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Educational Activism
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Spiros Vavougios

Grade 12 (2008-2009),
Toronto District School Board

By definition, activism is the practice of vigorous action or involvement as a means of achieving desired goals.  As a teacher, there are so many ways that one can adopt and implement activism into their teaching practice; be it directly in their lesson plans, extra-curricular activities, or simply having discussions with their students.  What sets activists apart from teacher activists?  Their students!  As a teacher, one is in frequent contact with many youths.  In this sense, teachers are empowered.  To me, teacher activism is using this empowerment to influence the lives of young people around them. 

I first encountered social justice activism (on a large scale) in my grade eleven year, when I took on The United Games initiative.  The United Games was a one-day anti violence event that brought together 300 students from 6 diverse high schools in the downtown Toronto area.  The overall goal of the day was to remove the socially-constructed barriers that, at times, separate the youth in our community. 

To begin with, the issue of youth conflict had captured my attention in a way that I had never thought possible.  In just the span of a year, two TDSB students were killed as a result of youth conflict (one of which was a peer at my school).  As a result of these incidences, I came to the realization that the root of our society’s problems might be related to the way our school system is structured.  There are many high schools in the downtown Toronto area; each seems to attract members of a specific ethnic or social background.  This has and continues to create a sense of division amongst young people in our community.  In a metropolitan city like Toronto, this is a major problem because we are socially dividing our youth for the first 18 years of their life based on their cultural, ethnic, or socio-economic background (perhaps not intentionally, but nonetheless it occurs). With this in mind, youth conflict is not necessarily a complex issue to understand. Rather, when analyzed, it is obvious that it should not be a surprise to our society, but instead expected.  Through the United Games, we sought to undo, even if only for that one day, some of the social barriers that our society has imposed upon young people.

Alongside my own interest, I could not have organized The United Games had it not also been for the work of my staff advisor – an activist in all senses – who took on the challenge of something that I was truly passionate about. Together, we stood “shoulder to shoulder” when times were tough, especially when the idea of making a difference seemed impossible. In retrospect, another vital component of being an activist is having the ability to empower others. I would like to include, however, that as a teacher it might be easier to do things a particular way – your way – rather than how your students may want to approach something.  In my case, my staff advisor was always there for me when I had questions or needed council. However, it was equally important to her that she also let me learn from my own mistakes. This, I believe, is the key to being a good teacher activist.  Activism is getting involved with an initiative you are passionate about, but it is also including those around you and having them learn, through personal experience, from the outcome of your journey.

In thinking about activist approaches, it is important to note that it is not what you don’t gain or lose, but rather what you do gain.  As a teacher, not every student is going to respond to what you are trying to do in a positive manner.  This is okay. Even if you are able to inspire just one student to challenge or question the status quo, then, to me, you have been a successful activist.  Knowing that you have made a difference is the biggest reward that you can get.  Through the inspiration you evoked into the life of even just that one individual, you have set in motion a series of events that will spark future inspiration, as that individual interacts with others throughout their lifetime. 

To conclude, I want to begin by saying congratulations.  As an educator, you have chosen a life-path of great significance to our society.  You have the empowered role of being able to influence the future through your students.  On your own, this task may seem like an exaggeration. But as a collective, if every educator aspires to be an activist in some sense, tomorrow could be a better day.  As an educator, you have the power of words.  Whether you intend to inspire or terrify, know that your words will affect the decisions that your students make.  Choose them carefully, and be mindful of the fact that your words live on with your students.  Even when you are using your words to simply share knowledge, you are influencing today’s youth.  In this respect, perhaps we really should alter the title of your occupation from “teacher” to “activist educator”.

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