Teachers Building a Revolution in Southern Social Justice

By Adam Jordan & Todd S. Hawley


There’s truth in the statement, “A teacher’s job is never done.”

As soon as a teacher finishes a college degree, obtains a license, and gets tossed the keys to the classroom, “professional learning requirements” begin. Once they start, they never stop. To maintain a teaching license or simply to keep up with constant changes in educational technology, state standards, and “best practices,” teachers frequently must switch from being the deliverer of knowledge to the receiver.

There are two dirty secrets, though, that most teachers will tell you regarding this mad dash to new knowledge.

First, these opportunities are often, shall we say, less than invigorating? Teachers are frequently asked to sit and receive — but with little regard to adult-learning theories or for the intellectual capital teachers bring to the equation.

Second, there’s usually a lot of money involved. This is not a universal truth, to be clear. There are many providers of professional development working with fair practices as a guide. But it’s no secret that in the education world, many deliverers of professional development charge exorbitant fees for their time. A $10,000 fee for a keynote address is not necessarily unusual.

Often, teachers are asked to seek their own professional development opportunities, particularly during the summer months — you know, when teachers are “off.” These opportunities often come with significant and burdensome registration fees. 

 Recently, while thumbing around on Twitter, we came across teachers having plenty of conversation about this professional-development conundrum, this duality of wanting to engage but not being unable to afford the required fees.  Tweets revealed teachers are paying upwards of $1,000 for two-day workshops, yet leaving, in their opinion, with little more than a lighter wallet and a sore hind end. With that, we sent a tweet of our own:

The responses were eye-opening. All  y’all teachers chimed in with glorious thunder. Just take a look at a few of the responses:

@melissa27g: Yessss. I am open to learning new ideas and strategies. But engage me in meaningful ways — not with busywork. I always say give me time to work through ideas, bounce ideas off colleagues, brainstorm with those in my content area, share best practices. That’s what I need.

@BigDaddyTail: $1k?!?...my school brought in a speaker 4 times over the last 2 years at $22k a pop.

@Crazedladychron: Yes, please ask me what I'd like to know or learn or explore. Ask me what would be a valuable way to spend my time. Just a suggestion...

 @ElizaWallace27: $1k? See, that's the problem. Teachers have no idea how much other people make, because we make so little. These guys average $6-$10k per for a keynote type situation. My best PD was when I was in a broken down bus of German teachers for two hours. We swapped ideas and shared.

 @Premphyak: This is what I exactly think, based on my observation working with in-service teachers. 'Training' teaches 'conditioning' and dehumanizes teachers' agency. Teachers need space for dialogue, collaboration, and learning.

The message was clear: It is time for a revolution in how teachers are treated and respected as learners. Teachers bring intellectual capital, experience, ideas, visions, and purposes to the professional learning in which they engage. It is high time we start recognizing this reality, and we are trying.

You may remember that last year, we introduced you to the All Y’all Social Justice Collective. The All Y’all Social Justice Collective is a group of educators working to reframe the way teachers are invited into professional learning situations. Currently, the collective consists of a core group of people from the University of Florida and its P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School, the University of North Florida, the University of North Georgia, and the College of Charleston. The collective works to provide a professional learning series for teachers across the South that is free to teachers and funded through institutional support. All Y’all is just one group among many working to rethink teachers’ professional engagement.

The second annual All Y’all Social Justice Conference was held in June among the beautiful hills of Dahlonega, Georgia. As is customary for All Y’all events, the conference has a place-based theme, guided this year by the words of a pioneer in women’s and Appalachian studies, north Georgia’s own Helen Lewis.

Who is speaking truth to power, who is feeding the hungry, who is healing the sick? Who is writing the poetry, saving the stories, saving the land, singing the songs? Find out who you are. What is your place in this place?” 

— Helen Lewis

Helen’s words served as a challenge as teachers convened on the campus of the University of North Georgia, reflecting on what it means to be a steward and a citizen of your “place.” It didn’t take long for one possible answer to Helen’s powerful questions to emerge: teachers. Teachers speak truth to power. Teachers feed the hungry, heal the sick, and save the stories. Teachers save the land and sing the songs. This two-day conference revealed all that. 

Rosann Kent, director of UNG’s Georgia  Appalachian Studies center, kicked off the conference challenging the audience to consider “what” is Appalachia, “where” is Appalachia, “who” is Appalachia, and “when” is Appalachia. Rosann flipped the stereotypical narratives — those spun by movies such as Deliverance, in the last century, and by, lately Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance — upside down, revealing that the answers to her questions are as diverse as the people who inhabit the the region. Three more powerful addresses followed Kent over the two-day conference. Dr. Will Jackson of Village of Wisdom challenged teachers to examine and combat their biases and the institutional systems of bias that exist all around us. Dr. Rajni Shankar-Brown of Stetson University challenged folks to plot creative revolutions for justice. Finally, Marie Cochran of the Affrilachian Artists Project encouraged the pursuit of “good trouble,” playing on the famous words of the civil rights icon and U.S. Congressman John Lewis.  

Along the way, many other brilliant folks offered their gifts and talents, so many that it would be impossible to list them all. A few highlights include the extreme musical skills of David Prince, whom we introduced to you in a previous column as the “ Laid Back Country Picker,” and his wife Teresa Prince. David and Teresa, both teachers, set up out back of the Appalachian Studies Center and treated all their colleagues teachers to a show filled with honesty, kindness, and rock and roll. Before their performance, two documentaries were screened. We watched the 2018 documentary film Hillbilly, which includes Bitter Southerner contributors such as Dr. Meredith McCarroll of Bowdoin College, Kentucky novelist Silas House, and “Looking at Appalachia” photographer Roger May. Other guests included West Virginia teacher and co-author of 55 Strong, Jessica Salfia, local disability advocates ConnectAbility, and the always popular and Twitter-famous Val Brown of Teaching Tolerance, who each helped us all understand a little more about what it means to advocate for what’s right.  

 A full recap of the event is near impossible, and beyond our purposes here. Suffice to say, though, that teachers showed up and brought all that makes teachers great. They brought brains, compassion, and dedication. All Y’all simply laid out the red carpet for teachers to do what teachers do naturally.

This is the revolution we need in teacher professional learning. We need those who hold privileges of time, money, and resources to use those privileges to create spaces where teachers can engage and thrive. 

With that, we return to the words of Helen Lewis. We ask all Bitter Southerners, “What is your place in this place?” If we consider public education in the South as a “place” to be filled, nurtured, and cultivated, what is your place in the world of public education?

We hope it starts with the idea of All Y’all and you see that you have a place in the soul of public education. Think about where you fit in that mix and where you can do good, where you can make good trouble. Ponder it for a good long spell, and then please come to the third annual All Y’all Social Justice Conference, scheduled for July 2020 in Charleston, South Carolina, and tell us what you decided and how you acted. Teachers need all y’all. 

To follow All Y’all on Twitter check out @AllYalllEdu. As always, Adam is @aj_wade and Todd is @115coffeepot. Join the conversation!