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A Great Big Expression of Happiness (On #TLConf2016)

Jose Vilson Jose 2 Comments

Add a little sugar, honeysuckle and
A great big expression of happiness
Boy, you couldn’t miss with a dozen roses
Such would astound you
The joy of children laughing around you
These are all the makings of you

“… and since we’re about 2% of the teaching profession, with the 40 of us here, we are the 1%.”

Jokes ensued, but I was almost not joking.

There I was, sitting with 40 Black male educators of color and 2 female educators of color, in awe that something like this might happen at one of the most important education conferences in the nation. When I asked to speak, I couldn’t help but take a few deep breaths.

See, the waning percentage of teachers of color is daunting. At a time when our student body is majority of color, the adults they see in school do not reflect this racial diversity. Readers of this blog know well the intangible implications for our student body and our teaching staff. What hasn’t always been made visible is educators of color getting a chance to speak their peace about this contentious issue.

That’s why, when two or more of us are gathered, I take this responsibility so seriously.

At SxSWedu in Austin, TX, I spoke in front of people who otherwise never hear from teachers while next to people who either represent us (American Federation of Teachers’ Randi Weingarten), talk about us in all the wrong ways (Rick Hess), or want to know more about elevating that voice (Medium’s Gabe Kleinman). Much of the clamor that came out of the conversation focused on Mr. Hess’ virulence and not-so-thinly veiled racism and sexism, but, within the conversation, I found myself needing to talk to the people, my people, about a better vision for our schools. Now that issues of race, class, and gender have taken center stage, it’s imperative for us to create a more united vision around education.

The next day, I’d be back in my classroom. The day after, I’d be in Washington, D.C. at the Teaching and Learning Conference, the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards’ annual mega-confab for National Board certified teachers, telling anyone within earshot the joy I had doing the work I do, both in and out of the classroom.

Ah, to be in rooms full of people of all colors who I didn’t have to explain my lifestyle to, who nodded through strife and common struggle. Yes, it was great seeing Linda, Pedro, Chris or the guy everyone used to know as Theo. Yes, I was ecstatic when #1000BlackGirlsRead wunderkind Marley Dias followed up my call to de-center ourselves and center the students with “If you really want to center us as students …” with the wittiest smile you’ll ever see. Yes, I did get to spend time with some of my favorite educators on the planet in folks like Renee Moore, Valencia Clay, and John Holland among so many others.

But I’d be remiss if I didn’t recognize the power within that conference, especially those who’ve dedicated to themselves to the pursuit of excellence despite their sub-par circumstances and working conditions.

As a Black male educator, I felt a sense of awe as NBPTS president Peggy Brookins (who I have to thank for the invitation) introduced us to the rest of the crowd. I wanted the rest of the audience to fully see the joy and pride so many of us have for our chosen profession, how many of us share the same concerns the people in the audience had, how many of us never felt like we belonged in that conference and wouldn’t be able to go without Mrs. Brookins’ generosity, and how we weren’t there to take anyone else’s seats but to claim the ones that we had to create. I wanted everyone to see how unkind our country has been to educators of color historically and contemporarily, decimating the ranks through school closure and exclusion.

I needed everyone to know that the 40 of us stood there in our Sunday best because we knew how the present and future of public education rests on our broad, black shoulders.

The work isn’t done. Until all of our people can convene in this light, we can’t stop working. I know I won’t. Those of us who love what we do don’t just bring our particular concerns. If anything, we’re more likely to bring the concerns of our communities with us. Let’s do this.

photo c/o David B. Cohen

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.

Comments 2

  1. Christina

    This is my first year as a STEM high school teacher. My students need to see people of color do science and mathematics. My students need the encouragement that THEY can do it. And even though the numbers are dwindling for teachers of color, I believe it is our right and duty to inform educators that it is important to know black scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. I want them to be certain that it is truly acceptable and even necessary to implement these figures in the curriculum.

    I hope that all the groundwork you have been laying will stay and that we keep building.

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