What Is Abolitionist Teaching?

Abolitionist teaching’s roots come in critical pedagogy, intersectional feminism, and the abolitionist movement. Those in favor of abolitionist teaching say it is about a commitment to pursue educational freedom; one that will roll up its sleeves in order to fight for students to thrive. Abolitionist teaching sees teachers as warriors for student equity and justice.

By Rick Gonzales | Published

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abolitionist teaching

Abolitionist teaching’s roots come in critical pedagogy, intersectional feminism, and the abolitionist movement. Those in favor of abolitionist teaching say it is about a commitment to pursue educational freedom; one that will roll up its sleeves in order to fight for students to thrive. Abolitionist teaching sees teachers as warriors for student equity and justice.

The term, “Abolitionist Teaching,” can be traced to Dr. Bettina Love, who penned a 2019 book, We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom. In it, Love leaned back on her lifelong work of teaching and researching inside urban schools. Her idea behind this way of teaching is to convince educators across the country to teach students of all ages about her views on racial violence, oppression, and how to affect change in communities that she feels have been held back.

In her book, Love argues that the U.S. education system is in dire need of reform. She feels the system survives by profiting off the backs of suffering children of color. She does want to point out to those who may scoff at this way of teaching, that it isn’t intended only for students of color.

“Abolitionist teaching is really about trying to create a school system that is loving, just and affirming to all students, not just Black and brown students, and to think about the policies, rules, and procedures that are oppressive and unjust,” Dr. Love said via Cedar Blueprints.

Love also says that educators should not focus solely on color or racism or racial injustices, but they should also teach students that they are more than just their skin. They need to know that they are as beautiful inside as they are outside.

“Abolitionist teaching is not about trying to reform a school system. It’s trying to say the school system needs to be dismantled so it can benefit all students,” Dr. Love remarked.

Not only has Love written about Abolitionist teaching, but she has also started her own website in order to continue her fight. At the Abolitionist Teaching Network (ATN), their mission “is to develop and support those in the struggle for educational liberation by utilizing the intellectual work and direct action of Abolitionists in many forms.”

The ATN promotes anything and everything concerning Abolitionist teaching, but also has much bigger plans. They offer a Virtual Freedom School designed for children ages 9-14 to share their “big ideas about freedom.” The online school is free to any who wishes to be involved in answering complex questions.

The website also promotes their upcoming Abolitionist Law Program. The program is currently being developed, but they promise to bring together activists, abolitionists, education communities, and of course, lawyers.

Abolitionist ideals are often lumped in as one of the components of Critical Race Theory by those who oppose it. Although those who support Love and the Abolitionist teachings stress that it is not designed only for students of color, there are many who insist in only sees things through a divisive and sometimes racist lens.

Most younger teachers, indoctrinated in the abolitionist way of thinking during their time at University, tend to support teaching it. Older teachers, however, often can’t quite grasp how or even if it’s ethical to teach it. “We come with our own flaws. We come with our own sets of knowledge, our own culture, traditions, beliefs, etc. You’re asking teachers not only to teach the curriculum because that’s our job, but then you also ask us to now become social workers, activists, so many things. We have to have the right to grow as well,” said Caroline Bharucha, world language department teacher at Cedar Shoals High School.

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Love feels that the only way to tackle the issue is to get teachers more training on how to have these conversations with kids. “A teacher is only going to teach what he or she or they know. We folks who teach teachers need to expose them to these conversations earlier in their teacher education program. If we don’t teach them how to have these conversations, how to engage with people, how to be critical of the system, they’re not all of a sudden going to know how to do this,” Dr. Love explained.

There are plenty of parents and teachers alike opposed to abolitionist teaching. One is Susan Quinn, who recently posted on Ricochet a rebuttal to President Biden’s allocation of nearly $200 billion in COVID relief funds for K-12 schools. She states that although the allocated funds were earmarked to “help reopen schools and mitigate learning loss,” Biden’s Department of Education is also encouraging school districts to spend their funds on providing “free, antiracist therapy for white educators.”

Quinn goes on to point out that the Biden Administration teaming up with the ATN is something we should all be concerned with as, in her opinion, school districts will now force teachers to focus their teachings on race, rather than on things they see as more important, like math. That does on some level seem to be happening as evidenced by schools cancelling higher level math courses in favor of equity teaching. Whether or not results like that from abolitionist teaching are a good thing, probably depends on your personal views.