Traditions of Struggle: Teaching as a Spiritual Practice

Struggling myself don’t mean a whole lot, I’ve come to realize/that teaching others to stand and fight is the only way my struggle survives.” – Bernice Johnson Reagon, Sweet Honey in the Rock

When the goal of teaching is to pass on struggle, the role of the educator must be reconsidered.

I have been thinking a great deal lately about whether being a classroom teacher is actually what I envision myself doing. There were countless interventions made in my own life through the vehicle of education, and some of the most influential people in my own identity and political formations have been dedicated teachers. I have imagined for some time that teaching might be a sustainable way to make a commitment to public learning and oppressed communities in similar ways to which I felt certain educators were committed to my community as a young person. The more I am involved in classrooms and the larger world of education, however, the more I question these basic assumptions, many of which I have held since I was a kid. The more time I spend observing the inner workings of public school teaching, the less I see it as sustainable, as transformative, and as the kind of learning I feel my community is most in need and deserving of.

This past weekend, after going to church with one of my friends, I ate dinner with her and another member of her congregation. We were having an amazing discussion about our different relationships with organized religion, spaces of worship, and our own personal senses of spirituality. The other congregation member asked me from where I derived my own spirituality, a question which I don’t think I’d ever been asked so directly. I thought for a moment, then answered that, more than anything else, what grounds and sustains me through all of my journeys is my connection to and reliance on the wisdom of my ancestors. When I am in periods of difficulty and doubt, I think about what those in my own blood line have had to endure, combat and survive in order for me to exist in the current moment. It is this knowledge, and the innumerable forms it takes (language, music, organizing, cooking, dance, poetry, home remedies, etc.) which give me purpose, and keeps me moving when I don’t know how.

There is perhaps no way in which I identify more important to me than my coming from a lineage of oppressed collectives–namely African slaves, Native and Irish/Celtic peoples. While each of these historical lines bares vastly different and sometimes inharmonious lessons, there is one thing they all teach me of which I am conscious at every moment: My history is one of lost histories, of mindfully concealed and erased struggles against empire, forced labor, global capitalism and the ravaging of the environment. My home is a continent in which the only legacies I can claim are sexual violence, strategic disenfranchisement and genocide. Acknowledging that I am still captive in a land bent on my destruction, where awareness of my own history is constantly being stolen from me, how do I move forward? How do I ground myself, make a home, and recreate my history? The answer to this question, in my mind, is teaching. Reimagining my history as one of struggle, and taking on the responsibility of keeping those struggles alive by passing them on to new generations, is where I believe teaching becomes powerful, and a profoundly spiritual practice. For I am most connected to my ancestors when I honor their struggles for justice, and I am most honoring of those struggles when I recommit myself and my community to maintaining their ongoing efforts. This means of bonding identity, community and spirit is what I love most about the learning process, and focusing that process on our collective liberation is my greatest desire.

There is no question in my mind that teaching can be a radical practice, one which is deeply political, spiritual and communally empowering. What I struggle with is whether the commitment to traditions of struggle can take place in a traditional public school classroom. I do not feel close to my ancestors when I am teaching math or literature, and while making subjects like these “culturally relevant” is a battle in which I know countless radical educators to be engaged, I cannot help but wonder if the transformation of academics is not needed as much as a transformation of our definition of learning itself–what it encompasses, where it takes place, and who it involves. Teaching the histories of Brown people, of queers, of struggles for reparations, of movements for basic human rights–these are the areas I care about most as an educator, and weaving them into standard(ized) curricula is not my idea of justice. More and more, I sense that making the information available to our communities which is most necessary for their empowerment and survival is a task that must be taken on by our communities themselves. Less and less am I interested in being a teacher, but rather in being an educator dedicated to radical learning, in all fields, on all fronts, wherever it is able to take root.

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