lettersseries Archives - The Jose Vilson


This week, I’m writing a few more letters to different people, whose names shall be removed from the post, but who nonetheless are amalgamations of real characters. I won’t be mincing words this week, and in these letters, I hope to address some issues I find in education as a whole through these letters. If need be, I’ll apologize later. Actually, I probably won’t.

Barack Obama at School

Barack Obama at School

Dear Barack Obama,

It’s me again, hoping you’ll soon respond to my letters. As always, I have respect for you and what you’ve done thus far in office (most of the stuff anyways). At the very least, you’ve brought many issues into the national zeitgeist in ways only few have the power to do, particularly education. My letter comes on the heels of a Meet the Press interview with your Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in tow with Al Sharpton and Newt Gingrich. As the video plays, I found myself shaking my head at almost every assertion these men made. While I expect a shallowness over educational issues from afternoon specials and morning wake-up shows, I still don’t expect that from men who have positioned themselves as “educational gurus.”

Very little about their collective histories build confidence in me or many others in their ability to understand the intricacies of the classroom, from the pedagogy and praxis of the everyday K-12 classroom and the management of an actual school because and despite restrictions from underfunded districts to the egregious practices of college loaners and their universities and the ultra-selectivity of the economically and / or racially underprivileged into post-graduate programs. Even if these individuals have tried to make a conscious effort to discuss the numbers behind their message, they sound more like they’ve dined at the corporate line table rather than actually having thorough conversations with people on the ground.

Let’s say we actually took the socialized system of public schools and turned them all over to private corporations and “non-profits.” When the next recession hits, as capitalism is prone to do, will we finally see a bailout then? Will the government have to step in and tell these “CEOs” to take paycuts but turn their backs when they take private trips to islands for professional development? Will our children have to shred all their papers and use the remaining documents for ticker tape, too? Will some of us teachers walk out with only socks and remaining curriculum in our suitcases? Or will we have a situation akin to Major League Baseball where we’ll hire “scabs” like proferred by Teach for America in lieu of qualified teachers with masters and / or years of experience in their profession?

A big part of me gets it, too. The one thing that most people seem to agree upon is that student achievement trumps everything else when it comes to education. However, the ends doesn’t always justify the ends, especially if the ends depend on unsustainable means. When I heard “Teachers have to come into a classroom and believe that they’re going to be ready and disciplined,” it says to me that we have yet to understand the conditions in which our children grow up and how so few actually make it out of the same system we come out of. When I heard “If the schools are failing, we just won’t give them money,” it sounds like it’s a problem that’s already been happening and it’ll continue promulgating the difference between the haves and the have-nots (for that matter, the halved or the halved-not).

To wit, in New York, we had plenty of schools who received the highest rating possible from the NYC Department of Education’s grading system, an A. By plenty, I mean 77.6%. Conversely, we only had 2 schools who received an F. Now, looking at the metrics, one might think NYC has done rather well, and deserves the monies from the Race to the Top fund. At a second glance, we see just how these numbers have manipulated so many of us. Our overcrowded, underfunded, parted, and soulless edifices can’t compare to the gloss Bloomberg’s coated over his office.

But maybe asking those three to visit a very low-performing school, even with Secret Service in tow, would mess up their shine. At the end of the day, as in the beginning, sunshine doesn’t gleam on brick and mortar. Yet the new glass ones aren’t so transparent either

Mr. Vilson, who wants nothing more than Obama to read …

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This week, I’m writing a few more letters to different people, whose names shall be removed from the post, but who nonetheless are amalgamations of real characters. I won’t be mincing words this week, and in these letters, I hope to address some issues I find in education as a whole through these letters. If need be, I’ll apologize later. Actually, I probably won’t.

P.S. – As a special note regarding this particular note: any immature or ridiculous comments concerning my relationships with my students will get rebuked. There’s a reason I left my last blogging environment, so let’s not take it there. Thanks.

Man's Heart

Man's Heart

Dear Student,

Tonight, I probably had one of my most humbling moments when your parent told me that the reason why you even came to school was me. At first, it took me aback because I’m always shy when it comes to these sorts of compliments. Your parent told me stories about how you gush when talking about me in school, how you show your father your math grades online after they start doubting your excellence, how you get embarrassed when you get low grades in his class, how, when you moved, you begged to stay in the school you were in because of me.

When I first thought about becoming a teacher, I knew I wouldn’t be perfect, but I tried my absolute best. Even to this day, I don’t have it as great as I’d like. You’re the good student, too. You’re one of the students I’ve relied on so thoroughly, one who actually does what’s asked without being submissive. You’ve grown so much academically and personally, and I believe in everything you do from here on out. I’ve spent more than the 45-90 minutes most teachers have spent with you because we’ve hung around after school, sometimes during lunch, on trips to the Old and New Stadium, through exam after exam.

Each instance gave me a chance to love what I do, and thus give so much of myself as the student body. While so many of us teachers believe in full detachment, and I see the value in that, when one teaches with all they’ve got, it’s HARD to not care at least a little bit. You need more than just the academic development. Much of your personal development comes from understanding that your teachers care about you, and the more your teachers care (with variation about how your teachers show that love), the more you respond in kind.

Your heartbreaks, your pain, your greatest moments, your aches, and your griefs, I’ve heard them all.

Even the time when I thought you’d move. I heard. I responded that I’d think about adopting you for a year just to keep you here. I was totally kidding and never told your mom, but in my heart-of-hearts, I totally believed I’d consider it. Hearing today that your mom heard about that and that’s why she opted to keep you in the school says a lot about my relationship with you. You could come to me for anything within my reach, and I’d make it happen.

I don’t always get to say this aloud but thank you for you. Thank you for allowing me into your life and letting me bring you more than just math. Thank you for the pride you take in this journey we’re taking until June. Thank you for being part of my G-d …

Mr. V, who had a hard time writing this without choking up …


This week, I’m writing a few more letters to different people, whose names shall be removed from the post, but who nonetheless are amalgamations of real characters. I won’t be mincing words this week, and in these letters, I hope to address some issues I find in education as a whole through these letters. If need be, I’ll apologize later. Actually, I probably won’t.

Wimpy Asks for a Bailout

Wimpy Asks for a Bailout

Dear Mr. Sleep-a-Lot,

In the smaller scheme of things, you really don’t matter as far as my work with the math department or my work with my kids. You come briskly in and briskly out, saluting the strangers in our school while the rest of us consider ourselves family, dysfunctional and all. There’s a sense that you don’t want to be here, and I fully understand. When the principal makes his presence felt around you, you’re quick to pat him on the back, tell him you’re working hard for him, and should he need anything, you’ll take care of it. When asked to come through on this promise, you fall. Flat. Hard. With no remorse.

Good luck with that.

First, I gotta say I’m annoyed with your lack of care for our students. You let them pretty much run all over you, and you almost purposefully ignore the hard work the prior teacher left up on the board just so you wouldn’t have to collect the residual class work from the students. You call them all types of names without actually knowing who they are, and call in others to help solve your discipline problems. You sit in the hallway desk reading the paper, never minding the students fighting right across from you or the loud sounds coming from the boys’ bathroom right next to you.

People throughout the district know all about your incompetence, and yet, you’re so happy to deliver your [lack of] instruction to our students who need this so desperately. It’s even worse because you have a similar background to the students we teach, so your employment under the school system is as much a swindle of your culture as it is of the area’s taxpayers’ hard-earned money. You’ve learned every trick in the book when it comes to keeping yourself afloat, and I can’t imagine you ever having been a competent teacher on any level.

The worst part is: you’re the teacher who makes veteran teachers look like the problem in education.

The ratio of excellent vets to people like you could be 234850298345 to 1, but because of you and your inability to adhere to some semblance of educational pedagogy, those other great teachers have to constantly prove their worth when they always had worth in my eyes. You’re the reason the edu-deformers have attacked the union so thoroughly. You’re the reason why some people in the new teacher programs chastised newbies who followed the veterans and create schisms between staff members. You’re the reason why edubloggers always have to go on the offensive when it comes to their own pedagogy. You’re the reason why The Simpsons had to make Mrs. Krabappel. Frankly, you’re the reason why the conversations about tenure and salary differentials exist anyways.

If it was up to me, we’d raise the years needed for tenure to 5-6 years, the average time for a teacher to leave or stay. I’d probably lower the length it takes to give a teacher “due process” to 2 years. I’d probably ask for clearer definitions of competency since 90% of all teachers in this country get satisfactory ratings throughout the year (which either means we have a lot more competence teachers than the edu-deformers admit to or the people who administer these ratings don’t always know how to measure teacher effectiveness, a discussion for another time). I’d increase the amount each school gets in their budget so they’re less tempted to cut out highly competent vets who can then mentor younger students, producing more whole school communities rather than the current schema.

Lastly, I’d have a “no hammocks, no papers” rule. Just for people like you.

I’m not saying you’re not human, and that you don’t have a family to feed, your own issues to take care of, or your life to sustain. You could have been an ambitious and idealistic teacher who fell by the wayside from a system that still fails to support teachers enough for true teacher retention.

Yet, teachers fuel the schools’ bodies, and the weakest blood vessel can disrupt the whole body of work.

No administrator would give you a U rating because you’re either too nice or they don’t want to go through a 3-year process to dismiss you thoroughly. No union member will actively fight for you because in the national scheme of things, you’re making us look bad. No student will vouch for you because you read the paper before, during, and after class.

While you’re in tune with what’s going on in the world outside of school, you’ve completely missed the boat on transforming the world inside the school for those who need it most …

Jose, who’s as pro-union as they come, but recognizes the need for change …

p.s. – In related news, check this post by Larry Ferlazzo on the myth of “teachers coming from the lowest third of graduating classes”