The Oppression and Liberation of Teachers

In March, 1989, I led a workshop on teaching, at which we came to an agreement that teachers, especially classroom teachers, are oppressed by the society in much the same way parents are. Teachers are asked to do an extremely demanding job, with terribly inadequate resources and incorrect theory about learning and about human beings, and are then blamed for the ills of the society. We also reviewed the new theory about middle-class oppression/liberation and looked at the oppression/liberation of teachers as a particular variety of that.

Here is what I said at the workshop:


It is a wonderful thing to be a teacher. I congratulate each of you on deciding to become teachers. We are different kinds of teachers, and we teach in different kinds of situations, but we are all teachers. You made a good choice.

There are some special benefits to being teachers.

1.      We get to be involved with learning—both our own and others’. Learning is an activity which is a part of our inherent humanness. We get to experience the joy of assisting other people to learn, and the joy of continuing to learn ourselves.

2.     We get to care about our students. Caring is an essential part of what we do as teachers. We know that caring is even more important than being cared about, in being fully human.

3.     Teaching puts us in relationship with a variety of human beings, with people of ages, races, religions, class backgrounds, etc., different from our own.

4.     We are all liberation workers in our teaching. We are involved in the liberation of human intelligence. Wherever and whomever we teach, we get to help them free themselves from distresses that limit their functioning; we get to offer them contradictions to distress, information, and attention.

5.     We have special opportunities to combat other oppressions. We are allies to our students and we teach our students correct (counter-oppressive) information about many peoples.

6.     We cared about by our students. Not by every student at every moment; but to a much greater extent than we often acknowledge, they care about us.

7.     Our students and the interesting challenges of teaching get our attention away from our distresses. They remind us of what is real and important in the world and generally make life interesting.

8.     We get to do work that really matters. Our teaching makes a difference in the lives of our students and in the history of the world. The impact we have on our students has ripple effects far beyond what any of us know. Many people in the world are searching for meanings in their lives, or are looking for something meaningful to do to supplement work which seems meaningless to them. We have meaningful work in our teaching.


Many of us as teachers have discovered a gap between what we would like to be able to accomplish—what we dream of being able to do as teachers, the goals we would like our students to be able to achieve, our vision of teaching—and what we find we are actually able to do. Many of us have seen ourselves as the problem, even while we have known that things are not as they should be around us. Most of us have blamed ourselves at least somewhat; many of us have tried to be better, have worked harder. Many of us don’t talk openly about the gap, or we talk about it only indirectly, by blaming students, administrators, or parents. Few of us are fully proud of being teachers. Few of us are thoroughly delighted with ourselves as teachers, or love or respect all other teachers with a passion. Few of us feel a deep solidarity with all other teachers, or are fully proud of ourselves as allies to our students. Few of us are relaxed and confident about our skills and performance.

I’m going to talk, now, primarily about classroom teachers. I don’t know how much of what follows applies to other teachers. I look forward to learning some of that from you this weekend in discussions, conversations, and reports from topic groups.

Teachers are oppressed! The difficulties are not our fault. We deserve neither blame nor reproach—at all!

1.     Teachers are asked to do an impossible job with inadequate resource. We are asked to assist large groups of young people to learn, despite the heavy load of distresses about themselves, about learning, etc., which students carry; despite the load of distresses which has been piled on us from our earliest moments; and with a ratio of service-provider to client which no other business or profession would even consider.

2.     We are blamed for not achieving the high dreams and visions of education under these circumstances. We are blamed for problems which are created by many other sources outside the school: poverty, oppression, drug abuse, the state of the national economy, etc. We are blamed for things over which we have no control.

3.     In the U.S., we are terribly undervalued and disrespected. (“Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”)

4.     We are misinformed and are poorly trained to facilitate learning or to deal with the way human beings may behave under the influence of distress patterns. We function in a system dominated by incorrect and inadequate theory and information about learning and about human beings.

5.     We are poorly paid. Our pay does not reflect the demands which we face daily in our work, nor the importance of the work we do.

6.     We are required to treat the young people who are our students in ways that are not fully respectful of them (i.e. are oppressive), and to act in ways that are contrary to our inherent human nature.

7.     We are overworked. We are not given the time for the kind of planning, research, evaluation, or reflection that the complex task of guiding learning requires. We are also assigned other duties of a clerical, administrative, or custodial nature.

8.     We are not given the power to control our work or our working conditions. Many decisions about what we do are made by others who lack a full understanding of our particular situations and the needs we face.

9.     We are generally forced to work in isolation from other teachers and other colleagues, even during the little time we do have together.


“We know that every hurt or mistreatment, if not discharged, will create a distress pattern (some form of rigid, destructive, or ineffective feeling and behavior) in the victim of this mistreatment. This distress pattern, when restimulated, will tend to push the victim through a re-enactment of the original distress experience, either with someone else in the victim role, or, when this is not possible, with the original victim being the object of her/his own distress pattern.” (Suzanne Lipsky, Internalized Racism)

The result has been that the oppression of teachers, building on much earlier hurts around learning and on other oppressions, has pushed us to play out our distresses against our students, our colleagues, and ourselves. We tend to believe the content of the oppression. Our oppression causes us confusion and hurt, as we find ourselves unable to support our students as fully as we assume that our failure to be consistent, loving allies to our students is a personal failure, rather than the result of long-standing oppression and incorrect policies toward the work of teachers and toward all learners and young people (paraphrase of Draft Policy for Parents’ Liberation, by Patty Wipfler).

We find that there are things we can’t stand about ourselves or our teaching. We feel uncomfortable letting anyone know about them because of our feelings of guilt. We can’t stand many of the same things about our colleagues. This leaves us feeling more isolated. We must tackle the way the internalized oppression divides and separates us from other teachers if we are to build a successful teachers’ liberation movement.


1.     Keeping the above analysis and perspective in mind, and revising it as we go, will be necessary for our liberation. We will need to remember that it is great to be a teacher, that the source of the difficulties is in the oppression (both personal and institutionalized), and that we are not to blame.

2.     I think it will be useful to see ourselves as noble, embattled heroines and heroes, striving to care and to facilitate learning in the face of tremendous forces against us.

3.     Every teacher is a good human being. Every teacher is a caring human being. Every teacher loves students. Every teacher loves learning. Although the distresses installed on some teachers may, at times, make it difficult to discern these facts, we know it is true from our basic counseling theory.

4.     Every teacher has done the very best that she or he could do, while operating under conditions of severe oppression, and deserves neither blame nor reproach.

5.     We need to eliminate any sense that there are some teachers who care and some who don’t. We need to find ways to build alliances with all teacher, and ways to access caring in even our most discouraged colleagues.

6.     Many of you suggested, during introduction, that an accurate definition of teaching will be essential to moving things ahead. Here is my preliminary (perhaps too glib) definition of teaching: “Teaching is assisting someone to learn. It involves mostly providing attention, sometimes providing contradictions to the learner’s distress, and occasionally providing information.”

7.     To understand what teaching is, one must understand what learning is. Learning is not the passive acceptance of other people’s information, concepts, or understandings. Learning is the active process of organizing and making sense out of our sensory input, comparing and contrasting it to what we already know. A great deal of teaching is done as though learning were something quite different from this. Getting an accurate definition of learning broadly understood and implemented will be key in the liberation of teachers, students, and learning.

8.     In teaching, offering yourself as a human being is more important than working harder or trying to do more for your students.

9.     We must learn to identify and move on key issues in our classrooms or other teaching situations. Under the current oppressive arrangements, we will never be able to do all the things that we are expected to do, need to have done, or want to do. We must learn to identify the few things that will help everything else move. Part of this will involve deciding not to do many things that other teachers may do or that we feel pulled to do. What is key?

10.  We need and deserve to take at least as good care of ourselves as we take (or want to take) of our students. We deserve as much rest, play, nurture, closeness, self-appreciation, friendship, etc., as we want our students to have.


On the one hand, much of this seems obvious, given the recent developments in our theory. On the other hand, I think it may be a turning point in the educational change work. Most of the work that I have done with teachers has focused on how teachers can apply RC and be less oppressive to students. I think as long as the focus has been primarily on students, I haven’t been able to fully contradict how bad teachers feel about themselves. This has slowed down the educational change work. This new emphasis on the liberation of teachers seems to provide that key contradiction. It was reassuring, but not surprising, that once I strongly advocated the need for the liberation of teachers, teachers became able to work on being better allies to each other, and to discharge easily and openly about how much they care about their students and how committed they are to the liberation and learning of their students.

Russ Vernon Jones

Last modified: 2023-05-02 23:05:25+00