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  • Paula Cristina Azevedo, PhD

The case for a mindful approach to social justice education

A mindful approach to Social Justice Education

This semester has been quite busy for me, which is why I’ve been on hiatus from this blog for six months. It’s not that I haven’t been thinking or practicing mindfulness in and outside of the classroom, but rather I’ve been so dedicated to this work and developing skills that I haven’t had time to publish blog posts lately, and for that I apologize. But, now that I’m back I’d like to explore a topic that is near and dear to my heart and the core of my work as a teacher educator, which is social justice.

I’m always upfront with my students by explaining to them that the work that I do and what I teach is grounded is a mindful approach to social justice, which I define as simply creating a compassionate and curious learning environment where the whole-student is loved for who they are, and as a justice oriented teacher I advocate for equity and justice for and with students. Needless to say, we need more mindfulness and social justice in the world. Perhaps more than ever.

We are facing a barrage of injustices that impact our students, their families, and our communities directly. As teachers we are on the ground witnesses to the very real impacts that federal, state and local policies have on our students. For instance, in the past year schools have seen a decline of attendance of immigrant students or students whose family immigrated to the United States (see this WAMU report by Jenny Abamu). This decline of school attendance is a direct result of federal immigration policies and the way these policies are being implemented in our communities. Parents are afraid to drop off their children in school and children are fearful of attending school, because they don’t know if they’ll be temporarily separated or worse, ever see each other.

As mindful and justice oriented teachers, we walk in every day wanting to teach and have a positive impact on the youth we interact with. We don’t question their immigration status, their political party, their religious beliefs. We see our students as whole and full of possibilities. However, in the current political and policy climate in the United States teaching our children has become even more difficult, because our students are living in fear. Fearful of failing their standardized tests and being defined by a single score. Fearful of being separated from friends and family. Fearful of senseless violence in our communities. The thing is that our students are not alone in their fears. We share their fears.

Of course my answer to these injustices is mindful social justice. So, how do we walk on a more mindful path towards justice? This is a fair question and one that I’ve been grappling with. To be honest, I don’t have a complete or perhaps even a right answer, but based on my own exploration of this I’ve come up with a starting point that justice oriented teachers can use as a guide in becoming more mindful of their words, actions, and even teaching practices when advocating for and with our students and communities.

First, we have to answer the question “why?”. Why is social justice important? And why a mindful approach to social justice? And this means having a very honest reflection on your personal and professional journey that has put you on this path towards peace and justice. Notice the themes that emerge from this deep contemplation about your experience. What patterns and themes do see? These themes will help you answer the question of why you are a mindful social justice educator. I want to caution you that as you reflect you may notice that you are not as “woke” as you thought you were. Don’t be shocked by this realization. No one is fully “woke,” because just like our teaching practices, mindful social justice is a path that really has no end point. And like any path you take in life you may at times walk a little slower than others, you may stumble, veer off on a slightly different direction, but as long as you continue to return to the path with awareness and compassion you’ll continue to walk on the path towards peace and justice.

Second, notice the language you use frequently when describing your work, school, and students. As I delve deeper into the path of mindfulness and peace I find myself questioning the words and methods used in social justice circles. I have found that the pitfall with social justice is that those in the forefront of social justice tend to use language and strategies of the current culture, such as the terms “social justice warriors,” or “combating injustices.” The use of words like warrior and combating invokes images of war and battles and in every war there is an enemy. To be truly on the path of mindful social justice we must be more mindful in our language and actions.

So, I invite mindful social justice teachers (or anyone who is justice oriented) to acknowledge that there is no enemy. We are all one. We are all on the same human path, and on this path we are learning, struggling, and making mistakes. We all breathe the same air, share the same DNA, drink the same water, eat the same food, and share the same world. Instead, the language of peace welcomes everyone to the table. Allowing everyone a space to share their narratives, perspectives and be heard. As teachers we must avoid this pitfall of using violent language and really evaluate what it means to be a mindful social justice educator. If it is to be combative, to pit people against each other, to force people into submission, then we cannot state that our teaching practices are rooted in mindfulness and justice. As mindful and justice-oriented teacher we can begin to examine our language that we use on a daily basis, especially in the classroom and in the workroom. What words do you frequently use that is based on violence, that is negative, or that may harm others? Notice the patterns of your language with curiosity and compassion. Again, be honest with yourself, while also holding a space of compassion as you reflect on the language you use. (I’ll probably write a blog post on just this idea of mindful language, because this is so important and often overlooked.)

Third, as justice oriented teachers you can examine and re-examine our curriculum. Asking yourself, “Does the curriculum I teach align with peace and justice?” Then dig a little deeper with curiosity about how the curriculum does or does not support a mindful justice-oriented education. It’s important to be honest with yourself, while also being compassionate. You may realize that what you thought was a justice oriented curriculum was superficial or simply doesn’t exist in your practice right now. After taking an honest inventory of the curriculum you can make the necessary adjustments for next year. By the way, this process can be done with a colleague that shares your justice oriented teaching philosophy and practices. Your colleague doesn’t have to teach the same grade or subject area. They are there to be a sounding board. Someone you can share ideas, ask questions, and support you through this process of examining the curriculum. This person may also want to participate in evaluating their own curriculum through the lens of peace and justice. You both can help each other with this process.

Infographic A mindful approach to Social Justice Education

Next, it’s important to evaluate your teaching practices. This is where having a reflective

practice can be helpful. Educators are constantly reflecting on their lessons and assessments, and adjusting throughout the day to meet students’ needs. However, we often get lost in the daily minutiae that we forget to step back and reflect on the big picture. So, ask yourself, “How does compassionate, justice-oriented teaching manifest itself in my daily teaching practices?” For example, does your teaching practice support all learners? Do you have a student-centered teaching practice? Do you offer your students choice? Is your classroom environment and instruction co-created with students and other teachers? Do you consistently include various perspectives, voices, cultures in the classroom? Again, dig deep, be honest, and have compassion towards yourself. This is profound reflective work you’re doing. This reflection can improve your practice in the long-term and better align with your teaching philosophy.

Five, share your mindful justice-oriented views and practices with other teachers, administrators, parents, and community leaders. The world needs more teachers like YOU! It no longer serves your students, colleagues, schools, and communities for compassionate social justice educators to shut your classroom door, do your own “thing” in the classroom, and not share with others. This means systematically collecting data on your practices and students’ socio-emotional and/or academic progress in the classroom, and sharing your stories with the learning community. It is through your powerful narrative that teachers and administrators who may be reluctant to be mindful justice-oriented or don’t know how to incorporate peace and justice into their practices can best be supported.

Finally, as mindful and justice oriented teachers be open to reflecting, reevaluating, and revising. As I mentioned earlier this path towards peace and justice is for a lifetime. So, you’re bound to make mistakes, veer off course, or even stumble into creative solutions, but you won’t recognize any of this if you don’t pause and reflect on your practices. In addition, you must not be afraid to reevaluate your instruction, classroom habits, and learning material. As your students change and as you grow so must your practices and material, but this can only happen if you invite yourself and others to reevaluate your practices. Then revise and make the necessary changes to refresh your teaching.

Of course all of this sounds so simple when you read about it, but the struggle is putting justice and peace into practice in the classroom, especially when faced with a mountain of challenges in our communities, schools, and classrooms. So, do what you can today, do what you can tomorrow, and continue to do what you can each day. You may notice that you can do a lot more than you thought, and as a result you’re that much closer to peace and justice.

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