Here It Is, A Profession Transformed

Jose VilsonJose3 Comments


I just got back from three packed-house events in Chicago, Chapel Hill, and Philadelphia in July. In each space, the energy in the room took me aback because I’m still not used to the idea that a bunch of folks with busy lives want to hear my mouth run for two hours. Yet, by thinking that I don’t belong on that stage or on that mic, I perpetuate the power structure which often leaves teachers like me from believing we can set the table in education.

For instance, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation invited me to speak to 500 new teachers from all across the states about teacher leadership. This decision came shortly after they projected that only 5% of the teaching workforce would be of color, woman or man (it’s at 18% now). For a moment, instead of saying, “Yes, of course I’m a natural choice!” I thought, “Wow, why me?”

I thought long and hard about what I might say to a group of burgeoning teachers and the sort of energy they needed to bring back to their schools. All of a sudden, something pulled me back to those first years, and the reason why I saw myself breaking away from the traditional routes of teaching. Our current school systems (and the people who inhabit them) force their visions upon us. They implore us to go into administration if we’re motivated individuals. They almost force us into dean roles or central roles if we have other talents outside of teaching (and even excellent teaching isn’t part of the equation for many leaders). Seeing these folk, quietly listening to them, and hearing that sense of optimism and disappointment in their districts took me to a place where I offered myself as the change I wanted to see.

I didn’t want to, nor still want to, be famous.

The issue with so many of us is that we’re so quick to douse the flames of our brightest without even knowing the source of their flames. Anyone in my intimate circle will attest to how grateful I am for these opportunities, but I also see how any sense of fame in education, especially for a teacher, can become notoriety, infamy, and unwarranted antagonism. Unlike other professions, like writers, doctors, and college professors, teachers are too often asked to put their head down in the service of others.

To some extent, this argument has validity. We do have a set of folks who only teach as a stepping stone and don’t actually get better at their teaching. Also, collaboration and team building are critical to any school environment whereas competition amongst staff members doesn’t improve collegiality. On the other hand, it suggests that we can’t simultaneously shine bright individually and collectively and still get better at our craft by sharing their passions. When I first mentioned the idea of celebrity teachers, I mentioned this as a tongue-in-cheek comment about society’s views of teachers. Now, I’m far more convinced of how even our most progressive institutions rarely handpick teachers to speak unless a) that teacher follows the “message” or b) that teacher rumbles.

I generally fall into b. Because of this, I use my platform to elevate as many folks as possible, and hoping to multiply that energy so others can pass it on. In places where teachers are given scripted lesson plans from publishing companies, where governors argue whether teachers should get paid a little less or a little more than minimum wage, where the ostensible representatives quip that they will shut down an entire school system because they feel like it, it’s critical to have folks who want to take that extra step and say “Something’s not right here.” Teachers rely too often on someone outside of K-12 education to empower them when we could easily do it ourselves.

Before her passing, Maya Angelou left us a jewel about the difference between humility and modesty.

“‘I don’t know what arrogance means,’ she said.  ‘You see, I have no patience with modesty. Modesty is a learned adaptation. It’s stuck on like decals.  As soon as life slams a modest person against the wall, that modesty will fall off faster than a G-string will fall off a stripper.’


“Whenever I’m around some who is modest, I think, ‘run like hell and all of fire,’’ she said. ‘You don’t want modesty, you want humility. Humility comes from inside out. It says someone was here before me and I’m here because I’ve been paid for. I have something to do and I will do that because I’m paying for someone else who has yet to come.'”

And so it goes, and I implore everyone who’s gotten these opportunities to see them as gifts, and the way we honor them is to push them to your limits. Lead from the front, back, or the side. Set an agenda separate from whatever the current education debate is or with the current agenda in mind. Be proud of your gifts and use them wisely.

Whether it’s 30 folk, 100 folk, or 500 folk, we are the teachers who will slightly transform this, make it a bit of a break from the norm …


Comments 3

  1. Great points that need to be given serious consideration in these times of celebrity. For example, I know people who love to name-drop or reference Diane Ravitch or Linda Darling Hammond, but have not actually read them; or have read a tweet or ten about their work. Excuse the pun on your book title, but here’s a test: Are people coming to the talks, buying the book because of your notoriety, or because they are genuinely interested in the ideas presented in the book (pro or con)? What kind of questions are they asking? What has the book moved them to do (or stop)?

  2. I went back to your piece at Good, and found this comment by Leyl Reisner that I really loved: “A deep, ingrained cultural prestige of teaching is the one commonality you can point to across the top education systems internationally.” I don’t know to what point the U.S. is perhaps more of a celebrity culture than many others, and to what extent that complicates the situation, but it seems a great goal to set. (sidebar: someone else there mentioned Temba Maqbuela, with whom my son also worked and whom he respected as well; random happy coincidence)

    That said, I echo what Renee said on Twitter about Dr. Angelou’s important distinction between modesty and humility. And I think that’s a particularly tricky line to negotiate for teachers, as the profession is made up predominately of women (or, if you will, people who identify more strongly with what society has traditionally called the feminine) and as such particularly subject to the exerted power of patriarchy. Add in factors of race and class as they also relate to privilege and negotiating the line becomes even trickier. I think those are probably factors behind your important point that “The issue with so many of us is that we’re so quick to douse the flames of our brightest without even knowing the source of their flames.” Patriarchy, white privilege, and class privilege do have a tendency to push back when their power is challenged, even implicitly (speaking generally and acknowledging exceptions).

    That’s where I feel we really need you. You know the source of your flames, and you have a gift for sharing that. You step up with humility rather than modesty. We may not need you to be a celebrity per se, but we need for you to have the name recognition you have earned and to use that platform to continue to elevate the profession. That may help smooth the way for others to step up as well.

  3. I’m glad there are teachers like you around – passionate, smart, do-right-by-the-kids, and way-more-articulate-than-me to say/write things that when I read them, I think, YES, that’s what I think (in a muddled way) … YEA, what HE said. Thanks.

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