responsibility

Don’t Talk To Me About Personal Responsibility If …

Jose

No, not this again.

“This kid never takes personal responsibility for anything that they ever do. I’m standing there wondering why this kid is literally sleeping in my class, so I walk up to him and tell him to get out of my classroom! The nerve of him to try to get one over on me. I get paid whether or not they do well, but for them to sit there and do nothing? Get out!”

Does she even wonder why … nevermind. I inquire a bit more. She replies,

“Well, he comes in with those stupid cream cheese sandwiches from next door and he thinks he’s going to eat in my classroom and get his grubby little hands on my stuff, he’s got another thing coming. And then, he’s getting pissy because I tell him he needs to get ready for class and puts his head down. I can’t stand him!”

This conversation hasn’t happened in the last few months for me, mainly because I don’t eat in the teachers’ lounge anymore (more on that later), but I’ve heard this said so many times, I almost started to believe the hype. I could continue from here saying how my mom, unlike others’ parents, prioritized education. I, unlike other kids, paid attention to everything my teacher said and gave all my teachers demi-god status. Most of my professional, formerly low-income friends of color might say the same things about beating the odds and focusing on their intellectual pursuits.

I’m also privileged to have talents in academics, too. Others might never realize their own privilege when walking into situations with kids.

As most of you know, personal responsibility is often used as a euphemism for ignoring the environmental effects of poverty, race, class, gender, and a host of other isms we all ought to embody if we consider ourselves change agents. Even men of color who came from these tough backgrounds tap into the personal responsibility argument to get into the good graces of people who might not otherwise hear their messages. Some teachers use the personal responsibility argument on its face because it’s a lot easier than navigating through their own frustrations with a system seemingly meant to fail them. Principals and district leaders hawk it sometimes when scores go down more often than not.

The whole spectacle reeks of tree pissing.

Don’t talk to me about personal responsibility unless you balance it out with a good, rich discussion of socio-emotional foci and a keen sense of relationship building between yourself as the adult / teacher and the child / student. For instance, in the midst of discussion, you might hear me say, “Well, he doesn’t work hard enough on this” or “He needs to come prepared for class,” but best believe they know how much I care about their well being. I’ve only sent kids to the principals’ office three times, and I still have a goal of zero. I let them eat breakfast and talk while working, but in exchange, my expectations for their work increase.

I don’t walk around the room with a sense of entitlement, nor do I ever say I’ll get paid for this job anyways because my kids (yes, my KIDS) need to know that there’s someone who simultaneously holds them accountable and tries to work with them as people. Because they are people. That’s my personal responsibility to them.

Jose, who has a conversation with himself tomorrow …

About Jose Vilson

José Luis Vilson is a math educator, blogger, speaker, and activist. For more of my writing, buy my book This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, on sale now.