With An Upright Zeal (On Teaching With This Fire)

Jose Vilson Education, Featured, Jose

Last week, I took a five-day social media break for the express purpose of re-centering myself, my family, and my work in ways that the Internet does not allow. That’s the public answer. The more private answer is complicated, but unsurprising to anyone who’s tried to fill multiple jars to full capacity at the same time with the same vigor. At EduCon in Philadelphia, I had no less than five people come up to me asking me for time and energy without recompense. As if I should do someone else’s work for free just because I do my own work on my own time for free. My son had a recurring and debilitating flu. I eventually caught it too. So did Luz. I had speeches and articles due. The squeakiest wheel gets the grease, but if you’re not, err, if I’m not a wheel that’s built to squeak, then I keep rolling.

Oh right. And I teach. Full time. 145 students, each and collectively with needs far greater than my capacity.

Ask me the first time how school is going and I’ll tell you that it’s fine. Ask me the second time and I’ll tell you that I could complain, but I choose not to. Ask me the third time and I’ll enumerate the ways I’m struggling to comprehend the ways our school system fails us. The number of ways we inhumanely standardize curricula, lessons, assessments, schedules, and our students. The plethora of times that well-meaning adults can get wound up and wound down by the ever-tightening crank of structures we have no control over. The disparaging comments from dissidents who play like they care about my kids, but vote against their humanity on a dark November day.

The struggle of being the face of an institution that I’m fighting against subversively and overtly. And to do so with an upright zeal because so many of my colleagues across the city and the nation have been shut out for similar passion and penchant for social justice.

My students deserve better. From me. From us as a school, as a city, and as a nation. Not just the ones who I teach, but the ones in every else’s classrooms too. Every inclination to deny even one of my students what they deserve is a denial to all. How we achieve that merits conversation. We can lay out the “nots”. Solutions-oriented folks are cool until the solutions are compromised by the very people who want no change in the winners of our education caste system.

I can tell you of my student who had to defeat the odds against the stereotypes he helped create in the seventh grade so he could be an excellent student this year. I can tell you of my student who comes as a package deal: a singer / dancer in the middle of my lesson and the scholar who comes in the next day. I can tell you of my students who prefer drama and gossip, and the collective eyeroll from the staff who teach them. I can tell you of my various interactions that end in “rain drop, drop top, you got work so you better stop stop.” I can tell you of my Yemeni students, my Mexican students, and my Senegalese students, erased because they live and learn in a predominantly Dominican school, and adapted the way their parents did as integral parts of our neighborhoods. I can tell you of the students I’m begging to do better than they are, and the ones doing better than they expected.

The stories we don’t get to hear in the midst of trying to have students achieve standards matter as well.

What’s more, I’m seeing my classroom in the middle of debates over who should be the next Secretary of Education, angered at the lack of conversation about students, hearing how quickly leaders cement their feet in party positions and not in the lives of the faces I see daily. I don’t love what our schools and systems turn so many adults into. Burn-out isn’t much of an issue in places where humans with a common battle fight as a collective.

It’s been 12 years of this. Daily, I eradicate the gunk left over from the resentment and frustration with doing battle with things seen and unseen. Forgive me. I must hope if I am to go into work tomorrow. I hope I can see my students as the complex and moveable human beings they are. I’ll hold these thoughts closely to my chest because I’d want anyone who wants to come into this profession with their eyes wide open and their hearts too. The vulnerability hurts, but it leaves us open to be awash in the love, respect, and compassion our students deserve.

I shielded myself from the extinguishers and fire hoses, and I’ll keep doing this until I put my armor down. Try me.