The Classroom Next Time (On My Last Day of School)

Jose Vilson Featured, Jose

Over the last week or two, I’ve had a hard time compressing the experience of teaching students over the last year. There’s something disconcerting about teaching 90 students in the beginning of the year to 150 in almost in the blink of an eye. Yet, that’s what happened in December.

But before I speak on that, you should know the intense preparation I undertake to begin the school year. I hop in more than a week early, scrubbing desks, emptying lockers, labeling baskets. I re-order books, wash whiteboards, and toss out scrap material from the prior year. I order multi-colored folders, boxes of pencils, and reams of copy paper. I go through routines and rituals as if they were seated right in front of me then and there. I skim over lesson plans and quotidian First Day of School posts. I test out my teacher voice and blast inappropriate rap music at high volume while doing all of this. I become one with this classroom, the space my students might occupy.

In short order, they are introduced to adults left and right, some who they’ve passed by in the hallway but never bothered to inquire about. Their schedules have rectangular grids with enough space in the text to color-code with fresh neon marker. They’re given a redundant set of behavioral norms. They read their teachers for initial signs of weakness and codes of engagement. Who gives the most homework? Who shouts the loudest? Who’s too strict for their own good? Who’s going to give me that 90?

Meanwhile, I had re-dedicated myself to aligning my inside and outside personas, because I already carried so many multitudes that having one more grew tiresome. My students deserved this new me. The political self. The soulful self. The ebullient self. The serious self. The quixotic (and at times sarcastic) self. The fatherly self. In full display. From day 1.

We uncovered rules of exponents in September, explored the measurements of the solar system through scientific notation in October, and applied patterns to linear relationships in November. The students never grew weary of asking me questions, and I had enough willpower to prevent myself from giving direct answers. I stuck to this principle. All the while, students in a couple of other classes heard about my reputation and wanted to opt into my class.

They got their wish, unwittingly, when adults thought it best to have me teach 145 students and not 85, 5 classes instead of 3. They saw to it that 5/6ths of the entire eighth grade would have me for half of their math program. For two of my original classes, it meant resenting their other math teacher. For another two, it meant resenting me. For the fifth class, it meant picking sides over the better math teacher. For the adults, it meant sharing students and having critical discussions about their conceptual understandings.

But for me, it meant too much. It meant allaying the fears of students who were only used to me as their math teacher. It meant having stronger relationships with the classes that naturally came in during September versus those that abruptly came in December. It meant at least three different approaches and lesson plans, and a load that didn’t match with my concepts of middle school. It meant questioning some of my colleagues and pushing them to care about my kids as much as I did. It meant my paper stacks were that much higher. It meant my quizzes and performance tasks took that much longer to give back. It meant new colored folders and different seat arrangements every 45 minutes instead of every 90. It meant a sore throat by seventh period daily, and a new set of parents to call and inform them of our new complicated system. It meant digging deeper than I ever did to make all of my students meet the standard I had originally set in September.

From a bird’s eye view, it also meant I was entrusted for 45 minutes a day with ~80% every eighth grader academically and socioemotionally, a burden I gladly bore.

To what end? I witnessed scholars, think tank occupants, hustlers, and bosses hypothesize all of the ways educators, parents, and students don’t teach, don’t cultivate, don’t learn. Their all-students-matter rhetoric belie their distance from the day-to-day lived experience of those who’ve chosen this path. An even slimmer road exists for those of us who chose to adjust ourselves on behalf of students, disregarding the current urge to call children a digit or a state-sponsored label. Some educators traverse a thinner road still, one that spiritually connects students’ plight with their hopes, their ears, and their hymns.

In acknowledging this, I sharpened my foci on them as people. Their 90+ average does not make them impervious to racial, sexual, or class-based oppression. Their 55s do not make them incapacitated to greatness, love, and compassion. Elevated test scores are nice to have, but their scores are slivers of their capacity for learning. Their manners and mannerisms, their shoes and lowered pants, their hair and loud laughter are inextricable, ever movable parts of their actual person.

I threw my whole heart into this and laid my flaws out because the world that analyzes them, judges them, corrects them lost its heart somewhere in the footnotes of their ill-conceived policies.

On the last day, I told my main class many truths. Some folks will care whether they learned. Some won’t. Some folks will love them. Some won’t. They only had to be steadfast in their self-determination, and they must grip firmly their resolve. They need not worry about being loved because they already have people who love them. Including me. They were a wonder before they walked through my class, and I now joined in the wonderment.

This year, I didn’t take into consideration whether they would be college and career ready. I simply asked them to consider being their best selves daily. As I tried. I failed lots, but I continue to succeed more often than not. I needed for them to burn brighter than I did.

That’s the blessing.

photo c/o