Up Next

Jose Vilson Jose

I’ve changed my mind. We need to lift folks doing the work.

A few years ago, my former principal, a colleague and I attended a special conference at New York University at the behest of one of NYC Department of Education’s deputy directors, who was slated to be on this crucial panel on high schools. NYU’s School of Education would present its findings on high school graduation rates, finding that the Bloomberg administration had falsified graduation rates in the name of looking like education reform was happening. The formula was simple: instead of calculating students from freshman year to senior year of high school, NYC schools started to calculate from early senior year of high school to graduation. Anyone can tell you that’s prime-cut bologna, but the rest of the country followed suit because, when it came to Joel Klein’s era, something had to be done, even if we found it was actually nothing.

As I went to get some coffee and bagels, I noticed a gentleman by the name of Pedro Noguera stand next to me with a few graduate students swarming around him to make sure his event felt flawless. Just then I decided to introduce myself before the proceedings began, not looking at him directly because I was preparing my coffee and trying not to look too in awe of his previous work.

“What’s going on, Dr. Noguera?”
“Hey, what’s your name?”
“Jose. Vilson.”
“Cool, where are you from?”
“I teach in Washington Heights. Math to 8th graders.”
“That’s cool, that’s cool.”
“By the way, I plan to blog about this. I’ll share it with you when I’m done.”

Pause. This was back when Twitter still only allowed manual retweets, and newspapers had more authenticity than their separate but equal online content.

“Oh, that’s fine. Keep doing your thing.”

That’s as far as it went. He didn’t come off angry, dismissive, or blustery, and seemed to approach his work matter-of-fact-ly. I caught similar vibes from folks I observed over time, people whose names ring bells and whose presences makes otherwise well-behaved educators shove others for a space in line. (It also makes folks with erratic egos mad jealous, but that’s a whole other post.) After that conference, I still asked myself how I can find my own voice when I still don’t know what my voice ought to sound like, and how many others, Pedro included, already do it so much better than I ever could.

This also came at a time of intolerance for me. More of my personal heroes felt suspect and susceptible to avarice and nonsense. I started to feel like no one ought to look up to anyone, and everyone ought to only look within for inspiration. As those parts about them started nagging me, I felt like disengagement was the only way to purge myself from their flaws, their tics, their inexcusable mistakes.

For months, I felt trapped by my own understandings of them until one day, one of them said, “People who fall in love with my divinity quickly fall out with my humanity.” Or something like that. Shortly after I stopped following their works.

That’s kinda how people do, especially as they reach certain echelons in our minds. “The bigger they come, the harder they fall” has taken on new meaning with the plethora of gossip we have at our fingertips. This is the critique counter-culture we’ve fallen in love with, as if paved roads and lit streets just happen to appear in front of us, and not by the works of someone(s) who perhaps had greater insights than her or his peers. In education, it’s even seedier because folks will try to kill a person’s career if the words “Gates,” “charter,” or “of color” appear on their resumé. as if their own biases don’t merit some examination.

Not to mention that I stay in awe of how Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis looked me in the eyes a few months ago while recovering from surgery and said, “See? I told you I’m good.”

I reflected on this on my way to Washington, D.C. for the 2015 National Board Teaching and Learning Conference, where I was slated to do two panels: one on the shortage of teachers of color with Linda Darling-Hammond, Bettye Perkins, Richard Ingersoll, and Clifford Janey, (Thanks, Leo Casey and the Albert Shanker Institute) and a second on teacher authors with Dan Brown, Ilana Garon, and Matt Blackstone. A few years ago, I might have felt in awe of the opportunity.  I can’t tell if it’s because I was running on five hours of sleep or because I knew who I had to represent as much as what I had to represent, but I felt like I belonged.

There’s the first layer of “How many teachers get to talk to others about their expertise?”, a second thicker layer of “Your friends and family are here, so there’s no need to feel afraid of what you might say,” a third of “Well, they invited you here, so they’ll have to deal with it when you say whatever it is,” and a deeper fourth of “I had to work thrice and four times as hard for this because of my background, and I could only get on there with ‘damn good’ where ‘reasonable’ would suffice.”

For some, they can get a meeting with a White House special task force with little to offer. I don’t see any other way but to work like a Slash guitar solo. That’s why we must elevate the folks who we believe in, even if we think they need no elevation. When we think their work matters, we can and should support them early, often, and however we can. Otherwise, we’re directly disincentivizing good works.

It also felt strange because, when people mentioned my names with other featured speakers, no one blinked. In  a few instances, people even wondered why I hadn’t been “up there” at a few of the plenary sessions. While waiting for the hostess at Busboys and Poets, my friends looked for my book and found it right near Diane Ravitch’s Death and Life, and that felt right to us. I signed more than a dozen books, and it only felt weird that I couldn’t break out my pen fast enough. NEA Vice President Becky Pringle namedropped me after asking a good question for the audience. Pedro Noguera gave me dap and asked me about my book, which he wrote the afterword for.

AACTE president Sharon Robinson came up to me after her plenary and said, “I look at you and say you’re the future of this. You’re up next.” Or something like that.

As I’m riding on the train now, I think to what my day-to-day looks like. A 5:30am alarm awaits me tomorrow, Raisin Bran and the news for breakfast. Many students will learn from me and each other, and some won’t. Teachers and administrators will worry about the upcoming standardized testing season. I will have prepared a lesson keeping in mind my pledge to teach as students learn, not as teachers teach. At 3:30pm, I’ll take a deep breath. This will happen four more times this week, 70 more times this school year. As with most of the work I do, I’m hoping I can spray some victory in the places where pungent defeat smells eternal.

I won’t miss the conference because breaks like these are meant to be temporary and uplifting at once, so we can continue the work we do. Still, because life can be so thankless in these efforts, we need spaces for re-affirmation. Any temporary space that can’t reaffirm us isn’t a space I want to work in.

The things I do happened as a result of the folks whose shoulders I stand, never by accident. In the space I occupy, my ego can never get too large because there’s humbling work that needs to be done in aeternum. My job and family ground me the way anchors hold fleets at harbor, so even my celebrations last no more than a day, muted in the question of “What’s next?” shortly thereafter.

photo caption: LeBron James after losing at the 2011 NBA Finals