Becoming a social justice educator

April 9, 2020

"Literacy is power and freedom" reads a poster hanging prominently on the wall of Harpreet Parhar's classroom at Ballard High School in Seattle.

"That's what guides my work," said Parhar, an English language arts teacher.

But that realization didn't come right away. As an undergraduate at the University of Washington, "I was one of those lost souls that bounced around everywhere," she remembers.

Parhar said that she found her interest in teaching while taking multiple anthropology courses with the same professor. Seeing his passion for the subject matter while making a difference through his teaching, she said, drew her to the  master's in teaching program at the UW College of Education in 2016. 

There, Parhar further explored her interest in teaching and discovered her true passion: to advance social justice in the classroom.

"It's just such a privilege to be able to wake up every day, talk about these things just like my professor, these things that I really feel strongly about," Parhar said, "and, at the same time, build connections with students. It's the most rewarding job."

Coursework in the master’s in teaching program, Parhar said, gave her an equity-focused lens to reflect on her own schooling. In particular, it provided her the language to understand past experiences that made her uncomfortable.

Before joining the program, Parhar said, "I didn't realize that, as a person of color [and] as a woman, how much I was experiencing that was a result of microaggressions, macroaggressions, [and] lack of opportunity that was a result of being in a system that was not designed for me.” Without having that lens, she said, sometimes negative experiences people of color face can be normalized.

Gaining the knowledge and tools to better understand her experiences as a student of color has empowered Parhar to be a loud voice for those at Ballard High School.

Since working at the school, she has noticed instances of racism. After one such incident, Parhar, who was also an adviser to the school’s Black student union last year, sent an all-staff email to promote change.

This email – which called on staff members to help make the school more welcoming to students and staff of color – eventually led to an all-staff conversation about changing its culture.

Another way Parhar is working to help students have meaningful high school experiences includes advocating for a work-study program at Ballard High School. She began and is continuing to develop the initiative while pursuing studies in the master’s in higher education program at the UW.

The work-study program, which is currently in exploratory phase, would allow students to earn quarterly stipends while performing valuable project-based assignments from local companies for one class period each week.

Fueling Parhar's work on this project is her desire to help reduce the financial hardships some of her students face. For example, one of her students quit a school sport to work and contribute to his family's income. One of her goals for the project, thus, is to enable students to participate in extracurricular activities, and, among other things, have enough time to complete homework and attend class.

While working to create a learning space that appreciates each student's diversity and providing students with meaningful opportunities, Parhar helps prepare other teachers and teacher candidates to make a real difference in the lives of their students.

Parhar is also on the Ethnic Studies Advisory Committee run by the Washington Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. She works with other school professionals to create ethnic studies course materials and resources for grades 7 through 12. This work, in part, provides educators with a framework to help students become global citizens.

Parhar also previously worked as a mentor teacher at a summer bridge program at Garfield High School in Seattle. While working to develop curricula and lessons for students getting ready to enter high school, she helped UW teacher candidates teach portions of the workshops and build relationships with students.

Now continuing to mentor two of those teacher candidates, Parhar remains as a resource for those in her field.

“I hope to prepare them in a way in which they can tap into their true identities as a teacher because it does have to be work that you just love to do,” Parhar said. “But, also, I hope that they walk away with a strong understanding that they are in the business of impacting lives.”

Story by Tracy Dinh, marketing and communications student aide.


Dustin Wunderlich, Director of Marketing and Communications