This Is What Has To Be Done [#WhyIWrite]

Jose Vilson Education, Jose, Writing

I had the honor and pleasure of having my superintendent visit my classroom today. The first time didn’t go so well. The students were wrapping up group project business, but, to the naked eye, it might have looked like the kids were winding down the school year leisurely. Since then, I’ve had a phrase brewing in my mind, intentionally, but I hadn’t gotten the chance to speak it. Then, it happened today. He came in with a few folks whose faces I’d never seen before and my principal. Our class stopped what we were doing, and, after saying hello, I let out the phrase I’ve been wanting to say for months:

“Ask the kids what they’re doing.”

The students were probably shocked I was so open about them and their work, and responded by pushing to finish the work. But for me, I wanted the adults who weren’t normally in the classroom to see that I don’t put on pretenses or shows. I don’t need silent classrooms, especially during the last period of the school day. I work as intently with my struggling classes as I do with my advanced classes. I don’t use the words “high expectations” and “rigor,” but, if that’s the interpretation, and if it allows me to keep doing the work I do, I’m happy.

I don’t take pride in my teacher evaluation reports, but in how my students respond to the work I’m doing.I’ve taken a similar challenge in my writing. The easy part of writing in education is that the so-called “two sides” are well-formed and fairly well-defined if you want to follow that narrative. You can write all about it, make jokes, and tone-police the other side for years on end, make a living off it, and even get a few spots on mainstream media for it. There are so many lanes to choose from, all with a political slant, all with opportunity to capitalize, all with the ability to oppress and silence for fear of retribution.

The hard part of writing in education is two-fold. The first is writing as an educator, parent, or student, knowing full well that there’s a difference between writing for you and writing about and even with these folks. Current K-12ers rarely get a chance to speak for themselves, and those of us who do have had to put years of work to make that happen, or know somebody who knows somebody. Usually both. These folks are often left off the places where expertise counts like panels, stages, TV shows, newspapers, and non-fiction, non-instructional book publishing.

The second difficult element is knowing that there are harder questions and answers immediately placing us on some side of a debate, knowing full well that there are issues with any positions we take on. To say that I’m pro-union also means I acknowledge the rifts, including the hierarchies and bureaucracies the rank-and-file have to compete against, within a structure with the potential to liberate. To say that I’m pro-public schools also means I understand the century-long failings of our public education system to adequately the human rights that my own brethren of color have had to endure. To say that I’m anti-charter school makes it weird when I really mean to go after the CEOs of the large chains and not the charters primarily serving our highest-needs students.

To say that I’m pro-anything in America is almost like saying I’m American, even when America alienates my people’s rights as part of its workings.

So why write when I’m persistently on someone’s black list, or every other word I type becomes fodder for the label “social justice warrior?” (That’s a pejorative I’ve embraced because I’ll fight as I know how for equity and justice without apology.) Because, if my classroom has taught me nothing, it’s that, when I’m granted a platform, I can impact the people’s lives in front of me by pushing them to reflect upon themselves. I can demand as much of myself as I do of the folks I’m leading. Sometimes, I take on the title in hopes of empowering those who are unheard.

When I stood there, adults hovering over my classroom and perhaps my career, I can stand there and give it up to my kids. I have no idea what they’re going to say, or if they’ll reflect the work we’ve done together in the last two months, but if I’m interested in their voices, I’ll hope that they can meet the challenge and win for themselves.

By any means necessary, this is what has to be done.