Teaching for Democracy: The Risks and Benefits of Teaching in the Danger Zone

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Teaching as Revolutionary and Its Moral Implications

The educator for liberation has to die as the unilateral educator of the educatees, in order to be born again as the educator-educatee of the educatees-educators. An educator is a person who has to live in the deep significance of Easter.

--Paulo Freire (1)

I would like to explore the notion of teaching as revolutionary, which I believe to be essential in building the foundations of democratic citizenry. I am deeply concerned with the idea that the public sphere of education both limits, in a narrow fashion, discernable truth, and creates covert pressures on the degree to which democratic teaching may be practiced. Set within the context of the pedagogy of democracy and transformation of Paulo Freire, I will argue that teachers have a moral responsibility, both to their students and to their community, to empower their students in the practice of democratic values. However, simply put, teachers also have a moral and legal responsibility (as employees) to reflect and model to their students a particular community's values. What happens then when there is a disagreement over which values are the "right" ones to commit to? In my opinion, a "revolutionary" teacher is one who, in the tradition of Freire, "lives in the deep significance of Easter"; that is, as one who commits to the role of an educator-educatee for the educates-educators. According to Freire, this means that a revolutionary teacher is committed to practicing "co-intentional" education whereby, "teachers and students (leadership and people), co-intent on reality, are both Subjects, not only in the task of unveiling that reality, and thereby coming to know it critically, but in the task of re-creating that knowledge. As they attain this knowledge of reality through common reflection and action, they discover themselves as its permanent re-creators." (2) A revolutionary teacher is, in this light, one who enables their students, through the practice of democratic teaching, to have an active involvement in determining which values are the "right" ones to commit to in a school community.

Defining Democratic Teaching

As I stated earlier, I feel that teachers must fulfill a larger moral agency than just reflect a particular community's and school board's values. (3) In other words, it is my belief that a teachers' professional autonomy must be demonstrated through democratic teaching. For the purposes of this paper, I define democratic teaching as a commitment to helping students discover and nurture their self-expression, develop consciousness, claim a new and ever-evolving awareness, as well as act on it. Whatever this new awareness is, it will be a result of unrestricted critical examination, "the most distinguishing characteristic of a free society." (4) My own understanding of democracy and how it can best be taught is still evolving but what I have discovered is that it is the most rewarding way for me to teach. I am a different person because teaching for democracy is something I "do" and am, both in and out of the classroom.

This type of transformative teaching requires a dedication to the ideals of democracy that results in so much more than just teachers' submission to the ruling status quo. It is my contention in this paper that it is the moral imperative of teachers to take a revolutionary stance (5) in their roles as educators or risk betraying themselves, their students and the ideals of democratic teaching. (6) Democratic teaching is in fact a moral and not just a political imperative precisely because it goes beyond enhancing a school climate or enhancing students' self-expression and self-esteem. (7) School programs that focus solely on prescriptive measures (for example, the character education movement as practiced in Ontario schools), (8) may end up looking like models of democracy but are really superficial "band aid" remedies for social justice. …