Becoming a Teacher Made Me an Activist—and My Story Might Make You One, Too

by Mary-Alexis   |   November 21, 2019

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I hated high school as a kid, and that’s exactly why I decided to become a high school teacher. I’ve always wanted to use teaching to make the world a better place, and this pursuit organically led me to organizing in my community. Once I began to physically show up to support events and causes designed to make a positive difference in the world (rather than just airing my grievances online), I knew that these were the spaces that aligned the most with my core values, and that I needed to support at all costs.

Teaching and organizing have been beautiful experiences, but they’ve taken me down a difficult path of questioning, unlearning, and ultimately rejecting many of society’s dominant social norms and values. This includes the uncomfortable recognition of how our beloved economic system is not set up to benefit everyone, how we occupy stolen land and continue to marginalize Indigenous communities each day, how we are destroying the planet through inaction on climate change, and how many structures in society actually perpetuate racism, ableism, and white supremacy.

The Beginning of My Journey

High school shaped my journey. I decided to pursue teaching because I was frustrated with the inability of our education system to meet the needs of my peers and prepare us for the future. As a student, I knew the curriculum was outdated, and it was rarely relevant to our real-world experiences. I also saw firsthand how the system alienated rather than helped my friends and peers when they were struggling. I knew there had to be a better way to educate and support my own and future generations.

In my first year of university, I went on to read Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire. It gave me the terminology to critique our education system and, by extension, the society that created it—as well as the status quo that gets reproduced and preserved through its means. This was the beginning of my political awakening.

Using a Freirian framework, I began to articulate how educators must raise the “critical consciousness” of their students by using real-world examples and relevant content in the classroom—and that the goal of education must be for social transformation as opposed to preservation. Freire explains that raising students’ critical consciousness means helping them to deconstruct dominant ideologies to better interpret the world around them, giving them the tools to read and write their world.  

When a teacher uses real-world examples and engages in discussions about power structures, then thoughts about consumption, poverty, and resource disparities naturally surface. And when this happens, it is a teacher’s responsibility to help students understand and articulate the roots of these inequalities instead of only addressing and naming the symptoms.

Thus, my path to organizing began when I devoted myself to the application of educating for critical consciousness. This organically led me to adopt an anti-capitalist, anti-racist perspective that moved me into organizing both in university and in my community, where I’m now entering my fifth year of professionally teaching while being involved in many social justice and community groups.

Modeling Critical Consciousness

What I’ve come to learn in five years of teaching is that no space is politically neutral, including education. As teachers, every choice we make in the classroom can be used as a tool to build the world that we want to see. When I finally became a teacher, with my own classes, the first thing I did was throw away all course textbooks. From there, I spent (and still spend) many late nights creating my own resources and lesson plans that are directly rooted in real-world topics and issues that are happening today. Articles on current events are essentially my textbooks, and every assignment requires rigorous connection to, and analysis of, our material conditions.

My classes are proof that if you put in the time, there is always a connection to be made from the curriculum to the real lives of students, to our communities, to pressing social issues, and to our larger world and environment. I present my students with diverse information and resources, and it is always up to them to develop and articulate their own opinion. My lessons are not didactic or teacher-centered (like the classes I had in high school), and I would absolutely never tell a student how to think about an idea or issue. Instead, I place student voices at the center of all lessons.

Rather than students passively receiving information from the teacher in a lecture-style format, which they would then regurgitate verbatim for a test with little critical thought, my classes are project based, and my students and I have continual conversations and honest discussions about these ideas. We create, play, debate, reflect, and actively engage with the material together.

This was what I knew was possible when I was in high school, but never had modelled for me until I got my own classroom.

I use many methods to foster critical thinking and the refining of students’ own opinions and ideas, such as the Socratic method of posing continual open-ended questions to students. I create assignments that require analysis and research, and I also make space for many “metacognitive” activities, which is teacher jargon for reflecting on one’s own thinking and beliefs. At the end of the day, there are two key strategies for developing critical consciousness: the teaching of empathy, and imparting the “big idea” (another teacher term) that all living beings in the world are connected. With these two concepts, understanding the world naturally leads to acting better within it, and doing whatever you can to help others that are struggling.

My ability to teach for a better world has only been possible because I’ve put in the time and effort to raise my own critical consciousness, to become aware of my privilege and to work on the unconsciousness ways that this manifests (which is something I continue to actively work on, too). And I have continued to explore the best ways to mobilize my resources to further causes that I care about.  

The work I put into raising my own critical consciousness has changed the way I interact with the world. It changed how I view my position as a working class person, and my understanding of the power that we have when we collectively unite and mobilize against systemic inequality and injustice. I realized that all major social change has come from people with a raised critical consciousness, who took to the streets to advocate for social change.

I thought a lot about the Stonewall Riots, the civil rights movement, women’s suffrage, and more, and came to realize that our leaders and our laws are not always on the side of what is morally just. Instead, it is we, the people, who need to push for laws to be more inclusive, and to fight for equity and justice for all. This key understanding has led me to seek and support causes that advocate for a more just world while pushing back against racism, colonialism, ableism, climate change, and capitalism together.

Connecting Capitalism and Climate Change

I’ve always taught my students about the negative impacts of climate change, but the urgency of the crisis, and the intense connections between capitalism and climate change, really hit me last year when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its report concluding that we have 11 years to drastically reduce carbon emissions without major planetary impacts. How could this be happening? Things had gotten worse than anyone thought, yet mainstream media and conversation had hardly given any attention to this issue prior.

We are now headed towards the Holocene extinction, which is the sixth mass extinction of life on Earth, and those in power are not taking the drastic action needed to save us. Why aren’t our politicians and big businesses using their money and power to help solve this crisis for everyone? This was the moment I truly realized the connection between climate change and capitalism, and became louder than ever in sharing that we need a complete system change to save the planet. Capitalism encourages and rewards the consumption of natural resources; thus, these companies are not held accountable for the damage they’ve caused, and they still continue to pump their toxic chemicals into the atmosphere each second.

Only 100 companies are responsible for 71% of all pollution, according to estimates, and most of these companies knew that their practices were destroying the environment. But in typical capitalist fashion, they chose to do nothing. ExxonMobil knew as early as the 1980s that its carbon emissions were drastically impacting the climate, and instead of investing in sustainable practices, the company paid a PR firm to help it spin the situation to generate doubt in people’s minds about climate science. Now, thanks to ExxonMobil, climate science deniers are taken seriously when they repeat such manufactured talking points as “not all scientists agree,” when in reality 97% of climate scientists do agree on climate change, and the other 3% are wrong.

Learning that big companies are to blame for our climate crisis ignited a spark inside me to not only consume in a more sustainable way, but to get into the streets to advocate for progressive climate policies such as a Green New Deal and a Red Deal, and also to hold these businesses accountable for their crimes.

Debunking Greenwashing and Green Capitalism  

When I began trying to consume sustainably, I was overwhelmed at how many “green” and “eco-friendly” products there were on the market. So many “green” products, and yet we are still facing climate crisis. We can buy a 12 pack of bamboo toothbrushes that Amazon will deliver right to our door, there are plastic water bottles and disposable cutlery pieces “made with natural ingredients”, and the list of these types of products goes on and on. I came to realize that these green products are simply a tactic that big business uses to distract us from holding them accountable for all the waste they generate. These companies “greenwash” and sell these products to deflect their personal responsibility in creating our climate catastrophe.

The term greenwashing was reportedly coined in 1986 when environmentalist Jay Westerveld observed the practice of hotels encouraging guests to reuse bath towels in an effort to help the environment. It gave the impression that hotels were pursuing efforts to be more ecologically sound, but the reality was that most of the hotels had no other environmentally positive policies and simply were saving massive amounts of money on laundry costs, while reducing hours of work for hotel (laundry) employees.

Greenwashing is dangerous because it puts the onus on us, the individual, and blames us for not consuming sustainably or disposing of products properly, rather than blaming the true culprits: big business and the wealthy. It sells us the idea that if we buy this water bottle, or ditch plastic straws, then we can solve climate change. But the truth is that individual actions alone can’t reduce our emissions enough to save our planet. We are currently on track to exceed more than 4 degrees Celsius of warming by the end of this century, well above the recommended 1.5 degree target set in the Paris Agreement. Our personal actions are insignificant compared to the output of carbon, methane, and pollution from big business, and we cannot solve the climate crisis without changing the system that allows for this pollution to happen.

“Green capitalism” is still capitalism, and capitalism depends on cheap fossil fuels and the exploitation of resources; therefore it cannot be reformed. This system cannot and will not stop itself until all of the oil is sucked out of the ground, until all the fresh water has been contaminated or sold, until all the air is polluted by smog, or until all the trees are cut down. Thus, buying a bamboo toothbrush, with the best of intentions, is not the most effective tool for creating the change we need. Instead, we need to live more sustainably while also advocating for policies that will keep fossil fuels in the ground and stop these companies from continuing to wreak havoc on the planet.

What I Now Do Differently: Main Takeaways

Teaching to raise students’ critical consciousness has meant that I also need to raise my own—and to develop a critical understanding of the world. I try to do this by reading as much independent media as I can, such as Spring Magazine and Briarpatch Magazine, and by listening to the needs of others. I show up to community events and hear from people directly affected by prominent social issues, and do my best to be an ally and an accomplice by supporting these causes directly on the front lines. Lately, my focus has been on climate justice, and I’ve adapted my lifestyle in many ways to reflect the world I want to see.

There are many changes I’ve personally made, such as maintaining a vegan lifestyle, swearing off fast fashion and committing to second-hand items, and only buying something new when absolutely necessary. I also use public transit at all times and limit my air travel to two flights a year. But again, these actions will only matter when our system becomes more sustainable and utilises renewable energy. Individual actions will only matter if we also advocate for system change, and never lose sight of the fact that capitalism is killing our planet.

We cannot let big companies continue to extract our natural resources while producing products to sell us that we don’t need and end up throwing away. We don’t have a crisis of resources; we have a crisis in the distribution of these resources. Even “green” products still keep us consuming in the same way. We need to get off fossil fuels, and the sooner we can change our individual habits to reflect the shift that is inevitably coming, the better.

As of now, society and most mainstream politicians do not share the values that I hold and are not protecting us from the effects of climate change. Thus they need to be held accountable—as do the fossil fuel companies, as this crisis is primarily their fault. Like the social movements that have come before us, we need to get on the street and make noise to show that a business-as-usual approach to climate change is not acceptable.

The Opportunities Ahead

The need for serious action against climate change is why I’m excited about the ways that a Green New Deal, a Red Deal, and Just Transitions are slowly becoming mainstream talking points in conversations about the environment. I’m thrilled about intersectional climate groups that are organizing, such as Climate Justice Toronto and the Fight for $15 and Fairness, which are advocating for a Green New Deal and a Red Deal while also fighting back against racism, white supremacy, and hate, especially toward migrants and migrant workers.

I’m also ecstatic to see advocates for Indigenous sovereignty within the climate movement, and the recognition that it has always been Indigenous people on the front lines fighting against climate change and lending their knowledge of the land and water to help communities deal with the negative impacts of climate change.

When I was in high school, I could never have dreamed of the places that questioning the world around me and advocating for social justice would take me—and teaching and organizing give me great hope for the future. I hope that in reading this, you too will see the need for advocacy and become excited at the ways that together, we can and will win, like all the victorious social justice movements that have come before us.I hope that you're called to get involved in your community, like I was, and can find inclusive social justice groups organizing near you that you can actively support and become part of.

We’re waiting for you on the front lines, and we can’t wait to celebrate with you when we’ve finally created the world we wanted to see.

Mary-Alexis is a high school teacher and community organizer based in Toronto, Canada. As an active member of Climate Justice Toronto and Spring Magazine, she supports many social justice issues through direct action, advocacy, writing, and teaching. She has a Masters degree in Education from Brock University and is currently in her fifth year of teaching professionally.