Teaching the Way Martin Luther King Would


By Andrew Pillow

Today is the day that we as a country honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

It is easy to relegate our efforts to honor MLK to quotes and lip service, which is precisely what most of us do. We tweet parts of the “I have a dream” speech. We post an iconic picture of MLK and some other civil rights leader. There is nothing wrong with that. All of that is well and good, but Martin Luther King is bigger than your social media posts. In fact, his legacy is even bigger than him.

I can’t tell you how to honor his legacy in your own life. However, I can tell you how I, as a black male history teacher, attempt to keep his dream alive: 

I always imagine how Dr. King himself would be as a teacher, and I try and emulate those traits.

1.       Never give up on a student.

Teaching in the inner city, I have the opportunity to teach a lot of students who have been written off. Some of them have been written off at every level of their education. Many of those students according to both the research and my own experience happen to be black males. This, of course, isn’t incidental. 

As a black male, I have a duty to make sure other black males have an opportunity to do their best every day. I can’t write them off. Society does that enough already.  

2.       Remember that black history didn’t start at the civil rights movement.

If you are a grade school student in the US you may get the impression that black history is the story of slavery, the civil rights movement, and Obama. Students have this impression because that’s the way we teach it. Some teachers don’t know any better, but as a history teacher, I have to do better.

Black American history in America predates the 1960s and extends beyond slavery. Our students, from all backgrounds, need to be taught that.

3.       Keep students informed of current events.

The black experience didn’t stop with the passage of the civil rights act. Black Americans continue to have success and struggles. Your students need to know about it.

That may look like reading relevant news articles in class. It may be having students reflect on their own experience. Either way, students need to realize they aren’t just learning black history… they are living it.

Most people feel like they will never have the chance to make the same level of impact as Dr. King did. Most people would be right, but I did the math and I will teach over 7,000 students in my career. That is a huge number of lives I will touch. I have to do right by them. Aftereall, you never know if that student you are ready to write off will become the next Dr. King.

Check of these other pieces in Indy/Ed MLK Day 2018 Reflection series:

"Separate and Not Equal Cannot Continue in IPS" by Cheryl Kirk

"Our Work is More Important Than Ever Before" by Barato Britt

"We Need More Dreamers" by Shawnta S. Barnes

"Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the Era of 45" by David McGuire



Andrew Pillow

Andrew is a technology teacher at KIPP Indy College Prep. He is graduate of the University of Kentucky and a Teach for America Alum. Andrew just recently finished his commitment as a Teach Plus Policy fellow, and he is looking forward to putting the skills he's learned to good use. Andrew has written for several publications in the past on a wide variety of topics but will be sticking to education for his role on Indy/Ed.