My actual classroom from eight years ago. Same room this year, too.

My actual classroom from eight years ago. Same room this year, too.

Meet my once and future classroom.

It once had a exposed wooden door, working lights, nine unmarked boxes, beige lockers, and a second year teacher scared for his career. I know this because I was him eight years ago. Throughout the year, the desks rumbled and shuffled about the class, sometimes in groups, in pairs, or in single row and file while students and their teacher prepared for tests of all kinds. The teacher whispered, yelled, almost laughed, and taught through seasons of administrative temperament more intemperate than the seasons. His entire existence rested upon the piles of work on his desk, which also served as perfect coverage for the times he had to emote. He made it through that year, stronger for the fact that he didn’t send his resignation papers in the June of that academic year.

That classroom, like the teacher, started gathering more students, more chairs, and more responsibilities. It served as headquarters for after-school and summer programs on a regular basis. It served as an ELA and social studies room, even though math books anchored the leftover texts. The custodians had painted the lockers blue, and the influx of human traffic scuffed and scratched the lockers, revealing some dull-brown streaks. A room that once only had student desks and a huge meeting desk turned book holder accumulated bookshelves of different use, and to make up for that, the lights closest to the white board dimmed, pushing all the attention to the bookshelves.

Walking into it yesterday, I noticed the waxed floor, the newer desks already set in groups, and all the stuff I moved from my upstairs office to my new classroom piked up on top of the monster table in the back. The bookshelves had blocked the sun from piercing my eyes, so maybe I should be grateful. As I started to dust off shelves, removing books that served as clutter to my mission for the upcoming school year, I smiled at the idea that I’d have one more chance to get better at this thing I call my calling, my career, and my professional life.

I also noticed, close to the whiteboard, an uncovered hole in the wall. The second year teacher had reprimanded a student for accidentally kicking a hole in the wall, throwing her out of the year’s Christmas pizza party as punishment for it. Over the years, teachers had deftly put bookshelves and chart paper over it, but never seemed to address that hole. I peeked at the whole and noticed someone had tried to patch the drywall up, filling it with plaster and coloring it the same green as the wall.

The hole looks better, but it’s still there, and that’s OK. Just making it to the point where I noticed the hole satisfies the second year teacher in me.


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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 …



In my travels this summer, I’m often asked to ponder this idea of expertise, and specifically, how education researchers and those in higher education can help K-12 teachers.

Since I entered the teaching profession almost a decade ago, I’ve had this struggle with this idea. From articles where a writer with a PhD in education lays out a plan for how school systems should be run to speeches where a professor from a prestigious college tells us why the Common Core will and must work, I’ve grown weary of the disconnected dialogue between well-meaning K-12 teachers and the plethora of college professors who’ve come to rescue American education from the vice grip of mediocrity.

Instead, I proffer the following: who is the real expert?

For instance, there’s a study out there (that I won’t point to for a multitude of reasons) that shows the difference between what K-12 teachers are currently doing with Common Core State Standards and what the writers of the CCSS think teachers should do with the CCSS. First, the writer of the study assumes that the expertise of educators comes second to those studying education from the outside. Second, it presumes that students aren’t variables all their own. Third, and consequently, it assumes that the teaching conditions set forth in places like Japan, Singapore, and Finland are equivalent, or at least negligible, to those in the US, and currently they aren’t.

Then again, who are teachers but the practitioners of the CCSS the experts have proffers to our local and federal governments?

Despite some districts’ best efforts to counter this, teacher expertise is necessary if any progressive change moves. Whether a teacher agrees or disagrees with the CCSS as a best practice may be second to whether a teacher can actually teach. Teachers can’t grow as educators if the only way they’ve seen teaching is through the lens of their own teachers. Our country readily discounts pedagogy because standards and their assessments are a much more accessible, short-term way to move education than revamping the idea of school for everyone involved.

More importantly, we discredit the knowledge students, parents, and others bring in a way that doesn’t get buy-in from all involved. The idea of accountability sits too often on the laps of teachers, and not the plethora of experts brought in to supposedly train them.

It’s dangerous for us to suggest that we reframe this idea of expertise. It’s dangerous for us to ask that we create a new table rather than having a seat at it. It’s dangerous for us to push back when TV shows, magazines, and even our teacher-friendly institutions highlight a certain type of expert over another. It’s dangerous for us to even ask who created these lines and divides over expert and teacher.

This is why we must step on the line, and, for many of us, jump over it and walk on.


Father’s Day As A Healing Day

June 15, 2014 Jose

It’s weird. With the World Cup in Brazil going and Father’s Day happening all around me (and for me), I’m reminded how, once or twice a year, I’d spend hours watching my father watch soccer in my grandmother’s (his mother’s) house in Brooklyn. I didn’t get why it was so exciting, especially since the Italian […]

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What Complicity Looks Like (Why I Support #YesAllWomen)

June 5, 2014 Jose

Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that my boys and I wanted to have fun at an Irish pub, jamming to every rhyme and curse Shawn Carter could muster for three verses. It’s already 11pm and we got a few drinks flowing in our system, flirting with a few women of different skin tones, cracking jokes […]

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How The Book Is Going So Far

June 1, 2014 Jose

People often ask me how I do everything I do, especially surrounding my book. I can’t reveal it all, but even my typical Saturdays aren’t that typical. Yesterday, I took a three-hour National Board exam, unprepared due to circumstances beyond my control. Then again, everyone told me this test should be no sweat because it’s […]

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Sunglasses and Advil, Last Edit Was Mad Real

March 30, 2014 Jose

I’m surprised a few of you haven’t put out on APB or Missing Persons Report for me since I haven’t blogged on any site for the last two weeks. Instead, I’ve focused exclusively on my new book, This Is Not A Test. The endorsements, pre-orders, and events have rolled in steadily, with very few hitches. […]

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