The Danger of Coloring Outside The Lines (Guest Post)

Jose Vilson Education, Guest Posts

Our last guest post comes from someone who’s been doing “the work” for kids in Colorado, not only as an educator to Latin@ / Chican@ children, but also as a teacher leader. Please give your warmest reception to Jozette Martinez-Griffin.

I remember what happened last year when there were other targets, fragmented conversations taking place in whispered corners of the empty school library, the eye rolls shared among administrators and in-the-loop teachers when “those” teachers spoke up in meetings. The lack of support they received as they slowly unraveled in their insecure skins. It was hard to watch, like a car accident, the one that everyone always says is so hard to look away. No one is safe at times like these.

I remember distancing myself from them like they now do to me, not wanting to get too close before the inevitable fare-thee-wells. I remember feeling how they now feel; cozy in their positions, naive in their belief that it could never be them. The arrogance so blatant that they don’t even bother packing up their classrooms for the summer. They’ll be back, and in the same room to boot. I remember being that confident.

“We aren’t cutting you,” they said, “We are cutting your program.” Funny how the knife did not discriminate between me and my department, (as I am a department of one.) They tried to make me feel better by telling me that the art department (made of one middle and one high school teacher) was also cut, “and they don’t have the opportunity to re-apply for any other positions.”

I had to reapply for a job that is one tiny portion of what I can offer, a position that doesn’t play up my talents, doesn’t fully justify how I can assist students in their growth and transition from middle to high school. I teach them business basics, but also how to survive in high school, code switching, and how to deal with people in life. Life skills.

I score highly on my teacher performance evaluations. Doesn’t that count? I am also CTE-certified, highly qualified to teach English in addition to my content, Business Technical Education. That’s important, right?

I am one of two female teachers of color with a population of 85% Hispanic students. I am them, they are me. They cannot be who they cannot see. How will they see me if I’m gone?

Denver is a boom town, 1200 folks moving here per week. You can imagine the number of teachers who apply to the district. There’s a push to recruit teachers of color, and my department has just been cut. I come from the same neighborhoods as my kids, I know how they live, I am them. A conversation we had a while back in class pops into my mind; “Miss, why are all the lunch ladies Mexican? And the secretaries? And the janitors?”

I’m sitting there, in the office, losing my job, feeling the heat burn my cheeks, noticing a grumble starting at the pit of my stomach. I have a hard time detecting if it is hunger, fear, or anger, but I remember this feeling from a long time ago. I can almost smell the metal on my hands, from holding the chains of the swings on recess, the memory of the blood, the saltiness on my lip. Otra niña punched me for having the audacity to run for Student Council President as a fifth grader, hit me with a “know your place.” She called me a baby, I called her a bitch, which brought out the swing in her, that landed squarely in the middle of my face. Mandatory suspension. Zero tolerance, even when you’re the punching bag.

Three-thirty p.m. Friday before a three-day weekend, and the thick air in the windowless principal’s office makes the time move slower. “It’s not personal.”

I am not a quiet teacher. Maybe that’s why. I write. I’m a self-professed “teacher movementist” member of #EduColor, and co-facilitator on the social justice strand for the Teacher Leadership Initiative for NEA. I am opinionated, passionate, and outspoken. The grumble is definitely anger.

With the current teacher shortage nationwide, the lack of teachers of color in classrooms, the push for every child to succeed, being at a turnaround school that has been constantly pushed to reinvent itself, obtaining high student achievement and tremendous student growth, I know this is personal.

I must wonder if my teacher voice, my ability to advocate for teachers and students, my writing, my activism … that combination was somehow misinterpreted, misunderstood.  I was raised in classrooms where “children are to be seen and not heard,” that they must “follow the rules,” and “color in-between the lines.” I remember an assignment in my primary years. We were drawing a night sky with a moon and stars, and a horizon line. The teacher called out the colors as she demonstrated the lines and curves to be filled in “exactly alike.” There weren’t enough midnight blue crayons, so I used deep purple. They called my parents.

My cheeks burned in that meeting too.

I know why. The same reason assigned seats occur when children get too chatty. The same reason we have detention rooms. I checked all the boxes, hung all the lessons, and posted all the right posters. But I also questioned.

I want to be the model for them. I want them to want to be teachers too, and be the real “thems,” the ones with or without an accent, from low-income housing and proud, from the street-smart, fast-paced, live loud, music thumpin’, hour-long-bus-ride-to-the-school-of-their-choice, questioning kids, push-back thinkers, changing the world with new eyes, new leaders.

Uncensored, non-conformists.

I did not re-apply for that middle school position. I am coping rather well. The whole experience gave me an opportunity to really focus on what I want and I was able to find a great fit. I’m happy to have a position at an amazing school next year. I know the principal-teacher relationship is going to work well and I will be valued for my uniqueness. But I am sad that my students will be losing a teacher that is them, from their world, and that pains me when I think of how I’m not supposed to take that personally. When it comes to my kids, it’s the only way I can take any of this.

I will not squash my activist voice just to please the insecurities of fearful administration.

In the end, I landed on my feet and I ended up in a better position. Above all else, what have learned through this process is that the essence of great teaching is evaluated not some opinion of an administrator, but from the love and growth of our students.

photo c/o