Teaching and Learning: A Lifelong Path to Justice

By Susan Asiyanbi

Executive Vice President, Teacher Preparation, Support and Development

Nationwide (BlackNews.com) — From the lunch counters in Birmingham to the March on Washington, reflecting on the 50th anniversaries of the Civil Rights Movement this year has made Black History Month especially poignant. As a little girl on the south side of Chicago, I grew up with parents who did not have many material things, but built a home rooted in love and a deep belief in my ability to achieve anything with a great education. I had the rare chance to attend schools that many of my peers could not access and, from a young age, I understood the disparity in the quality of education from school to school and neighborhood to neighborhood.

Today, as Teach For America’s executive vice president for teacher preparation, support, and development, I’m grateful for my home and my background, and draw from my experiences each day to inform my approach to how we develop teachers. I recently had the opportunity to collaborate and connect with hundreds of committed educators, instructional coaches, and experts to share my reflections on the social justice implications of work in education, and the importance of self-knowledge and community partnership as pathways to providing the quality of education that will open our students’ hearts and minds to their own potential and to future life opportunities.

From 36 states, we gathered in Memphis to discuss teaching as an act of leadership in the context of the city’s historical contribution to the fight for civil rights. Grounded in the history and spirit of that city, I challenged the group to embrace our collective responsibility to demonstrate the strength and assets of our students so they are supported and empowered to believe in their potential and chart a path to achieve their aspirations.

I am more convinced than ever that teachers who create personal transformational experiences for their students are leaders who reflect on their identity and the implications of it, given the narrative in our country around race, class, and privilege. They understand cultural context and its integration with pedagogy and help their students to see the great pride and beauty in their own heritage. Classroom leadership, boldness, and clarity of vision are central to what it will take to empower our students’ to reach their deep potential.

I am also convinced that our teachers and students cannot walk this journey alone. We need only look to exemplars of change to understand how change happens. During the Civil Rights Movement, a social, political, and economic shift in this country occurred because of visionary leadership and unprecedented cooperation. Our teachers and kids need leadership and cooperation from all of us — the parents, volunteers, advocates, allies, and concerned citizens of their communities.

Giving of ourselves is part of what will be required to reach that day when opportunity in our communities is equitably and consistently available. Being a part of the solution is not an easy task and does not come without some challenges along the way. So many people before us have sacrificed their lives so we can continue to forge the road ahead; and we too will have our own set of sacrifices to pave the road for those who follow us.

When I find myself looking for inspiration and the courage to sacrifice, I look to Dr. King. His words are a compass on the way to equity and justice: “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable…Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.” I urge each and every one of us to think about the role we can and must play on the path to justice – our children’s futures hang in the balance.

Susan Asiyanbi is the Executive Vice President, Teacher Preparation, Support and Development at Teach For America.