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Invisibility and People Of Color in Education Reform

by Jose Vilson on June 20, 2013

in Jose

Mad, The Invisible Man

Mad, The Invisible Man by Gordon Parks

Whenever people ask me where I stand on education reform, I ask them where I should start. Obviously, issues of equity and access rank at the top of my list of ideas I love to emphasize, but I can also get into curriculum and teacher quality if / when we need to have that debate. I don’t always agree with some of my colleagues on things, but we generally agree that schools and the systems in which they’re working stink.

Having said that, some discussions make me wonder if I have to revisit my allegiances or partners in this thing we call ed-reform.

I clearly don’t belong in the “clean out public schools / build up charters / fire teachers = solve all societal issues crowd.” But, I’m also having a hard time with the ways that we look at the roles of people of color within our circle. In education circles, race discussions don’t get the buzz they deserve. They’re often left to people like me to parse them out and hope it works out. These blogs don’t get the views, the invites to the exclusive conferences and cool kids clubs that have emerged in education, and the followers.

We’re nowhere near post-racial. To paraphrase Liz Dwyer, instead of “We don’t like you because you’re Black,” it’s “We just don’t think he’s a right fit.”

A few other, less conscious things we do to piss people of color off:

  • Nominate as few of them for things as possible
  • Act like you can’t find any for your committee / circle / club
  • Pretend their concerns about your subtle or not-so-subtle racist behavior has no merit
  • Expect us to rap when we can clearly sing

That’s why, if ever I’m asked, I put the “the” in front of my name. I approach the work I do with students rather humbly, and take it seriously, but, like the hundreds of teachers of color getting cut off now, the hundreds more that’ll lose their job in the next few months, and the millions of children of color who get affected by a lackluster and vacuous school system daily, I’d remain invisible, a nameless statistic used to numb the populace over education disaster management.

The cynic in me wonders if some education activists would celebrate if the government decided to scale down the testing as a compromise for the mass injustices done to our poorest children. The optimist believes that once we’ve gotten a clean break from the deluge of testing, we’d continue to work for racial (and sex and religious) harmony.

Perhaps, we’ll all just find a way to do a better job of recognizing our biases, sit down, and say, “I’m willing to learn, too.”



Martin Luther King Jr. by Marvin Koner

Martin Luther King Jr. by Marvin Koner

Moments like this make me want to ask, “Who ASKED you?!”

Some of my frustration lately stems from the perception that making something look easy equates to the task actually being easy.

Especially as it pertains to the site and everything surrounding it. The design, the content, the schedule, the photos, and the accompanying branding come together as pieces to a greater vision, one that hopefully pushes others to also seek success by any means necessary (with the people I represent in mind, of course).

In this plan, however, I always have to anticipate the negative feedback, the hostilities of working in environments where social media is seen as a venue for negative exposure or as a potential threat. As many opportunities as I’ve been afforded in this space, I get that other people prefer I not succeed, that I stay within my space as a teacher, as if teachers, like the children they taught, should be seen and not heard.

Then I have to wonder if it’s a side effect of my race, and people’s own perceptions of what I bring to the table with it.

Here are three things you don’t say to a male educator of color (or any man of color, really):

  • “You don’t always come to school early.”
  • “You already have a leg up because you’re a man of color.”
  • “You look like you need something else to do.”

Let’s forget for a second that I get to school at around 7:15am on average when the school bell rings at 8am. The perception that, as a Black man, I get to work late already tells me more about you than it does about me. You already perceive us as a problem to fix, a glob to mold, or a stereotype to break. As far as I can tell, we’re none of those.

Anytime we get to work early, it’s usually to finish planning lessons, grade student work, or simply get our minds and hearts ready for the day. If we look like we’re not working, chances are that we’re actually working, and you’ve already perceived us as lazy or incompetent. When passionate teachers have a prep, they usually use it to prepare for the next class, to tweak a lesson, or dot all the i’s before they talk to their next period class. That’s how it works.

Furthermore, let us let everyone in on a secret: some of us have learned to distrust anyone who want someone else to communicate more often, especially in non-family situations. The term “snitches get stitches” didn’t come from nowhere, so to speak. Honesty has a price far too high to bear in financial times like these. Also, when people of color jump into the workforce, we have to read a few extra articles about trusting others, using a certain voice, or truncating names for us to fit in or stand out less.

Whether people realize it or not, their perceptions of us keep us from doing the best job possible, like a 21st century glass ceiling.

You’re right, though. Maybe a man of color has a slight advantage in terms of relating to children who identify with us or look like us in the classroom, but that’s never (EVER) a given. Some men of color might deserve the ire of others, especially those who hop on national news espousing views of those who seek to hurt our communities. The men I associate with have to work twice as hard just to stay on top of things.

For, while our jobs with our “customers” remains the same as the next person, the perception against us means we have to do that work twice: once to do it right, twice to disprove the doubters. Assuming responsibility only works when both parties reflect on their own biases.

Hope that helps.

Jose, who realizes this could also apply to women of color, but I prefer a woman of color speak to this …

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Supreme Sonia Sotomayor on Sesame Street

Supreme Sonia Sotomayor on Sesame Street

This week, I’m releasing some of the pieces I’ve written that never saw the light of day for different reasons. Here’s the second.

Release Date: 12/03/2012

Dear New Teacher,

A few questions to ask now that you’ve gotten your feet wet at your job:

  1. How many friends of color do you have in your circle?
  2. How often have you interacted with one, and not in a I-follow-Diddy-on-Twitter sorta way?
  3. Are you frustrated because you feel like the one or two teachers of color in your cohort are having more success than you are in a classroom with certain types of kids?
  4. If so, do you then assume the other ones also don’t have any issues with teaching certain kids?

    OK, OK, one more.

  5. Do you work under the same assumptions the rest of society does about race and intellect?

Recently, I posted an article on race in the classroom that’s handy for people who don’t know how to handle this discussion on race, but before you read it, please know: the way you enter into the conversation depends heavily on how you perceive others’ intelligence, not just with children but also adults.

For instance, if a doo-rag and baggy pants indicates to you that a student has no idea what they’re talking about, then that’s an issue. If your goal for a student’s grade has to do with what she wears and how she speaks, then that’s an issue. If you find yourself trying to speak their language without any conceptual development and without context, then that’s an issue.

In other words, Erin Grunwell ain’t walking through that door.

Based on what some of my colleagues have said about the school in question, the kids themselves didn’t feel they were that bad, but, because of these movies and the societal images we’ve thrown into the zeitgeist, White teachers walking into a classroom with kids of color already feel they’re going to war rather than trying to build a team. We have entire networks of schools that demand certain rituals and routines be in place for the sake of codifying and assuaging the fears of Whites hoping the kids of color won’t act out.

But it doesn’t stop at students. New teachers are often told to look at teachers of color as less capable or intellectually inferior because of their approach or their unwillingness to use the mumbled jargon of the current-day administration. Some administrators (regardless of color) put forth and favor teachers who only want to talk about their middle-class White existences and ingrain children of color to act like them, leaving teachers of color, veteran or otherwise, to the side. This becomes rather obvious in teacher meetings where, in front of the administrators, only one voice gets highlighted as “correct,” “thoughtful,” or, more directly, “perfect for what the school needs going forward.”

In the education world as a whole, this plays itself out very frequently, from the people who participate in education conferences to the educators who somehow find their way towards the top of some edu-Twitter-blogger-examplar-endorsed-by-so-and-so-well-resourced-out-the-wazoo list.

That’s a little much for you right now, though. All I’m asking you to do is consider the way you approach your students and colleagues as you walk in. Consider that, just because the student can’t quite articulate what they’re saying doesn’t mean that they don’t have the concept. Also consider the numerous opportunities thrown your way even when, upon some reflection, you may not have earned it. Take note when your colleagues don’t feel like saying anything after you’ve said it, or feel like when they do voice something, they get a reproach that you don’t necessarily get.

Start grappling with your privilege. It’s the smartest thing you can do right now.


Jose, who wishes he did release this at the time …



Administrators of Color: Selling Out or Buying In? [From The Vault]

December 26, 2012 Jose
Scene from Lean On Me

This week, I’m releasing some of the pieces I’ve written that never saw the light of day for different reasons. Here’s the first. Date: 5/10/12 Someone told me recently, “I think these kids respond better to males than females, especially as teachers.” That hasn’t been my experience, but I let them proceed. “It’s like, some […]

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All Black Everything [Our Professional Selves]

March 19, 2012 Jose

In school, I’ve developed the mannerism of using “sir” and “miss” (or misses) when greeting colleagues and, to some extent, students. The greeting puts a small distance between me and the person I address. People might take this as a sign of deference or even subservience, yet my stature and demeanor reveals nothing of the […]

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Teachers Teach and Do The World Good [GOOD Magazine]

February 29, 2012 Guest Posts

Excerpt: In light of the lack of diversity in thought and culture within our teaching corps, there’s an astounding disconnect. I don’t believe that only teachers of color should teach diverse students, but only 17 percent of public school teachers and 19 percent of principals are of color, and out of the 7.2 million-plus K-12 […]

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