Choosing to Become a Liberating Educator: Risky but worth it!

For many teachers today the goals of liberating education are attractive: that students emerge from their formal education thinking of themselves as activist citizens working for a just and equitable world.  If you are one of them you may well ask, given today’s schools, how do I get started?  And what are the risks?  What’s the model?  I offer Santa María Tzeja, Guatemala, as a kind of model that is described in my book, Seeds of Freedom: Liberating Education in Guatemala. But while it is useful, and perhaps even inspiring to know that a full program of liberating education exists somewhere in the world, it is important to recognize that  the conditions that created it in SMT can’t be duplicated elsewhere.  If you set out to introduce liberating education too rapidly in communities with conflicting political views you may well face angry resistance.  There is clearly some risk involved when you take positions that people in the community strongly disagree with if you haven’t laid the groundwork for vigorous dialogue that embraces honest disagreement.
     Creating the liberating model wasn’t easy for Santa María Tzejá, the case study village in my book.  In fact, as I note in other posts, the village was destroyed in 1982 by the nation’s army.  The liberating education journey took off in 1995 with the help of allies. Thereafter, students in its primary and middle schools demonstrated, as do marginalized oppressed people everywhere, that they have the intelligence and desire, both to build better lives for themselves and to create more just societies if they have the right stimulus for it.

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José Ortiz Cox (in the photo) demonstrates that intelligence and desire, along with a determination to give hope to one small corner of his society.  I remember José when he was a small boy growing up in one of the most impoverished homes in Santa María Tzejá, the case study village described in my book.  His father had been tortured at the army base during the civil war after the village had been destroyed and sustained injuries so serious that it was difficult for him to provide for his family on their farming parcel.  The father’s one asset was a small piece of land that he inherited from his parents in his village of origin.  He sold the land to pay for the education of four of his five children to get education and all four became teachers.  When I interviewed José years later he was teaching full time in a tiny village and taking a liberating education university program for teachers on weekends.  The village where he worked, Guadalupe, had a school that served twenty-two students spread over all six grades.  He described the school as “very basic, with no books, no blackboard, no eraser, nothing.”  He quickly added, “It is very difficult, but if one has the desire, it is possible.”

     But as powerful as the goal of liberating education is, implementing it carries risks, as Carlos Aldana Mendoza emphasized with me.  Carlos is an extraordinary Guatemalan educator who describes the kind of perspective that motivates liberating educators: “We can be educators that transform only if our educational commitment…rises from our profound love for life and for human beings.  In this sense, perhaps it isn’t as important to teach as it is to inspire…Inspired majorities, inspired people, are concepts of an unstoppable force on the way to a new world.  Isn’t it for that reason that true liberating education continues being subversive, and endangering to the death project that dominates our peoples?”
     Those words set a dramatic stage for teachers who choose to become liberating educators.  Just how does one get started in communities with deeply-held conflicting political beliefs?  The workable strategy begins with identifying others with similar perspectives and forming a support system.  Then find the websites and national groups that provide support and resources.  “Teaching Tolerance” is a good place to start.  Introduce debates in relevant classes that get students thinking about arguments from differing perspectives.  Find ways to give students increasing confidence in their own voices and judgments.  Dialogue with parents who raise issues in a way that seeks common ground.  Give students research skills to pursue issues that interest them and the basis for assessing evidence in deciding on their findings.  The key to avoiding the manipulation of young minds is to give students enough confidence in their own analytic abilities and voices to have honest, open dialogue with their teacher and their parents.
     Edwin Canil made a point of speaking with several of the teachers from SMT who were teaching in the region where their home village is located and gave me his conclusion: “If all teachers were like them, I would say that in the period of ten years, with another generation, the country would have an amazingly strong social base.”  By that he meant a social base that would transform the country in a liberating way.  In spite of all the barriers that a teacher like José had to overcome, all the risks they faced, they believed the liberating struggle was worth it.
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