Stare Them In The Eyes

Jose Vilson Education, Jose

When John Norton, editor and writing guru, was having long conversations with me on Skype about the direction of my book, he often told me that the book would elevate my voice in ways I couldn’t imagine. The morning after my book dropped on May 6th, 2014, I was on a train to meet Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. My strategy in conversing with politicians with whom I vehemently disagree goes as follows: ask unexpected questions and challenge precisely. Before the day was over, he saw the composition of the attendees and said, “We need more of you,” referring of course to the lack of male teachers of color in our teaching corps. My reply, “I’m about it if you’re about it.”

As usual, I didn’t hold my breath on that promise, either. We’re still in the throes of overtesting, overprivatization, overpunishing, overempoverishing, and I’m over it.

Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago, where I was chastised by so-called white anti-testing allies for asserting that predominantly white education conferences ought to have racial issues at the center of the education reform discussions, not just to counter the diversity of the “other side,” but because our students are becoming more diverse in our public schools, and all educators should have a stake, especially with our recent BlackLivesMatter social movements. These commenters resorted to calling me jealous, sensitive, as if my essay was fueled by avarice and race-baiting, similar to what trolls do when I bring up Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Aiyana Jones, but they don’t see the patterns in their own behaviors to see their flaws. Even the mere mention of race makes many of my endorsers jump into their feelings. That’s OK. Everyone has places for growth.

We can’t criticize civil rights groups for their stance when the “anti-testing” crowd doesn’t want to deal with the re-segregation of our schools as a mechanism for disparate school resources, but that’s another post.

After a tough week in school where some of us had to inform dozens of students that they haven’t done the work to graduate to high school, it was an uncanny and refreshing feeling to go to the US Department of Education the next week for a celebration of male educators of color by the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans (full disclosure: I’m Black, not African American, but that’s for another time). The room had perhaps 100 Black, Latino, Asian, and Native American educators and education leaders from as close as Baltimore and DC and as far as Hawaii. I was invited for the express purpose of speaking about my experience as a male educator of color, but my purpose for showing up was to join with the dozens of other educators of colors who had a common experience there.

I challenged the US Department of Education through my questions. A sample:

  • Do male educators get hired for their expertise or to serve as overseers?
  • Is the lack of male educators of color in the National Teacher of the Year conversation a symptom of the lack of aforementioned people in the profession period or is it because we’re less likely to be seen as experts of pedagogy and more on “how to teach those kids?”
  • Is hiring people like me a shortcut towards getting the teaching profession to be more culturally competent?

Unlike other education conferences where even snaps of approval for these types of questions get folks staring and leaving the room, this audience of educators from across the country met these questions with applause, and the policymakers could do nothing but quietly take notes.

How often do people who work in schools with mostly students of color get reaffirmed for their passionate work? How often do their perspectives, their visions for justice, their conversations get pushed to the light? How often do racial matters get dismissed at professional development meetings. Does the teacher of color have to make the face when someone inevitably say “How do we help those kids learn?”

After people have solved the issues of assessment, charter schools, and standards, will people will walk not run right back to their corners and forget those who’ve been fighting educational injustice for decades? Who thinks Thurgood Marshall’s work was over in 2015?

I don’t have all the answers, and surely not from my corner classroom. Out of 93 students I have, 10 are chronically late or absent to class, two do everything in their power to get themselves sent to the dean, 15 of them needed their teachers to sit down with their parents to explain why their lack of work in our classrooms would eventually mean summer school or repeating the grade, four of them who have potential for excellence but can’t jump over their personal hurdles, and the other 62 are ostensibly anxious for the school year to be over, and from time to time, I join them. Then I realize that the work is never over, and courage sets in.

I still believe in social justice. I still believe that my students can learn and develop agency. I still see myself as a conduit for that learning. I have a book, but all it’s done is elevate my voice for students, not for myself.

So when I bring up the hard questions to former New York State education commissioner John King, I look him in the eyes. When I’m given the mic to ask a question to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (again this year almost exactly a year later), I look at him in the eyes. Even when I’m asking national education leaders to speak to issues of social justice, I look at them in the eyes. I’m not expecting to get the answers I want, which is a lofty goal for many of my colleagues. Our collective organizing matters way more than whether one or two politicians say something we like, and we’ve certainly learned that in the last 15 years.

My experiences in the classroom matter just as much, if not more, than the offices and pedestals many folks occupy. They should see that in my eyes.