Every teacher is different. Some, more than most.
In one Los Altos High School classroom, you’ll find a whiteboard filled with drawings of “a snailathon,” geese, a buff Garfield and a duck wearing a baseball cap, among other things. There are posters and paintings on the walls, and a “Muncher” (a carnivorous plant found from the “Mario” franchise) stuffed toy on a table in the front of the room.
The man responsible for this chaos: None other than U.S. history, civics and economics teacher Seth Donnelly.
But what makes Donnelly special? Well, his teaching style is rather unique: He tries to foster a sense of “radical equality” among himself and his students.
“I try to build a community between myself and the students, and the students with each other,” Donnelly said. “To recognize that we’re all unique people sharing time and space together, and to appreciate that uniqueness.”
Donnelly said he assigns projects, interactive assignments and whole-class discussions to better teach the material “visually and provocatively.” But Donnelly said he believes there’s more to a classroom environment than just classwork; one of those things, he said, is humor. He said he wants his students to feel a sense of community with their classmates in a place meant for learning and growth.
“I like a culture in which we’re all in this together,” Donnelly said. “We’re all learning together for the purpose of making a better world where human rights are respected, and the environment is preserved.”
Donnelly hasn’t always been a teacher. Once upon a time, he was a social worker in Chicago involved in work around police brutality and political prisoners. He said that, along with his protesting of South African apartheid in college, “radicalized” him.
“Those experiences … made me see clearly that society, as it was set up, was not working, particularly for colonized peoples and that we needed real fundamental change,” Donnelly said. “So from there, I took those experiences and brought them to the classroom here.”
Donnelly said he brings that worldview with him into the classroom, and that’s in fact part of what drove him to become a teacher. Teaching, he believes, is the way to solve what he identifies as humanity’s systemic problems: racism, homophobia, patriarchy and ageism.
“We need to figure out ways in which indigenous nations, like the Lakota and Iroquois Confederacy, reestablish their rightful sovereignty,” Donnelly said. “Where Black Lives Matter translates into Black liberation. Where Puerto Rico becomes free and independent. Where racism and attacks against Asians and Pacific Islanders stop.”
As a U.S. history teacher, Donnelly said he works to inform newer generations of mistakes made in the past.
“I think teaching is so important,” Donnelly said. “If we frame it that our humanity, even if we happen to be privileged in a material way from a relationship of oppression, is damaged, then everyone has an interest in being freer and living in a just society. … The system is the problem, and we can all benefit from replacing the system.”
Ultimately, Donnelly said he believes that the world needs major change — but he’s confident that things will always eventually change for the better.
“People do want a world that is better; they do have a sense of justice,” Donnelly said. “No one is free as long as some are oppressed.”