The Path [A Reflection On My Tenth Year of Teaching]

Jose Vilson Jose

My taxi was driving down Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, a warm breeze with my windows down, a contrast from what felt like fall weather that fell upon New York before I left. Outside of Google Maps, I couldn’t verify whether the car was going in the right direction because it was my first time in LA proper, an oversight I corrected this past weekend. On my way to the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) building for a community event, I happened upon this picture:

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LA is world renown for its open walls where artists craft extensive murals like this. Of course, this specific mural sang to me. To the right in the mural is the late Jaime Escalante, at one time considered the greatest teacher in the country. To the left, Edward James Olmos, world-renown actor who played Escalante in the movie Stand and Deliver (1988). I’ve met Olmos, never Escalante, though I and millions of us felt like we met Escalante through Olmos.

Between the time it took to see this mural and getting to the event, I had enough time to remember that I never reflected on the last school year. Perhaps with good reason.

This last year was tough. I wrote about the overarching themes here, but I didn’t get to mention a few things. For one, getting back into a full program sapped me from my energies so often, I often forgot to unplug. If anything, I used some of my extracurriculars like the speaking engagements and writing opportunities as a safe getaway. I figured I’d expend the energy I used to complain and focus it on mobilizing and proselytizing.

This sounds fine, except it also means I forgot that I had much less time to cope with heartache, and often responded with a lack of expression, a blank face too often served.

I’m being too hard on myself because, as far as I can tell, the kids knew I cared about them a lot. Yet, I might have expended my energy too frequently in the beginning of the year, and overcompensated by saving too much of my energy in the second half of the year. This meant that I didn’t attend to every detail I could, give feedback as thoroughly as I once did, or return quizzes as timely as I used to, either. More importantly, it also meant I missed more of my students’ birthdays than I should have, and insisted less during the doldrums of testing season.

I forced a distance so I could continue the work. Therein lies the subtext of my school year from 2014-15.

With only a week left until the start of my school year, it’s worth mentioning my good fortunes, too. I tried a few things in the classroom and with my colleagues that actually worked, like calling parents in teams, giving frequent quizzes and giving less and harder homework. I didn’t have to worry about evaluations much, and I didn’t have to travel from class to class either. Philly, Atlanta, DC, San Antonio, Philly (again), and Los Angeles got to hear my voice this summer, and for that, I’m fortunate. I see myself as a catalyst more than I ever did for the sort of change we need in our schools. My now-former students stoked my fire well into the summer, even the ones who cursed my assignments out.

I’m still a good teacher, I think.

I don’t know where this path leads, but, like in LA, I get these markers every so often that suggest I’m doing what I need to do. I’m hoping that the 90+ students in my charge this coming school year get the slice of what I’ve seen.

Pa’lante.