A Social Justice Framework for Teachers: Key Concepts and Applications
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“Social justice” is a term that is both easy to support in general (Is any educator for social injustice?) and challenging to define in the specific. This entry will provide a brief conceptual overview of social justice followed by three suggested frameworks for application.
Roots of Global Social Justice
Different cultural, contextual, and situational aspects affect how social justice is understood in different societies. Full coverage of competing views of social justice both historically and globally is well beyond the scope of this entry. However, there are several recurring themes. For example, for those living in nations deeply rooted in Catholicism, there is a rich tradition of the incorporation of social justice language and ideas into Catholic teaching and liturgy, to the point where the term might be seen as a source of inspiration or derision depending on one’s perspective as the term is associated with calls for social reform (Adams 2013). There is also a long history of social justice movements being tied to anti-colonialism among non-Western societies. For example, while in many Anglo societies notions of social justice are often tied into full integration of all cultural groups within a society, from the perspective of many indigenous populations that have been colonized by Anglo settlers social justice may be about the ability to preserve one’s customs and traditions and have autonomy to make different choices (Weaver 2014).
Educational Perspectives on Social Justice
Broad in scope, this definition contains many subareas within social justice. One subarea is distributive justice. Distributive justice is about how resources are allocated, with equity the most common goal. A second subarea is procedural justice. Procedural justice relates to how decisions are made, particularly as relates to the concept of fairness. For example, devising a decision-making structure where all parties have a fair opportunity for input and influence before the decision is reached is a positive example of procedural justice, whereas shutting people out of decisions and making decisions based on unfair criteria are examples of violations of procedural justice. Finally, relational justice speaks to how we treat one another. Often relational justice dimensions connect directly to elements of cultural diversity. For example, tolerating homophobic jokes is a violation of relational justice, whereas ensuring the psychological safety of all students, no matter their sexual orientation, is an example of relational justice. Relational justice highlights that we are interdependent – while all humans should have the right to speak and act freely, we all also have social responsibility to respect and protect the rights of others.
…social justice is both a process and a goal. The goal of social justice is full and equal participation of all groups in a society that is mutually shaped to meet their needs. Social justice includes a vision of society in which the distribution of resources is equitable and all members are physically and psychologically safe and secure. We envision a society in which individuals are both self-determining (able to develop their full capacities) and interdependent (capable of interacting democratically with others). Social justice involves social actors who have a sense of their own agency as well as a sense of social responsibility toward and with others, their society, and the broader world in which we live. (p. 21)
Application of Social Justice Principles in Teaching
Inasmuch as social justice is a broad and ambitious concept, breaking the term down into subareas can be helpful. Engaging in practice that reflects social justice is also a broad and ambitious notion that can be hard to conceptualize concretely. There are at least three primary ways to actualize social justice principles in one’s practice as a teacher. First, social justice can be actualized as an aspirational goal. Second, social justice can be viewed as a filter for taking in information. Finally, social justice can be seen as a series of discrete action steps that challenge structural inequities.
Application #1: Social Justice as an Aspirational Goal
While standards of practice may vary from region to region and country to country, educators share the common vision to put children in the best possible position to thrive educationally, developmentally, socially, and psychologically. Viewing social justice as an aspirational goal can bring meaning and motivation to the work of educators.
Different educators have different visions of what social justice looks like. These different visions relate to many aspects of one’s cultural, philosophical, and personal value system. For example, is it more socially just to target one’s efforts as a teacher toward students with the greatest needs, knowing that children with comparatively fewer needs may receive less attention as a result, as characterized by an ethic of care? Or perhaps should a teacher prioritize one’s efforts toward actions that impact the greatest number of children, as in a utilitarian philosophy, knowing that the children with the greatest educational needs may not be fully reached? A crucial first step in developing as an agent of social justice as a teacher is thinking through one’s personal and professional value system as relates to one’s vision for social justice. Perhaps teachers prioritize a respectful and supportive class climate for all of their students, as in a relational and procedural justice perspective. Or perhaps one’s top priority is to ensure that students are getting their basic needs met, both educationally and otherwise, as in a distributive justice perspective. Most likely one has several priorities. A vision for social justice implies both a critique of the existing social and educational structure in which one is teaching and thoughtful deliberation on an alternative vision one is trying to achieve as a teacher.
Application #2: Adopting a Critical Mind-Set
A second way of applying social justice principles to teaching is through how one filters information on a day-to-day basis. Like any other practice, realizing social justice consists of hard work, addressing imperfections, undergoing challenges, and experiencing triumphs. This takes mental rigor and discipline – no one is perfect in this regard. In its application, social justice serves as a function of monitored language, intentional actions, established spaces, and open-minded values. All these functions take considerable time and resources – which are highly valued commodities among educators. Because teachers currently face a host of responsibilities and pressures that extend beyond the role of presenting valuable curriculum to students, asking teachers to incorporate a social justice mind-set into their daily routines may seem unrealistic. However, being a critical analyst of information and engaging in mindful teaching practices have numerous benefits that can both enhance student success and minimize time-consuming academic and behavioral struggles.
There are two primary values that undergird the “social justice as a mindset” perspective – child rights and multiculturalism. Rooted in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, a child rights perspective is focused on ensuring that all children, regardless of background, have certain basic rights, such as the right to food, shelter, and physical and psychological safety. In the educational realm, there are several Convention components that speak to child rights, such as Article 28, which recognizes the right of all children to education, and Article 29, which indicates that this education should be aimed toward helping children achieve their full potential (United Nations General Assembly 1989). In taking a child rights perspective, an educator is making an active choice to view decisions from the perspective of the basic rights of individual and groups of children.
In US educational research, social justice in education is largely seen an extension of multiculturalism (Shriberg et al. 2013). Multiculturalism speaks to the broad practice of “valuing diversity,” meaning that educators to the fullest extent possible seek to act in a culturally responsive manner. By the same token, a multicultural perspective recognizes that all individuals have biases, be they conscious or unconscious. For example, in the United States, there is a stereotype equating violence with persons of color, especially males. Thus, a teacher with this bias is more likely to misinterpret the behavior of students of color, feeling threatened when no threat was posed.
The leap from a culturally responsive mind-set to a social justice mind-set is connected to a commitment to address systemic inequalities. That is, a teacher can interact with an individual child in a culturally responsive manner – which is the goal – but still miss a bigger picture as relates to social justice. All societies have systemic inequities. For example, while the United States publicly promotes itself as a meritocracy, there are systemic inequities against persons of color, persons from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, and so forth that make the implementation of education discriminatory. An educator who filters information from a multicultural perspective is cognizant of this history and views information critically. For example, a multicultural framework combined with a commitment to relational and procedure justice would lead a US teacher to pay close attention to school discipline data, as Black students are two to five times more likely to face exclusionary discipline (Wallace et al. 2008) for infractions that are equal to – and often times less severe – than those of their White peers. A teacher with a multicultural and child rights mind-set is more likely to spot – and then act upon – these systemic inequities than a teacher who assumes that adults (and society) are always fair and thus views discipline data uncritically.
Application #3: Social Justice as a Verb
Finally, a third broad way of applying social justice is the idea that social justice is a verb; it is something that teachers DO. How social justice can be enacted most effectively is not uniform across cultures. What follows are two examples of teacher applications of social justice principles.
Example of Teacher Actions to Support Social Justice: Culturally Responsive Classroom Leadership
Culturally responsive practice follows the belief that teachers should develop skills to be able to teach students of all backgrounds effectively. The foundation of culturally responsive pedagogy is the belief that students’ backgrounds are strengths from which teachers can draw upon. Students’ cultural backgrounds can be integrated into curricular lessons, activities, and class projects. Additionally, teachers can make explicit connections between curriculum and examples relevant to students’ lives. Doing so may lead to an increase in academic achievement for all students (Weinstein et al. 2004). Further, utilizing culturally responsive pedagogy allows teachers to introduce a mechanism for supporting students in examining and thinking critically about social inequities.
Culturally responsive classroom management can be characterized by five dimensions (Weinstein et al. 2004). First, classroom teachers should develop an understanding of one’s ethnocentrism, which involves acknowledging and recognizing the values, beliefs, and biases about behavior that can influence interpretation of behavior through the lens of the teacher’s own culture. Awareness of one’s biases helps teachers to minimize the influence these biases have when interacting with students. The second component focuses on teachers becoming knowledgeable of their students’ cultural backgrounds. Culturally responsive teachers demonstrate a willingness to learn about important aspects of their students’ lives and create a physical environment that is reflective of students’ cultural heritage (Weinstein et al. 2004) while actively engaging students (Cartledge and Kourea 2008) in an effort to bridge school and home influences. This is ultimately best achieved by offering a curriculum relevant to students’ lives. Further, culturally responsive pedagogy is based on an understanding of the ways in which a school “reflects and often perpetuates discriminatory practices of the larger society” (Weinstein et al. 2004, p. 31). Disparities in disciplinary practices across race, gender, disability, and sexual orientation place students from those marginalized groups at an increased risk of a host of negative school outcomes (Skiba et al. 2014).
The fourth component of Weinstein et al.’s (2004) conceptualization focuses specifically on culturally responsive classroom management practices (CRCM). CRCM practices support the running of a classroom in a culturally responsive manner, underscoring the notion that what is considered appropriate behavior, as operationalized by definitions and expectations, is culturally influenced. Effective classroom managers explicitly teach behavioral and classroom expectations as a way to prevent problem behavior from occurring (Cartledge and Kourea 2008). Adhering to classroom rules and behavioral expectations is also consistently, and positively, reinforced. Culturally responsive classroom managers understand the intersection of one’s ethnocentrism and their interactions with and understanding of students from diverse backgrounds. Finally, culturally responsive teachers create caring and nurturing relationships not only between themselves and their students but between students. Cooperative learning activities are one mechanism for building these relationships while also incorporating culturally responsive pedagogical practices. As students perceive teachers to be caring and supportive, they are more likely to have higher levels of academic motivation and engagement. Another aspect of creating a caring classroom couples clear structure and expectations for students with adequate instructional and personal supports for students to meet those expectations (Weinstein et al. 2004). Teachers displaying these characteristics are “strong yet compassionate, authoritative yet loving, firm yet respectful” (Weinstein et al. 2004, p. 34).
None of the above practices are done in a cultural vacuum. The social justice implications of these practices relate to teachers who are actively seeking to challenge discriminatory societal and cultural norms by ensuring that all students have access (distributive justice) to this kind of classroom environment, actively ensuring that every student’s voice is valued and protected (procedural justice), and actively ensuring that all students are treated in a manner that brings out their personal potential, regardless of that student’s status in the broader society (relational justice). Depending on where one teaches, these goals may be more or less revolutionary in application.
Example of Teacher Actions to Support Social Justice: Coordinated Data Collection to Combat Minority Stress
Teachers who are not aware of their own behaviors and the impact that their behavior has on all of their students can create much harm. For example, in the United States, students of color may become increasingly irritable as they notice that their White peers receive more praise, attention, and assistance for doing similar tasks for which they themselves do not receive praise – a violation of relational justice. These students may begin to engage in behavioral infractions and demonstrate a low investment in class work. In this example, it may seem logical for educators to respond to these students in a punitive way. However, it would be incumbent upon a culturally responsive educator to notice that classroom practices are disparately serving students and to make pedagogical adjustments accordingly. Educators can successfully determine which students are disparately affected by pedagogical practices by means of data collection. Consistently and systematically keeping track of all students’ behavioral and academic progression allows educators to see if specific students are better responding to their practices. If a negative difference occurs among minority students, it is the educator’s responsibility to reflect on whether their practices and/or the practices of the school as a whole are at the root of those differences.
Such information can be further corroborated if all teachers apply the same systematic data collection method. This allows for yet another important component of establishing equitable practices: collaboration. Collaborating with other social justice educators helps foster better strategies to address students’ challenges. Moreover, being a culturally responsive educator does not suggest that all practices will successfully serve all students. It does mean, however, that educators who advocate for social justice have the openness to consider how practices affect students and the flexibility to alter their knowledge, thoughts, and behaviors accordingly.
In addition to reflecting on and altering pedagogical practices, social justice educators may also be faced with the task of combating minority stress that is induced by external factors. For example, a US teacher may have an undocumented student who frequently comes to school burdened with a host of stressors related to fear of deportation and worrying about their family’s safety. Although these stressors are linked to systemic issues outside of school, such stress may negatively affect the student’s sense of belonging and academic performance (Orozco and López 2015). That is, the student may feel as though the school is not a place in which they can safely express themselves or trust school personnel, a violation of relational justice. This stress combined with low sense of belonging at school may breed anxiety, low motivation, or depression, all of which may stymie the student’s ability to adequately attend to and perform on academic work. In such a case, an educator who is committed to social justice should use the educational sphere to combat some of the inequities that occur outside of the school, such as by ensuring a safe classroom atmosphere and working to eliminate harmful schoolwide practices.
Rooted in religious and political history, social justice is a rich concept that is increasingly seen as crucial to teaching. Broad in scope, this entry provides three primary subareas of social justice germane to teachers – distributive justice, procedural justice, and relational justice. In translating a desire to develop as an agent of social justice into action, three primary approaches are provided. The first is through viewing social justice as an aspirational goal. The second is through viewing social justice as a teacher’s mind-set, with child rights and multiculturalism as central pillars. Finally, the bulk of this entry is focused on the idea that social justice is a verb; it is something that teachers actively do to support all children. Two examples of applying social justice principles are provided – one related to classroom leadership and the second focused on identifying and working to combat minority stress. All teachers can be considered as developing as agents of social justice; no one is perfect in this regard. However, the more a teacher is in touch with one’s personal and professional vision of social justice and the greater the extent to which one is able to filter information through a child rights and multicultural framework, the greater chance one has to be able to teach in accordance with social justice principles.
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