For My Fellow Male Educators of Color

Jose Vilson Education, Jose

My fellow men of color in the education sphere,

Recently, there’s been lots of conversation around training and retaining more men of color to become K-12 teachers. Because there’s only 3% of us in the profession currently, seldom do I speak up and out against, or provide caveat to, elevating that number in the least. My experience is limited in that I haven’t met the 90,000 of us who stand in front of our students, hopefully bringing them the knowledge and skills necessary to do well and find their own paths towards success. In this instance, I’ll also include the thousands of principals, administrators, consultants, and other professionals who roam our halls because, in many instances, these folks might be the only faces of color schools see throughout the year.

From my classroom purview, I’m often concerned with the reasons why we male educators of color come into education at all. Working conditions continue to be deplorable in the places we want to work the most. Environmental conditions make it difficult for our students to even get into our classrooms and pay attention, much less excel against immeasurable odds. Our own education programs don’t always prepare us for the challenges in front of us, and we’re sometimes held responsible for providing race professional development for colleagues and the discipline for our students. We’re pushed either into administration or dean roles, often under the guise of “you can do so much more for so many more.” Our administrators don’t always value our expertise in content as well as student relationships, and school districts have hired us at smaller rates than ever before. Higher ed professors, non-profit organizations, and media folks still organize TV shows and conferences about the education of children of color without ever talking to one of us, as if we can’t speak to our own professions, erasing us in the name of quasi-scholarship.

None of this excuses what I’ve seen as an endemic arrogance about the ways and means by which some of us approach education.

Many of us came into education as a means of passing knowledge forward, especially the knowledge that, yes, people of color can fight against a systematic assimilation and dulling of our collective intellect. With this common understanding, it’s concerning to me that so many of us forget our lineage when financial gain, opportunity, and spotlights get involved. Some of us too quickly embrace the narrative that our civil rights leaders did so as lone trees, and not as moving forests, branches interlocked towards a better tomorrow. Some of us see the power structure that has ostracized us from so long in education sub-spaces like ed-tech and activism and would replicate said structure only with you at the top, as if we’re here to create benevolent kings. Some of us think an occasional smile and the use of hip-hop lingo translates to true academic attainment, kicking back while our students learn nothing. Some of us use the same arguments about the parents of our children that have kept our schools at a distance from the parents we also serve.

Some of us would prefer the people who work in this vein to just leave the rest of us to our own devices. Our skinfolk and kinfolk need not be the same.

The whispers I always hear about me tend to focus on the use of an article before my name, as if my critiques limit opportunities of others. This comes with the assumption that my online and offline personae don’t speak to the experiences of students, teachers, and parents after almost a decade of dragging my fingertips on whiteboards, chalkboards, and keyboards. I may have had a part in moving the education sphere’s consciousness towards race issues. I may have promoted more men of color in my doings from New York City to the White House and across the country, and my pieces doing so around the world. I may have opened doors for like-minded tweeters of color to openly critique and transform the education profession. I may have made publishers more comfortable with letting writers of color talk about their experiences in education without feeling like they’re incapable of addressing a bleach-white, toilet-paper-soft niche. I may have needed the article “the” to do so.

I do still wake up at 5:30 every morning fully intent on teaching 90 students math at the 8:05 bell, because they still come first.

When we use the word “education” in our biographies to discuss our current profession, we signal to the world that they should entrust us with their children and futures for a given period of time. Our intentions and motives must work in that vein. As a unionist, I respect folks getting paid for their hard-earned labor, and I understand the need to hustle when most people who work in the service of children don’t get paid what they deserve. Yet, we do ourselves and everyone else a disservice when we put the ends before the means. When we say proudly that we can believe whatever we want, and kids don’t have to factor into the work we do as educators, we not only look disingenuous to every and all listeners, we erase centuries-long histories of remembrance and only help our institutions decimate our agency.

If I said anything in this letter that may be misconstrued as an attempt to stop recruiting men of color into education or to reduce the promotion of people of color to other prominent positions in the education sphere, I apologize. If this is used by well-meaning racists to perpetuate the firing of us individually and the schools we tend to work in, I apologize for that too. If this is used for post-racialists to make the case that white people can teach children of color just as well as white people can, or any convoluted argument I hadn’t actually argued in this letter, I apologize only to the extent of the reader’s literacy.

If this precise shoe fit, though, please wear it, though not as proudly as you do in online and offline spaces before this letter.

In the meantime, find this as a means to our collective liberation, not as a chastisement of one person or entity. Let us all remember that, no matter how much we fight against, those of us in the education space have dedicated ourselves to finding solutions, or, at least, give our students new problems for them to find. That’s what success in education looks like.

Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our classrooms and schools with all our children’s scintillating beauty.