Teaching and Leading While Black (On My Visit To The White House)

Jose VilsonJose10 Comments

Arne Duncan

Arne Duncan

Nancy Flanagan’s recent post on teacher leadership finally gave me the push to dive into my experience in Washington, D.C., where Dr. Jill Biden and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan hosted us.

The function was part of the White House’s new initiative, White House Social, a series of events for people who engage with the White House on social media. Of course, my social media presence helped a bit in their decision, despite my obviously socialist points of view (are they obvious?) and outwardly passionate demeanor. Anyone who’s read my work knows what I’m about, so I was curious when I got the invite, and accepted immediately.

Even though I slept about three hours between my book release after-party on Tuesday and hoping on the 5:30am train the next morning, I felt I had to be there. Admittedly, I understood that I wouldn’t just be representing myself, but the 2-3% of the male teachers of color in the nation, and I took that responsibility super-seriously. Representing the hundreds of us isn’t a burden / opportunity that I needed to take on, but, as with most things, I knew better than to listen and not engage in substantive policy talk.

After a quick tour of the White House (and an even briefer appearance by the President as he jumped on a helicopter to Arkansas to observe the tornado relief efforts), we were asked to meet in VP Joe Biden’s office. The rustic feel of the office felt super-comfortable. A few of us sat in his seat. When it was my turn, I engaged the other reasons from his seat.

It was all fun and games until I noticed everyone stand up. I didn’t know what was going on. Then I heard, “It’s cool. Stay right there.” It was Arne Duncan. We shook hands, and I said, “Well, we have a person of color at the president’s seat. It looks like we could use one at the VP desk, too.” He smiled and nodded to it.

After he sat, one of our hosts read off stats about the current state of US education. Rising graduation rates, Common Core, and the elevation of early childhood education were the key points of success. In my mind, I also started to go over the list of failures on the part of his administration: the inflation in class size, the thousands of school closures and teacher layoffs, the over-emphasis on testing and the capitulation of the department’s agenda to wealthy education reformers. But I preferred to hear him out, because I’m a classy guy.

Rather than ask him about things I knew (and that he’d duck), I asked him about the RESPECT initiative and the lack of diversity amongst educators, and how we can improve that. His answers:

  1. The department still goes through its daily proceedings with the RESPECT initiative in mind. Because of politics, they can’t get around to raising teachers’ pay across the nation, but they’re also trying to find ways to raise the prestige of the profession, too. He noted that, in other countries, they don’t pay significantly higher than in the US, but in high performing countries, only 1 in 10 teaching candidates get chosen for the classroom.
  2. This was a frustrating issue for him. There are some initiatives like TEACH.org and others he highlighted that are trying to attract teachers of color, but it’s just a start. Also, he noted that there have been plenty of complaints about different programs and routes for recruiting teachers from different cultural backgrounds (assuming he’s talking about TFA), but there hasn’t been any one program that stands out more than any other.

He seemed a little more candid than usual, and responded to dissent by nodding and moving on. As I expected. After his Q&A and photo op with us (I quipped on Twitter how it was his honor to meet us), he made a quick comment to me about the need for more of me. I replied, “If you’re down, so am I.”

After a photo op and lunch with Dr. Jill Biden, I had a quick thought about the teachers I saw around. Despite their politics and vehement disagreements, they’re still teachers. As is always my stance, I would never judge a teacher for not using my tactics, not having my level of followers, or any of those other arbitrary measures to determine whether they’re “real.” I prefer to see them in the classroom, or at least have a conversation around pedagogy in their specific contexts.

I much prefer a great teacher who may not engage in political debates than a weak-and-not-trying-to-get-better teacher who voices a political opinion I agree with. The best politics in education is making sure our kids are learning. All this other stuff we do is secondary.

The other power in that room was knowing that there were teachers ready to lead the charge on this effort, not in the form of certificates, badges, and medals, but substantive decision-making and designing. If Duncan, etc. were truly invested in listening to our suggestions (and not simply through pre-determined venues) remains to be seen.

Even though he has about five inches on me, it felt good to meet Secretary Duncan eye-to-eye, not in deference, but as equal in importance. That’s the type of respect we ought to fight for.


Comments 10

  1. I’m glad you had this opportunity. They need to hear your voice. I don’t see Duncan and other corporate reformers as people who are malicious. I actually think they are intelligent people who want to make a difference. My issue is with their ideas and the policies that come out of these ideas. And as much as they nod and smile and pretend to listen, I will not be convinced that they are listening until the policies change.

  2. JLV, one love, comrade. I hope that you keep the pressure on to not just be invited to the table but to be HEARD beyond the meeting’s lip service. The concerns you articulate regarding abusive over-testing, applying philanthropic reformer ideas over teacher union positions, layoffs/closures, class size increases & hostage style tactics using federal dollars to force states to fall in line with charter schools and evaluations tied to test scores (ok, those last two you didn’t mention but they aren’t ok) aren’t going away. They are only getting stronger until the 99% rises in opposition with a clear viable alternative. Please don’t let this one meeting placate you. Arne shows respect in person because he’s a slick politician. His policy is his power. Your power is the collective teacher voice you represent. One love, again, and always.

  3. Two points:

    – You’re fooling yourself if you think these people see you as “equal in importance.”
    Your presence there was intended to make it appear that they are listening, while their
    actions demonstrate they are not.

    – I’m sure your fellow teachers are comforted to know that you don’t judge them for
    not having your “level of followers.” I know I am.

  4. Post

    Everyone, I’m ultimately comforted by this:


    Secondly, I don’t see my views being placated by any one visit. If anything, it’s told me that my views are on the right path. You do radical your way. I do it mine.

    Third, and this goes to Mike, please understand: I ain’t nobody’s fool. You’ll have to rephrase that because otherwise, we’ll have to have a longer discussion about this word fool in the context of a post where I just told you otherwise. Secondly, I’m trying to get at the idea that the numbers don’t matter to me in the way that it matters to others. I’m glad you’re comforted.

    I’ll proceed accordingly.

    1. It was you who wrote that Duncan met you as an “equal in importance.” I stand by what I wrote: if you believe that, you are deluding yourself, since these people had you there to give the appearance that they are listening, when their actions prove they are not.

      There’s a big difference between telling someone they are fooling themselves, and calling them a fool; I have enough respect for your intelligence to know that you can recognize the difference between the two, so spare me the feigned outrage.

      Finally, if by that linked picture you intend to draw an analogy between Martin Luther King meeting LBJ and your meeting with Arne Duncan, then, wow, there are no words.

      1. Post

        Good on you to respect my intelligent, Mike.

        I do genuinely believe that a teacher is as important, if not more so, than a Secretary of Education. If you don’t believe that, then why do we even speak up? Also, why do people constantly harp on how little Duncan knows if they don’t believe that they themselves have better ideas? I’m simply flipping the language. I obviously don’t have the legislative voice or connections that Arne Duncan does, but I wouldn’t advocate as strongly as I do if I didn’t think that my ideas were better than his, and that mine, steeped in the classroom, actually matter more than his. AND that he ought to listen up. Now, whether he does is up to him, but that’s really the point of the whole post, not to capitulate, but to re-define.

        As for my picture, I just mean to say that I have something to aspire to. Going to the White House isn’t me getting co-opted as was mentioned in a previous comment, not to you. I’m not outraged, but I am disappointed, as usual, by responses that intimate that I’m doing anything other than doing the right thing.


        1. I agree that teachers are of equal, if not superior, importance to the likes of Duncan, but if you think his inviting you for tea at the White House was meant to recognize anything approaching that, you’re mistaken: in their minds, you were there to provide positive political optics for them, along with the hope that you’d tell the world that they’re listening to the voices of teachers, and for no other reason.

          Do you seriously think that they have any intention of implementing any suggestion you made, or of listening to any of your advice? When have they ever listened to teachers? However, if you insist on confusing their manipulations with a realistic chance of gaining their ear, I have a bridge…

          Also, I did not say that you were allowing yourself to be co opted, but that Duncan was attempting to do so. If you don’t see that, I believe you are being naive. These people lie about absolutely everything, and they’ve proven that they are not above using gross racial manipulation – all those lies about so-called reform being “the civil tights movement of our time” – to achieve their venal ends.

          Finally, including the photo of Martin Luther King was the equivalent of wrapping yourself in the flag, and was manipulative in its own right.

  5. Post

    Obviously, I used the term “not you,” but I’ve seen plenty of people wrap themselves up in a flag in the name of advancing a cause. I consider it a privilege to harken back to MLK as early and often as possible, with the full understanding of his legacy and without a hint of irony.

    Secondly, I don’t remember conflating their invitation for an actual meeting re: policy. That was *your* lens. But, while I was there, I thought I’d ask some difficult questions.

    Third, and more importantly, I’m glad we agree. I insist on nothing more than a teacher’s voice in education policy. It’s OK to be cynical, but it’s quite another to not understand why I said this:

    “If Duncan, etc. were truly invested in listening to our suggestions (and not simply through pre-determined venues) remains to be seen.”

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