Agents Of The State

Jose Vilson Education, Jose

“How many of you have a child that you believe in and no one else does?”

Seats shift.

“How many of you can relate to the children in front of you? How many of you have students who get thrown out of everyone else’s class but yours?”

Some people blink, some heads turn to the side, but the general assembly hums and huffs.

This is a Bronx auditorium where a coalition of conscious principals (headed by CASA principal Jamaal Bowman) dared have a race-centric education conference on Chancellor’s Day, NYC’s annual professional development day. As the only K-12 teacher on the featured panel, I found myself needing to push buttons for our audience, many of whom presumably get tired of getting talked at by outsiders.

“On the morning of the day after the Michael Brown decision came down, I set aside the Common Core and got to the heart of the matters. We as teachers do ourselves a disservice when we’re not willing to listen to the kids in front of us about these very issues.”

As I’m saying these things, I’m thinking about the position I currently sit in, with all these wonderful speaking engagements and opportunities and using those spaces to lift others. This might be my vision. Yet, the other, more onerous side of this argument is that I’m putting myself and my colleagues in danger by asking us to . Even with one steady foot in the classroom, our vociferous selves stand to lose our livelihoods, despite reformers’ “job for life” barbs. The idea that teachers can actually work with kids and not do things to them boils down to the question I’ve struggled with since the NYPD turned their backs to Mayor Bill de Blasio:

Are teachers agents of change or agents of the state?

This was no more poignant than when I spoke yesterday at the Boston Teachers’ Union’s professional development conference. When Paul Tritter, director of professional learning at the BTU, asked me to speak, he dropped a few facts that made me do a double take. I did not know, for instance, that this is the 40th anniversary of the Boston desegregation / busing efforts. The ensuing riots, white flight, and eventual disintegration in 2013, have led to a 90% student of color population in Boston Public Schools. Couple that with a teaching stuff that is 2/3rds white and the optics can be disconcerting for anyone vested in social justice.

As I was preparing for my presentation, then, I found myself needing to tell the audience about cultural competence and the idea of discomfort with their positions as educators. Discomfort is the means by which things change. Without that agita in our seats, we never reflect or see ways to improve our practice.

If we as educators are comfortable in our stations, the next question has to be whether students are(n’t).

The real status quo isn’t the antiquated schools with the rusty unions and curmudgeon teachers nor is it the hyperfocus on testing, standards, and charter schools as a winning formula. It’s the system that creates separate and unequal schooling for students all across the spectrum only exacerbated by the 1% influence upon them. Whenever we seek compliance for the sake of compliance or we use the words rigor to mean one thing (raising the bar) and not how it’s actually defined (hardship, torture), we subjugate. Whenever we embody the principles of the folks whose policies disproportionally affect our kids, we oppress.

Does that include me, a person of color from the neighborhoods my students grew up? Sometimes. That’s consciousness.

Much like anti-racist / sexist / homophobic work, if we aren’t engaged in shaking off the things that bind us down, we become complicit in it. The history of American education is bound together with the history of America, racism and all. It’s best we do this work discomforted, maladjusted, and riled up by social injustices.

photo c/o