Teacher and student work on computer.

A fifth-grade teacher helps a student with a computer-based lesson in class.

(Photo: Allison Shelley/EDUimages/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED)

The Case for Teaching at the End of the World

When we embrace the work of teaching and learning alongside students, we begin to build the future we want, together.

I started teaching as a long-term substitute—masked up—in 2021. Amid ongoing societal collapse and a mass exodus from the teaching profession, I was just getting to know the classroom.

Eyes bright behind a tight N-95 mask, I led a brainstorming activity, asking students to come up with lists of issues they might advocate for. As I circulated the room, a student asked me in a hushed tone, “Miss, how much money do you make?” When I told her $100 a day, she quickly scribbled “substitute pay” onto her list.

As teachers, we often imagine ourselves entering the profession to fight for kids. What’s less widely known is that kids are fighting for us too. In acts big and small, students are fighting for us—to learn more about them, more about ourselves, and more about the world we share. When we embrace this work of teaching and learning alongside students, we begin to build the future we want, together.

The classroom, the school, in all its imperfectness, is a perfect place to practice for the future.

But as I run toward the classroom, 600,000 and counting are running away. More accurately, they’re being pushed out. Teachers are overworked, underpaid, and forced to contend with systems so indefensible, responses so inadequate, and vicarious trauma so persistent.

Teachers are up too early and working too late for bosses who give too much money and data to corporations and not enough money to classroom libraries and building repairs. And despite the hard work of these teachers, so many student needs—academic, psychological, social, emotional, and material—are left unmet in schools.

The fourth floor hallway where my classroom waits for me each morning reeks of sewage and sometimes also of weed smoke. I arrive at 7:30 am, greeted by these smells. But I’m also greeted by the chorus of good mornings from students, who show up each day and breathe life into this unhuman place.

Schools—and the school crisis—reflect the world at large. A world that seems to be ending before our very eyes. Climate catastrophes displace millions of children and families, activists face life sentences for protesting Cop City, and Palestinian genocide is documented online, ignored by mainstream media, and supported by our electeds. It feels like the end of the world, like we can’t survive this way for much longer. Already many loved ones have not survived these atrocious, yet everyday horrors.

Schools, in their failure to truly serve students—yet their ability to perpetuate a mental health crisis, to control students’ bodies, to criminalize and police them—reflect the failures of our Congress, police state, and war machine.

To find refuge in our work as the world burns is hard to do—especially in an institution as flawed as our public school system. Just as folks organize to abolish the prison-industrial complex, there is also a compelling argument for school abolition. This thinking identifies schools as places that reward compliance and dehumanize deviance, seeking to mold students into workers, funnel them into prisons, and uphold racial capitalism as we know it. Schools, compulsory and sometimes harmful, are not always the best settings for learning. But teaching can honor the wisdom and autonomy of young people in ways that schooling cannot. Teaching can help us envision a future of education that lives beyond contemporary notions of schooling.

Given all this, I know that schools, like other institutions in this country, are worth resisting. So I fight the urge to get upset or feel disrespected by young people’s reasonable responses to a school and to a world that is failing them.

When a student criticizes me for not teaching enough Latine history, I could get defensive and cling to curriculum. Instead I seek resources, new information, and new skills and find ways to co-create a better next unit alongside students. I greet students knocking on my door 30 minutes late with, “I’m happy you’re here!” I respond to eye rolls and heavy sighs with curiosity and tenderness. I try my best to have firm boundaries and high expectations without being punitive or shame-based.

Teachers are only human—sometimes we meet resistance and refusal with bruised egos and combative one-liners. But when we push ourselves to meet resistance and refusal with love and trauma-informed care, kids can better access their education and in turn we can better access our own humanity and ability to care for one another.

The more I practice greeting young people with love and respect, the more it flows throughout my relationships outside of school—with family, friends, and neighbors. If I’m meeting students’ insights with half-hearted responses or false praise, they demand that I am present with them. As I practice being present with them, I become more present in other parts of my life. As teachers we take home the stress and the trauma of our schools. But we can also take home the love, earnestness, and lessons our students teach us.

The classroom, the school, in all its imperfectness, is a perfect place to practice for the future. Trusting and embracing young people’s resistance, interrogating our reactions and trauma responses, learning to respond to the reactions and trauma responses of others, this is the work of teaching and it is also the work of remaking the world.

To practice for the future in this way, we must experiment in and outside the classroom. I see these experiments, carried out by educators I love. I see them in my own school during roundtables, a practice that rejects high-stakes testing, and instead asks students to present their learning to peers and community. This practice reclaims how learning is measured and insists that it happen in collaboration with and accountability to community. I see my colleagues and students practice for the future with our school’s Youth Justice Panel, an experiment that disrupts suspensions and engages students in restorative justice processes. Their work insists that no child is disposable and that we can repair harm without creating more.

I see these experiments in my community book space, Possible Futures, where children go to read, attend poetry slams, and be around trusted adults. In protests for Palestine, where a student’s budding voice moves a crowd from chanting to dancing.

Teaching for a new world is not taught to us in teacher preparation programs, it’s something we commit to and learn together. We build these relationships with young people in schools and we practice them in our approaches to teaching, in third spaces, and in the streets.

As we continue to create more life-affirming ways of caring for one another, maybe school as we know it will adapt, or become obsolete. Teaching won’t. We will always need to learn from one another, to sing each other’s praises, to be present with young people, their insights, their ideas, and their questions.

And when thinking of the future feels like too much, I remember that teaching is a craft that can reduce harm in the present and help us be in better relation to one another, here and now.

So please, join me in teaching at the end of the world. Join us in this practice of refusal and reclamation. Invite your community into your classroom and extend learning beyond it. Reject harmful practices and reinvent the ones you know can take new shapes. Let young people call you out and resist the conditions that they know are unjust. Let the lessons you learn from your students permeate your life and relationships and families and communities.

Maybe it’s only a matter of time before I run screaming from the burning school building. I hope it’s with you—and with kids—into a future that burns much brighter.

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