Hope and the Teacher

Jose Vilson Education, Jose

My colleague asked me point-blank: “You’re saying you don’t think you’re having an effect on kids?”

I guess I should have been more poignant. I’m also not one for small talk, an affliction I acquired from years of nervous ticks when I spoke in normal situations. I also suffered from an extreme case of “I respect this person’s current work on these issues to not be honest.”

The thing about teaching, writing, and advocating at the same time is that I’m simultaneously aware of the energy it takes to teach my 150 students at 45 minutes a class for an entire day and the legions of self-interested actors who, at any given moment, would turn these very children against me. That’s our current educational discourse, an overlay of the socioeconomic and political realities of a nation at risk of every and anything at all times. Everything is right or wrong and the only way to fix it is to double down or completely change course. Every person is either good or evil. We must choose a side, one for each eye, if we’re granted that at all.

In my positionality, I am hopeful things will change. I am doubtful anything will.

In Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog, he says that writers, specifically those who write with history in mind, who only work with a hopeful lens haven’t done much homework, or are willfully ignorant of human history. He writes:

This is neither the stuff of sweet dreams nor “hope.” But I think that a writer wedded to “hope” is ultimately divorced from “truth.” Two creeds can’t occupy the same place at the same time. If your writing must be hopeful, then there’s only room for the kind of evidence which verifies your premise. The practice of history can’t help there. Thus writers who commit themselves to only writing hopeful things, are committing themselves to the ahistorical, to the mythical, to the hagiography of humanity itself. I can’t write that way—because I can’t study that way. I have to be open to things falling apart.

Hope is a powerful entity. It allows us as educators to promote the idea of colleges and careers even as there’s no guarantee they’ll get hired for the jobs they seek, or that they’ll want to pursue that a decade after their middle school experience. It allows us as educators to believe we can successfully attend to every single child with their own specific needs in one fell swoop, casting our nets out, even when we know we can’t catch every fish in the sea. It allows us to flush the inconsistent whims of higher-ranking adults, from the principals in our building to the politicians hundreds of miles away, and everyone in between. It allows us to finish grading that last paper, even when that last paper has several errors that we’ll have to correct the morning after. It allows us to say that every student succeeds, and we’ll run, not walk, to an amorphous top through unproven methods.

Hope is a useful motivator, but, sans mass action, has done little to obstruct the whims of oppression for so many of our kids. And us.

Whether they’re well-meaning or truly nefarious and conniving in their intent, all sorts of actors perpetuate the inequities in our schools. Fellow teachers. Parents. Principals. Retirees. Union workers. Hedge fund managers (ugh). Charter school CEOs. Education researchers. University presidents. Any number of education secretaries. Random commentators. Bernie Sanders supporters. Hillary Clinton supporters. Donald Trump supporters. Education non-profits. State and national teachers of the year. Education technologists. Edu-celebrities. Lobbyists. Paid and unpaid trolls. Media heads.

Me. You. Adults. And soon, some of the children who replace us in a couple of decades, too. The system has no heart.

What’s more, when people are confronted with a deconstruction in their dichotomies, hostilities ensue. They’re so boring with their platforms, they rather not deal with the realities they’ve set their delusions upon. In the tradition of people who can only count to two, folks take issue with some of my writing in the last few years (even the last few days) because I’ve decided that we don’t just inhabit one of two entities. We inhabit so many more. The more vulnerable I’ve allowed myself to become (one of the few ways I’ve learned to open up dialogue with folks who otherwise don’t listen), the more this becomes fodder for folks who want to push my experiences in their nebulous and contrived arguments. Our contradictions inform our purview, whether we like it or not.

In education, hope functions as a form of ideological purity because we want to assume everyone’s acting in good faith. For the kids, as it were. Doubt tells me that “for the kids” is as much a pejorative for shame as it is a call to action.

Really, when I turned to my colleague, I wanted to tell her that yes, I’m hopeful for the 150 students I currently have. I genuinely care about their successes, and hope I can meet them where they are. The students generally give me good feedback. I’m grateful to be at their service. I’m hoping my work in and outside the classroom, writing these pieces, advocating with others, supporting present and future teachers to be their best selves in their classrooms, produces results that I know I won’t see in my lifetime. I’m hoping 100s of others believe in similar aspects of education that I do. I’m hopeful that these folks want to come together and want to make change happen.

You’ll excuse me if I’m not 100% sure, though. The only thing I’m afraid of is that I won’t be choosing between hope and doubt.