Creating Spaces Where Students Thrive

New Research Highlights Perspectives from Self-Described Social Justice Educators

In a recent issue of Middle School Journal, researchers Ebony Terrell Shockley and Valeisha Ellis investigated, through a series of interviews, the perspectives and pedagogical practices of teachers who self-identify as social justice educators. But what does that really mean, to be a social justice educator? And what is the end result for the students they teach? AMLE CEO Stephanie Simpson sat down with Dr. Terrell Shockley to learn more about the study and the key implications for educators.

This interview has been edited for space and clarity. You can read the article in its entirety in Middle School Journal Volume 54, Issue 1. AMLE members enjoy full online access to Middle School Journal.

SS: If you wanted current practitioners to take one insight away from the article, what would it be?

ETS: One significant insight for practitioners would be to invest in the cultural and linguistic backgrounds, the funds of knowledge of their students and consider those traditions and practices that happen at home as valuable and as assets. Look for opportunities to connect students’ ideas and fundamental beliefs into your classrooms where it makes sense to do so. Examples may include representation; and honoring the legacy of a historical person that aligns with the backgrounds of your students. It’s really about investing in the students and linking connections to the school curriculum.

SS: And that’s so aligned with what we know from the research about middle grades best practice.  But there is also a lot of misunderstanding out there about what social justice education means. If you were explaining the benefits of this approach, maybe to a parent who was encountering the term for the first time, how might you describe it?

ETS: One of the benefits of social justice education for children, and for the middle school child in particular, is that it is developmentally appropriate. It considers students who are different, maybe culturally different or neurologically divergent, as an asset instead of as a deficit. Consistent with research, it’s an opportunity for students to advocate for themselves and to ask questions. Students engage in critical thinking, from multiple perspectives, responses are not solely, “because my teacher said so.” Social justice education is a space for power and agency for students. For underrepresented students, it’s an opportunity for them to see themselves, and for their teachers to see them, as capable as their peers and in positive ways. We know from the literature that this influences student success.

SS: Building on that, you talk in the article about how important it is for teachers to have positive dispositions of students. We know it’s especially key in the middle grades for teachers to enjoy working with young adolescents. Can you share more about why this is so essential?

ETS: As a former middle school reading specialist and science teacher, I know how important it is for students to be able to show up as their whole selves. For example, you can offer a rigorous academic space and still allow students to pass on a question. What we know and understand about the peer pressure of middle school is that sometimes students have the answer but they’re not comfortable sharing that answer. Knowing and understanding the student and respecting how they might show up one day, versus another day, helps the teacher reflect on and dig deeper about why that student might not have wanted to answer a question. The developmental appropriateness and understanding of the adolescent learner are critical for a social justice classroom.

SS: In the article you say, “Listening to students experiences helped teachers get to know their learners and understand what they know and are able to do, not based on teacher assumptions but from the learners’ perspectives.” Our theme for Middle Level Education Month, which we’re celebrating now, is The Empowered Student. As a teacher, it can be hard to recognize or to admit when you’re not doing this. What would you recommend as a first step for a teacher that wants to start to align themselves with social justice best practices?

ETS: I recommend they remember as best they can what it was like to be in middle school. What that feels, sounds, and looks like. They too, should imagine a space where they can make mistakes and not have a longstanding stereotype about them or people that look like them. Because middle school is a place that prepares students for high school and college, consider how they would want a teacher to see them as capable and able to reach their goals no matter how lofty. I believe that teachers want this for themselves. I think they just want to understand how to navigate that path. The more teachers understand what it means to be socially just educators the more I believe they’ll buy into it. In the article, we describe a teacher supporting students because they have no prior experience typing on an English keyboard. Without this knowledge, a teacher may misrepresent students and their capabilities and assume that there is some sort of delay, when really their backgrounds present a different keyboard.  That’s a small example, but it’s also an example with big implications. Not knowing becomes a barrier, particularly as standardized tests are moving to or are solely online.

SS: You note in your article that there are implications for teacher preparation programs as well. What insights would you want professors or others involved in teacher preparation to take away?

ETS: Provide teacher candidates experiences that are well developed that will help them to get to know their students, their interests, and their backgrounds. Hopefully, they engage with their teacher mentors from the beginning of the year so that the teacher candidate then sees the benefits of understanding students’ backgrounds, and how that translates into building relationships and rapport and, ultimately, student success. Teacher educators will want to ensure that our teacher candidates have the tools to build relationships and connect with students and make sure that their coursework integrates diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice as a through-line in teacher preparation programs.

SS: In the article you talk about the utility of the layered curriculum for social justice educators, but it’s also developmentally appropriate for middle grades learners. Can you speak to that?

ETS: I had the opportunity to watch middle school students during some of the interviews. Observing choice in the classroom with what the layered curriculum offers was one of the more impactful takeaways for me – being able to see teachers bring in a large group of students and watch how to demonstrate their understanding and realize that they could select another option in the next unit or quarter. That choice gives them the power that aligns with the social justice classroom.

SS: This sounds like a big “wow!” moment for you. Were there any other findings you found surprising?

ETS: The surprise for me was, knowing what it’s like to teach in a public school system and that there are often limits in the ways teachers can bring in these critical frameworks. Seeing how these self-identified social justice teachers folded in social justice standards in a way that made students feel seen, included, and empowered was another critical finding for me. It was remarkable to talk about justice, specifically, and use local problems so students could relate, connect, and think about ways to support and problem-solve issues important to them and their communities.

Ebony Terrell Shockley, Ph.D., is the Executive Director of Educator Preparation and Associate Clinical Professor at University of Maryland, College Park. Co-author Valeisha M. Ellis, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the Education Department at Spelman College. 


  1. Teachers are teaching more than just their content. A classroom should foster students growth academically, as well as personally. Middle school is such developmental time for students, so as teachers it is important to meet their individual needs. This means creating a safe and encouraging space for them to learn.
    Middle schoolers are especially engaged when the content is relative and includes their personal choice. Students thrive in situations where they feel they have control over what they are learning. As much as possible, teachers need to appropriately challenge students by making sure lessons are relevant and meaningful.