My Social Justice Educator Role Model

“Neecha andar neech jaat neechee hu ati neech, Nanak tin ky sang Saath vadian so kia rees.” (There are lower castes among the low castes and some absolutely low. Nanak seeks their company. What has he to do with the high ones? For, where the lowly are cared for, there is Thine (God’s) Benediction and Grace) (Nanak, Sri Guru Granth Sahib, p. 15). 

Social Justice is the desire to create a fair and socially mobile society through wealth distribution, equality of opportunity for personal development and protection of human rights. Nanak espoused the enhancement of all human beings but emphasized equal opportunities, equal access to sources and resources; equal participation in decision making; equal rights, egalitarianism, equitability and social justice for the marginal, disadvantaged, deprived and exploited ones.

Nanak is my inspiration to be a better educator every single moment. Quality instruction involves highly rigorous work, critical discussions and challenging problem solving, provided in a warm and inclusive environment. I strive every day to provide this kind of education for my students. I strive every day to create equitable and excellent lessons. I strive every day to make everything about ‘social justice.’

Every day I enter the classroom, I think about the lessons I had to learn myself as a student. As a Sikh kid growing up in a mostly Hindu neighborhood, I struggled with my own identity. My long uncut braid and hairy body stuck out like a sore thumb, and my ethnic background was associated with the word hairy and unhygienic—an insult lobbed casually at Sikh girls and boys who didn’t trim their hair or beard.

I needed someone to show me my culture has glorious role models of integrity, creativity and intellect, like Nanak and that we need more people to tell those stories.

Yes, cultural and societal knowledge can (and should) be taught at home—However, it must be asked: Who will validate these familial educations outside the home? Who will help students of color navigate the murky waters of a system not built for them? Who will give those who do come from cultures of power the impetus and tools to navigate their privilege so they can ally with the disempowered?

Who will teach these students to look at the world around them and figure out the problems and solutions with context and empathy? Who will teach them to tell their stories, and listen with open minds to the stories of others?

As an educator I know this is not just a job; it is a privilege. Being able to teach with and learn from my students is a gift. I can teach them scientific concepts and laws and about the social issues they see in the outside world. I can show them how this knowledge is not only to understand how science governs our world, but can be used as tools to subvert power, question normalcy and change society as we understand it.

For that to happen, though, they need to understand society as it is. They need to face the conversation happening in our world right now with frankness and honesty. So, it is often not easy. It sometimes doesn’t feel good and rarely ends in simple answers. Still, as an educator I must ensure that each student who enters my room at some point leaves feeling empowered to stand up for what they believe in. They may not always agree with me, but at least I will have given them the tools to share those beliefs.

At the end of the day, that’s my job, my privilege, my responsibility: When a kid leaves my room, they’re going to have heard as many stories as I can give them, and they’re going to feel like they can tell their own.