Social Justice Arguments for Working at a Rich School

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Two years ago, I accepted a position as a curriculum developer at one of the most prestigious and affluent K-12 schools in Istanbul. It was a departure for me because up to that point (apart from a stint at a well-to-do preschool) I had only worked in under-resourced schools or at educational centers serving at-risk, minority, or poor populations. Even when I worked at a huge public university in central Turkey, many of my students came from lower-middle-class families, had a hard time meeting the costs of living, or could barely afford the IELTS or TOEFL fees.

My choice of where to work was by design–like many of my idealistic young peers of our generation, my self-proclaimed mission has been to increase educational and life opportunity for marginalized individuals and communities, no matter how problematic or quixotic that endeavor may be in our prevailing world order. Such a mission means making the intentional choice to work in poor schools in some sense of the term: schools in poor neighborhoods, schools with many poor students, or educational centers lacking in financial and material resources to serve their students.

The school I worked at in Istanbul was decidedly not poor in any meaningful operationalization of that descriptor. The school did offer several need-based scholarships each year to a few students with academic merit, but scholarships were not a central aspect of their mission. Most students came from elite or well-to-do families and spent their summer breaks in England or Switzerland or the Gulf. Yearly tuition was over the moon, and my starting salary put me in the top 11% of earners in Turkey at that time.

For the educator whose self-proclaimed mission is to serve the most at-need students, is there any way to rationalize or justify working at an affluent school? After my experience, I could come up with two arguments for working at a rich school. The first one is weaker and more problematic, while the second one is potentially more robust.

1. Impart values of social justice and service to future leaders of society. The assumption is that children from affluent backgrounds who attend elite institutions will eventually end up in positions of power in society, whatever those may be in the given society, so we should try to influence their ethical mindset while they are still young and malleable. In fact, this is how I ended up in education, nonprofits, and development. I attended elite secondary and post-secondary institutions where I was made aware of the various injustices of the world and implanted with the urge, and the skills and connections, to address those injustices. The value-driven nature of my Jesuit university education influenced me to pursue education as a career.

But the effect wasn’t consistent–not all of my classmates who were subjected to that same education went into jobs or careers focused on social justice. And in any case, it’s a problematic notion that the way to achieve change is by means of the prevailing power hierarchies and elite networks–this is not really a transformational approach to the realization of a just and equitable society. And ultimately, if the educational institution as a whole does not happen to be aligned with the mission of social justice, and is not receptive to it, then there’s very little a single instructor can do.

Still, there’s always the central tenet of faith at the heart of teaching: you never know what a kid will take away from a lesson, and what can happen by getting through to one child.

2. Learn how the rich kids are educated so that you can bring that high-quality education to poor kids, or empower them to counter it. At this rich school in Istanbul, I worked alongside some of the most talented and experienced language educators residing in the city at that time, worked under some very effective leaders, and worked on ambitious projects that stretched my skills and my technical abilities. Now I can take all that cumulative experience and share it with students and educators in more vulnerable and marginalized communities who can’t afford to buy that kind of talent and expertise. (This is based on the assumption that elite schools make use of high-quality, progressive pedagogical practices–not necessarily true. Some elite North American private secondary schools are known to be held together based on stringent traditionalist discipline and the ability to expel troublesome students at whim. However, assuming that you’re working at an institution as I did that offers high salaries to attract quality candidates, and which makes an attempt to follow educational research and trends, you’ll probably learn something useful.)

I also, at this school, potentially witnessed or heard of some ethically murky practices such as padding numbers so that a parent wouldn’t complain about a student’s low grades. Such phenomena are of course related to contextual or social factors that an individual teacher or school, even a rich one, has no power over (high-stakes tests, nationwide ubiquity of cheating)–but basically, if that’s how some rich kids are getting ahead, then it’s worth being aware of it and considering the implications for the children and communities we are trying to serve and empower.

These are the two arguments that stuck out to me and, in the end, I was motivated by both of them. When I had the chance to write lesson plans at my old school, I would integrate or emphasize topics related to urgent world issues or pressing human needs. And I am currently using the curriculum development skills that I honed at that job, to write curriculum for a school serving refugees in Cairo.

Of course even children who happen to be born into well-off families deserve a great education, and there are many ways to “serve” in our local and world communities besides teaching or direct service. But thinking specifically about myself and fellow social-justice-oriented teachers who have interests in teaching abroad, the international schools and elite private schools are often the only viable option, given the high degree of visa bureaucracy support required just to be employed abroad and the American-sized debts and needs we bring with us when we immigrate (very much out of proportion to the average teacher salaries in the places we immigrate to). For educators with social missions, it’s worth reflecting on how this might put us into the position of enforcing power structures abroad that we might not stomach at home, what that means, and how we can counteract or transform it.

Note: Terms like “poor” and “rich,” “affluent” and “needy” are problematic and need to be problematized, and certainly mainly of the communities we consider “at-need” are only so in relation to our prevailing ideologies, and in fact have deep funds of knowledge. I only used such crude terms to get my point across more quickly–and to speak frankly about frankly stark divides.

Above: Detail of a school mural. Photo by me.

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