Last week, I voted in Texas’ primary election, and proudly supported Houstonian Michelle Palmer, a community activist and education leader who might soon make history as the first openly LGBTQ+ teacher elected to the Texas State Board of Education. As an educator committed to leveraging critical pedagogy to advance empowerment, healing, and liberation, Palmer’s progressive stances about Texas’ core curriculum resonated so much that I reached out to request an interview. She agreed.
“I started fighting for equity in college, and haven’t stopped,” says Palmer. “My campaign is an extension of my decades of advocacy.”
Palmer’s platform certainly reflects a deeply purposeful and thorough commitment to championing social change. For instance, her advocacy for sexual consent education stands in stark contrast to Texas’ arguably hazardous and negligent sex education curriculum.
While Texas schools can opt out of sex ed altogether, state law requires an abstinence-only emphasis when schools do teach it. A loophole also pardons inaccurate information on contraception and sexual health. No standard for teaching about sexual violence exists, yet. That might explain why, almost preemptively, Palmer has addressed the caveat of prevention programs which stress how to avoid, deter, and fight off predators, instead of addressing rape culture. Hard data corroborates her framing of sexual assault as a normalized cultural and systemic issue that the victim-blaming subtext of many awareness campaigns fails to redress. In 2017, Texas recorded 313,000 human-trafficking victims, including 79,000 minors, and Houston officials in 2019 deemed the city ‘ground zero for human trafficking’.
Palmer’s platform also challenges the status quo of relegating ethnic studies electives to the periphery. She believes Texas could do more to expunge historical revisionism from the social studies core curriculum. Not only that, she backs fact-based science classes and textbooks that steer clear of creation myths, and instead focus on climate change and other pressing threats to sustainability.
For the last 6 years, Palmer has taught 9th grade World Geography at a public school. She started out teaching 8th grade math at a middle school, pivoting to elementary English after a few years, and then expanding her repertoire even further, as a teacher of 5 high school social studies courses.
Palmer first entertained pursuing her teaching career while working a retail management job, where she discovered fulfillment in training new employees. Her best friend, a teacher, convinced her to give a shot at teaching. She also credits her college mentors for sparking her passion for education.
“I am the first person to graduate college in my family, and almost had to drop out several times, due to financial issues. Several college professors in the Women’s Studies Department were able to help me find what I needed,” Palmer explains. “They also set me onto my activist route.”
If elected to the Texas State Board of Education, Palmer would influence education policy in major ways — adopting textbooks, approving curricula, devising rules for educator certification, establishing graduation requirements, and overseeing the formation of new charter schools. During a four-year term, she would represent 1 of 15 districts, which together comprise 8,731 schools, 1,254 school districts, and more than 5 million public school students. Thus far, a long list of community and national organizations have endorsed her: Black Lives Matter Houston, GLTB Caucus Victory Fund, Houston Black American Democrats, Houston Muslim Democrats, Our Revolution, Tejano Democrats, Transgriot, and Vote Pro Choice, among others. Keep reading to hear from the trailblazer herself.
Was there a particular “aha moment” that prompted you to run for the Texas State Board of Education (District 6)?
I decided to run in 2018, when I discovered a number of factual inaccuracies in the 8th grade social studies curriculum. I tried to find someone else to run, but they kept telling me I should run, so…
You are the only teacher-candidate. Did the Board’s underrepresentation of teachers deter or motivate you to run?
A little of both. It motivates me because an active classroom teacher understands the curriculum better than anyone, and it deters me because it is an unpaid position, and I will be continuing to teach and using all of my days off to do this important work.
A fellow educator described you as “grounded and principled.” What values are the cornerstone of your platform?
I would say the values of justice and equity are the cornerstone of my platform. Every student in Texas should be able to see themselves and their forebearers in the curriculum they learn from. I want to increase US History to 3 years instead of 2, and add in more Native American, African American, Mexican American, Asian American, and Women’s history into the curriculum. I love that the Board approved both Mexican American and African American studies courses over the last few years. However, those are electives, and the students who most need to learn about the contributions of all of these groups would probably not choose to take these courses. Every student in Texas needs to learn about the contributions of these groups, and the horrors afflicted on these groups in our history.
Many people consider the sole purpose of education as preparation for the workforce. Would you agree?
I do not agree. Not every person will go into the workforce (though most will.) We provide a free public education to people who have disabilities that will keep them out of the workforce. Education to me is partially to make people good citizens of the world. Perhaps it is because I am a social studies teacher, but I definitely see part of the reason for education as giving people the decision making skills they need to vote. In addition, the education system as we know it was created to make good factory workers, and that is no longer a priority in the US. We need to create a system that allows for more creative thought, because many of the jobs of the near future require it.
Why is it important to you that Texas’ core curriculum is “based in scientific and historical fact”, specifically regarding science, sex education, and social studies classes? What undermines this aim?
It is important to me for many reasons, but chief among them is that it is difficult to tell fact from fiction, if your school is teaching you fiction, and calling it a fact. The current science curricula do not include climate change. The history curriculum says that Moses was an influence on the Founding Fathers. The current health curriculum teaches rape in such a way that blames the victims, instead of teaching consent. Factual curricula are undermined, by having a group of people that want (and have succeeded at) to add propaganda to the curriculum. If the students of Texas are going to succeed in the world and economy of tomorrow, then they need to enter that world knowing the facts.
You have raised questions about some charter school networks’ relative lack of accountability and transparency, especially regarding special education. Could you expound upon that?
Charter schools legally are supposed to follow the same rules as public schools. However, the administrations of some of them will skirt the rules, by suggesting to parents of Special Education students that the school doesn’t have the help their child’s needs, and their child would be better off in a public school with more resources. In addition, several area charter schools will wait until after the date on which funding is set by population (last Friday in October), and then expel students for behavior, suggest to parents that since their child is failing, they might be better off at another school, and so forth. They get paid for the students, and then send them on their way; and the local public school then has to either increase class sizes, or hire more teachers, although they don’t have the funding to do so, since they didn’t have a high enough population before that set date. Charters in the Houston area also have lower scores from the state than HISD and, yet, HISD is under threat of a state takeover, but those low performing charters are not.
How have others pushed back against your advocacy for a pedagogy, or educational philosophy, that centers critical consciousness, equity, and justice? How did you respond?
I haven’t had much pushback so far, but I probably will for the general election, if I succeed in my primary runoff. I would respond by saying that students need to understand that they have power. In my 5 years teaching government, I set that as my primary responsibility.
How have you built trust with families at your school?
I have always tried to contact every family during the early weeks of the school year, and let them know what we will be learning for the year. I give my cell phone number and email to all parents and students, and keep open lines of communication. In addition, I participate in many after school activities to get to know my students and their families better.
As a leader, what personal qualities will you lean on most during challenging times?
I have always relied on empathy, as much as possible, during challenging times. Understanding why other people are frustrated, and what their priorities are, helps to solve underlying problems.
You are a visionary. What quote best captures the essence of your vision?
“Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.” ––Jonathan Swift
Araya Baker is a counselor educator, suicidologist, and policy analyst. Baker holds a M.Phil.Ed. in professional counseling from the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and an Ed.M. in human development and psychology from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Learn more at arayabaker.com.