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When I Talk About Defiance

By June 1, 2017February 21st, 2022Teaching Social Justice

Dan Thalkar

Middle School Teacher, Los Angeles, CA

I try to teach and learn. Middle school teacher in Los Angeles.

J flipped her teacher off the other day. A quiet, straight-A student, J generally isn’t one to act out. She comes to school, cinches her hoodie tight, and goes about her business. Except, of course, for that time she threw her teacher the bird.

J didn’t have much of an explanation for what happened, just a general, “I was feeling angry. I shouldn’t have done that. I’m sorry.” We shrugged our shoulders, talked to her parents and had her write an apology letter, and moved on. J’s a good kid. It won’t happen again. We have bigger issues to deal with.

Except, well, do we? There are plenty of kids who more regularly commit larger harm, but what does it say about our community when one of the “model students” starts lashing out at teachers? And, more importantly, how have we not taught her more effective modes of protest?

It is logical for our young people of color to feel rage. They are deeply enmeshed in a web of injustice and oppression that they feel but do not understand. Why would they not react by hiding within their hoodies, flipping their teacher off, or ignoring their instructions? This is their defiance.

Defiance is an ugly word in education. In California, it’s no longer legal to suspend students for “willful defiance”, but defiance and compliance are still part of the standard nomenclature when describing student behavior. He was being defiant and wouldn’t sit down! This is a great class — they’re so compliant. She was being defiant and talking back. It was so rude.

Defiance — bold resistance to power — is not something we encourage from our students. Of course, we like to tell ourselves otherwise — we design engaging math projects analyzing mass incarceration, we study the civil rights movement, we show our students pictures of us at protests, and we preach about the importance of voting. Maybe we even bring in police officers and community activists for a panel with our students. Maybe we tell our kids how powerful they are, that they must be activists to fight for themselves in this unjust, oppressive society. We are all for liberation struggles.

Unless they’re directed at us.

Hey, we have standards to teach. We have 34 other kids in the class. We are running on four hours of sleep because we were up all night writing feedback on your essays. We have your best interests at heart. How dare you be defiant.

At best, these mixed messages are confusing; at worst, they are deeply traumatizing. Students, especially our boys of color, do not need us to remind them that the world has deemed their feelings irrelevant, their very being ancillary. They come to us with this knowledge. Then we tell them they matter, they have the right to speak up… but they should not be defiant. It isn’t nice. It isn’t respectful. It isn’t responsible.

Our school system was designed to produce nice, respectful, responsible workers. For all of the reform movements over the years, this hasn’t really changed much. Compliance is rewarded, defiance is punished.

By stifling our students, we aren’t just silencing them and teaching them how to be obedient workers, we’re backing them into a corner. Of course they flip us off, ignore our instructions, refuse to turn in work for our classes. Self-harm is the only form of recourse — of defiance — we leave open to them.

What if, instead, we operated from a pedagogy of defiance? Imagine the novelty — speaking truth to power includes speaking truth to us. Even if we don’t want to hear it. Especially if we don’t want to hear it. We do not fail our students if they leave us defiant, we fail them if they leave us unable to articulate their defiance.

Defiance should be a celebratory act. I have a voice and I have power and I will rise up! It should be joyous. Hear me sing! It should be communal. We are here!

Celebrating defiance will not be easy. It will require us to humble ourselves and let go of our control. It will have to involve our whole school communities. It will be messy and flawed. It will require us to educate with, rather than to or for our communities. It will require us to re-educate ourselves.

I’ve heard plenty of teachers extol Paolo Friere with one breath and praise students for being compliant with the next. Our lip-service social justice will not serve us here. A pedagogy of defiance is going to involve some serious soul-searching if we are to move from theoretical to actual liberation.

If we truly embrace the discomfort of defiance, we begin to see the world through a different lens. We remove the shiny veneer from American Hero Martin Luther King, Jr., and remember that in his day large segments of America wanted him dead and thought him dangerous. Remember that his defiance was scorned. We see defiance as a noble pursuit, and learn how to wield it with wisdom and purpose. We see our history, our movements, and our people, in a clearer light.

Most importantly, by elevating defiance we provide our students with options. As their sphere of power increases,their actions are no longer limited to reactionary self-sabotage. Instead, they can draw from a rich lineage of defiance in order to assert and empower themselves. And so we develop a community where truth, and not niceness, is a sign of respect.

In elevating defiance, I am not endorsing the false generosity of low accountability and expectations. Defiance, I believe, entails the opposite. Many of our students have not yet developed the consciousness to articulate what they are actually raging against; they may not even know. We have to build a foundation.

Harming one in the community, even if that one is yourself, harms the community and must be addressed. We hold choices to a higher standard and, when we speak up, have purpose behind our words. We analyze the sources of our own feelings and reactions. While honoring defiance, we learn that it is a precious resource, and that each time we misuse or abuse it, it loses power. We lose power. Rather than judging and labeling students for their defiance, we see it as a symptom of an oppressive disease and seek to understand. We seek to help them understand. We seek to help them own their stories.

We need not just mindsets and philosophy, but the critical thinking and literacy skills necessary to actually name and engage with our worlds. Critical literacy must be explicitly taught, the tools our young people need to access, question, and critique their worlds instilled, and a sense of agency and empowerment developed. Without this foundation, our rage is impotent and self-destructive. Learning to read is a revolutionary act.

Like I said, this isn’t easy. But it’s doable. Even aspiring to the ideal, I believe, is transformative progress.

I do not want compliant students. I want students to tell me when I’m being oppressive, to let me know when they think an assignment is bullshit. I want my classroom to be a lab where students can experiment with their voices and discover their transcendent powers of creation and transformation. Rather than hide or submerge their anger, I hope for them to transform it into something beautiful. If they feel like flipping me off, I want them to think about why and to feel emboldened to speak their truth.

The myriad interlocking systems of oppression our children of color are raised within will not disappear overnight. They may never disappear. But if we empower defiance, we can snip a few threads, and from there, who knows what unraveling will begin.

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