When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to speak up. You have to say something; you have to do something. -John Lewis
Early in my career, I remember being told that as teachers, we should never use the classroom for advocacy. Rather, as an educator, my responsibility is to teach my students the fundamentals of our science but not to stray from “the research.” I often felt as if I was in an episode of Dragnet, hearing Sgt. Joe Friday utter, “Just the facts, Ma’am” (For those of you unfamiliar with that 1950s drama, it is still in reruns). Similarly, I heard that advocacy is antithetical to the basic assumptions underlying research and professional scholarship. Science should be about a search for truth as opposed to confirming our particular advocacy beliefs—too political. Today, we hear a lot in the press or on social media about the dangers of teachers pushing “agendas” on students, whether it is in the form of “critical race theory” or LGBTQ+ rights. Essentially, we are being told to “stay in our lane.”
Well, today I want to say that education is at its core about advocacy in many forms and we should embrace that role. Note that I am not arguing against our science—we should teach the fundamentals of psychology and we should engage in quality research and professional scholarship. In addition, within that context, we can use our science and our skills as educators to advocate for our students, advocate for our science, and advocate for social justice based on psychological knowledge. Moreover, we can teach our students to be advocates for themselves, their friends and families, and their communities.
Part of the challenge of advocacy is that the word has many different definitions. Just a quick Google search garnered a host of definitions:
- Advocacy is defined as any action that speaks in favor of, recommends, argues for a cause, supports or defends, or pleads on behalf of others (Alliance for Justice).
- Advocacy is the act or process of supporting a cause or proposal (Merriam-Webster).
- Advocacy means getting support from another person to help you express your views and wishes, and help you stand up for your rights (Mind.Org.UK).
- Advocacy is an activity by an individual or group that aims to influence decisions within political, economic, and social institutions (Wikipedia.org).
- Advocacy means taking action to create change (Theirworld.org).
And here are two definitions, which speak particularly to me:
What I like about these two definitions is the focus on partnership and learning. First, advocacy occurs in relationship, dialogue, and actions of individuals working together towards change. Second, advocacy cannot exist without a process of educating others—individuals, groups, and communities. We teach and learn to improve not only our lives and the lives of our students but also to facilitate the development of more effective global citizenship grounded in psychological science.
To engage in advocacy, one must be knowledgeable, know their goals, have a plan, be committed to action, and then exhibit a high degree of persistence. Certainly, that sounds a lot like teaching! So in what arenas, do we as teachers engage in advocacy?
Advocacy for our students. All of us have advocated for our students at one time or another. We often step in to advocate as they struggle to maneuver the labyrinth of high school, college, or university policies and procedures related to financial aid, registration, or other stumbling blocks. When we have students with disabilities, we may advocate for services to insure that the student has equal and equitable access to needed services, as well as learning. We advocate for students when we write letters of recommendation, opening doors to future opportunities. And many schools operate food banks, host professional clothing drives, maintain emergency housing funds, offer scholarships, and a host of other products/services—all of which were most likely driven by individuals engaged in advocacy.
Advocacy in the classroom. As we teach psychological science, I would urge us all to understand the necessity of advocating for science. Sadly, as I wrote in my March column, there is a strong anti-science movement often driven by conspiracy theories occurring in many countries around the globe. All opinions are being treated equally, as if any random idea is equivalent to empirically grounded knowledge: The world is round or potentially quite flat; the Holocaust happened or it is a myth; racism exits or we live in a post-racist society. We should not only teach critical thinking skills but also advocate for why these skills are essential to learning, quality of life, and citizenship. Additionally, the various topics that we teach all have relevance to the lives if individuals, peoples, communities, and global concerns. There are social justice implications embedded in almost everything we teach from neurobiology to learning to developmental to mental health/wellness to social psychology. Our science is not a dry subject to be solely discussed in the context of research but rather we can advocate for students to explore its use to tackle real world issues. We can also teach advocacy skills!
Advocacy within our institutions. Regardless of where one teaches, we can advocate for change within those schools to create even better learning environments. Certainly, we know a lot about the scholarship of teaching and learning and we can bring that knowledge to our institutions. The STP Annual Conference on Teachingwill soon be upon us and I urge everyone to attend either in person or virtually (not all programming will be virtual). I have yet to attend an STP event where I didn’t bring back information to share with my colleagues on all sorts of topics such as building more inclusive classrooms, mentoring, teaching metacognitive skills, diversity initiatives, ethical reasoning, and more. Alas and perhaps, our persistence at some point will yield results, and all schools will stop teaching the myth of fixed learning styles.
Advocacy in the community. We can all use what we know from psychological science to engage in advocacy beyond the academy. Social justice and work on local to global issues extends well beyond the classroom. However, it is important that one clearly communicate that they are advocating as individuals and not as representatives of their institution, unless it is part of one’s position. Regardless, with a bit of advocacy training—offered by many groups including APA—you too can become an effective change-maker. Explore APA’s Advocacy Office website to learn about APA’s advocacy priorities and how you can become involved. You can also visit, Be an Advocate for Psychology, which includes a brief advocacy training.
STP and Advocacy. There are many opportunities for advocacy and advancing the teaching of psychology within STP. Explore the “Current Service Opportunities in STP” listed in each month’s STP News and check out the STP Get Involvedpage. Additionally, last year’s STP President Susan Nolan wrote, Presidential Task Force Round-Up and a Focus on Advocacyand announced a new Advocacy Committee. She wrote, “The Advocacy Committee will vet requests for STP to sign various statements; bring public policy and position statements to the Executive Committee; monitor our previous statements and suggest further action; communicate with our members to identify areas where our advocacy might be needed; and publicize our advocacy work.” Let me know if you are interested in working or consulting with this committee.
Don’t forget to explore all that STP has to offer in the way of resources (e.g., syllabi, eBooks, and so much more!) addressing a host of topics related to advocacy concerns. Explore these resources! Moreover, you can contribute to these resources. Make sure you receive our email announcements via our listserv (e.g., PsychTeacher) or follow us on Facebook/Twitter. Periodically, you will see a “Call for e-Book chapters” or “STP grant proposals.” For example, Jessica Cerniak, Editor for STP e-books, recently announced a call for chapter proposals for a new e-book project headed by members of STP’s “Teaching to Make a Difference” Presidential task force, tentatively titled “Applying Psychology Beyond the Classroom: Social Justice Activities for Intro and Upper-Level Courses.” Let me know if you want more information about this exciting project. Want to keep up-to-date on new opportunities? All of the info concerning how to subscribe to the Listservs or social media can be found under the News tab on the STP page.
So, let’s remove “advocacy” from the list of things we are to avoid when we teach. Indeed, let us begin to think of advocacy as a tool of education—a tool that must be used responsibly. We can use this tool for the benefit of our students, our classes, our science, and the betterment of our communities. If as teachers we don’t engage in advocacy for our students, our science, or the application of psychology to real-world issues, who will?