commitments may be tempted to decamp to the public schools— particularly schools serving poverty-impacted, racially and ethnically diverse youth. Recruiting and retaining committed teachers in such schools is necessary and important work. That said, we question the assumption that schools serving oppressed communities are the only sites for righting historical wrongs. Locating social justice education exclusively in oppressed communities reflects a false belief that injustice happens only “out there”—that independent schools are not sites of systemic marginalization and exploitation.

Moreover, history shows that systemic change requires pressure from both outside and inside the system. Our own thinking has been influenced by the work of philosopher Eric Olin Wright, who calls for “symbiotic” coalitions of stakeholders who are positioned both within and outside of institutions of power.4 Each teacher must make a personal choice about whether to work from outside or inside the independent school system. We argue that teachers in independent schools can play a role in social justice education for at least three reasons.

First, teaching in independent schools brings teachers into contact with a population in particular need of social justice education. It is critical for privileged people to confront power and oppression, and independent schools’ populations are more privileged than most. (Granted, not all independent school students are white and wealthy, but many are, and all independent school students enjoy access to power and opportunity as a result of their independent schooling.) Independent school students may be unlikely to become change agents without social justice education. Moreover, privileged people play a fundamental role in efforts to build a more just world because they are able to contribute substantial material resources and political influence to the struggle. Billionaire philanthropists like Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, for example, have mobilized enormous resources in their efforts to improve the lives of poor and minoritized communities around the world.

Yet while privileged people’s political and economic influence may offer invaluable resources in the struggle for social justice, it is important to also recognize that privileged people are only able to be part of the solution because of their roles in perpetuating the problem. This brings us to our second point about why teachers in independent schools can and should play a key role in social justice education: Privileged communities are primary sites for the production and perpetuation of unequal social relations and are therefore ground zero for disrupting these processes. The aforementioned philanthropists have been criticized for “constantly seek[ing] to do more good, but never less harm.”5 Privileged young people can and should be held to a higher standard. Teachers need to help independent school students recognize their complicity in exploitative systems and support them in taking steps to disrupt social systems that subjugate others on their behalf.

Third and finally, conflicted teachers can help reconcile their own cognitive dissonance about trying to do social justice work in privileged spaces. We empathize with the distress that teachers who remain in independent schools may feel, but we encourage them not to get stuck in that distress. As independent school teacher and activist Rosetta Lee has said: “Guilt is a great place to start, because it tells me you’re a good person, but it’s a terrible place to end. I have never heard anyone say, ‘I feel guilty, so I’m going to go change the world.’"6 The sidebar outlines some concrete suggestions for making social justice efforts in independent schools robust, compassionate, and sustainable. Through such forms of committed action for social justice, teachers can begin to honor their social responsibilities and reclaim their humanity.

Enacting social justice education in independent schools may at times be risky and difficult, and it can be scary to undertake—but it is worth it. We have been repeatedly bolstered in this work by hearing marginalized students in independent schools say that they feel more seen, more heard, more understood. We have been energized when our own more privileged students begin to express and act on social justice commitments—for example, getting involved in social movements for racial or environmental justice in ways they might not otherwise have done. In short, social justice teaching offers a means of working at independent schools that is aligned with what we most value.

For teachers who opt to remain in independent schools, the bar is high. Staying within independent schools without taking steps to undo the systems they represent perpetuates injustice. If we commit to our intention of contributing to systemic change, we must also turn up the temperature on our social justice efforts, holding ourselves and colleagues accountable for undertaking meaningful action. Turning up the temperature means revisiting curriculum and pedagogy to ensure that it not only celebrates diversity but also exposes and disrupts injustice. Turning up the temperature means taking a hard look at how our social justice initiatives and policies may serve to reproduce racist and oppressive relationships within our school and between our school and the community. Turning up the temperature means engaging one another in uncomfortable conversations—lovingly, courageously, and continuously.

Left unchanged, independent schools will always contribute to reproducing inequity, but this only makes the work of socially just teaching in such schools more urgent. To those teachers staying in independent schools, we offer the following encouragements: Your students need you to help them see what they cannot currently see and learn how to change it; our independent schools need you to help transform the nature of independent schooling in America; and our society needs you to help produce the people who will help us move toward justice. All students need social justice education, and independent school teachers have a unique role to play in providing it.

Notes

National Center for Education Statistics, “Teacher Characteristics and Trends”; online at https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/
2 Taylor Lorenz and Katherine Rosman, “High School Students and Alumni Are Using Social Media to Expose Racism, “ The New York Times, June 16, 2020.
3 Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. Myra Ramos (New York: Continuum, 1970), p. 85.
4 Eric Olin Wright, Envisioning Real Utopias (Brooklyn: Verso, 2010).
5 Anand Giridharadas, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2018).
6 Rosetta Eun Ryong Lee, “Who We Are: Racial/Ethnic Identity Development for Educators and Youth,” presentation at the NAIS People of Color Conference, Seattle, WA, December 4-7, 2019.

Social Justice Education in Independent Schools

There is no single correct approach to social justice teaching, any more than there is a single correct approach to teaching physics. As in physics teaching, though, some teaching practices are more likely than others to produce the learning outcomes we desire. We offer these perspectives and suggestions as places from which to build, and we encourage teachers practicing social justice education in independent schools to work individually and collectively to seek enactments aligned with their communities, skills, and roles. Remember: Social justice education helps students critique and disrupt structural inequities.

  • Not all discomfort is problematic. When we are confronting injustice, discomfort is inevitable—especially for injustice’s beneficiaries—and unpleasant emotions such as denial, anger, or confusion might indicate engagement and deep consideration rather than rejection. If, for example, a curriculum meant to promote racial justice leaves students of color feeling even more disadvantaged, that’s a problem; if it makes privileged white students productively confused, it could be the start of meaningful learning. The test of social justice education is not whether the majority feel comfortable but whether injustice is disrupted.
  • Don’t lose heart. Early attempts at social justice education may not go smoothly, but the same is true for many efforts in teaching. When we try a new lesson on Newton’s Second Law, we recognize that several attempts and refinements will produce the best lesson for students; we encourage teachers to bring to social justice teaching the same patience, commitment to iteration and long-term thinking that they bring to teaching other subjects. 
  • Find support for social justice efforts in school statements. Mission, vision, and values statements—including in independent school marketing materials—often endorse social justice efforts tacitly or explicitly and can be used as a jumping-off point for conversations with students, colleagues, parents, and administrators and for taking steps to hold those groups accountable.  
  • Examine what happens “in here” as much as—or more than—“out there.” Since independent schools reproduce inequity, they provide fertile ground for exploring equality and justice. For example, a conversation about systemic racism in society that ignores patterns of students of color being silenced in our own classrooms represents a missed opportunity—and is arguably hypocritical.  
  • Attend to classroom experiences of students with marginalized identities. Avoid asking these students to speak for their social group but also notice if they avoid sharing their experiences or if their ideas are not treated as credible by peers. Without singling them out, practice elevating marginalized students’ contributions to support their privileged classmates in positioning them as credible knowers.
  • Debrief and learn in community. A seemingly failed social justice unit can lead to productive conversations within a professional learning community or with students the next day; a schoolwide equity initiative that falls flat can be the start of ongoing professional development for school staff.
  • Make space for students to take action. Students feel empowered when we help them recognize the resources (financial, interpersonal, intellectual, and character-wise) they can leverage, ask them what they can accomplish collectively, and then dedicate class time to identifying and implementing action steps. Action can take many forms, from participating in a political protest to attending a neighborhood meeting; from contacting elected representatives to starting conversations with classmates or family members about a social issue.
  • When undertaking social justice work in a community outside the school, create systems of strong and consistent accountability to that community. Independent schools’ social justice initiatives—community service projects, international trips to impoverished countries, and the like—are prone to reproducing inequity, as students may learn to think of themselves as saviors of oppressed communities perpetually in need of their help and advice. It is important to build partnerships of accountability in communities where service work is undertaken—to ask questions, to listen, and to follow the lead of members of those communities. 
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel. As much as we believe that teachers must create their own approach to social justice education, we also recognize that many educators have already done powerful work in this space. We recommend the following resources:
Moses Rifkin

Moses Rifkin (Mrifkin@universityprep.org) teaches science and coaches at University Prep, an independent school in Seattle, WA.

Lisa Sibbett

Lisa Sibbett (lizalou@uw.edu) is a lecturer at the University of Washington, Bothell, WA, where she is the lead field instructor for secondary teacher education.