What’s In It For Me? (On Male Teachers of Color) [Guest Post]

Jose Vilson Education, Guest Posts

I usually don’t do this, but this month, I’m going to have a few special guests speak their peace. First up, Brent Nycz, a special ed teacher and shining star here in NYC public schools. Let him know that you’re feeling this piece by @’ing him on Twitter. Salute.

Last year, around this time of the year, I went into the DOE offices on Court Street, preparing for my interview to be a part of a new initiative. I was picked as one of the first 10 teacher recruiters with a specific aim in mind: use teachers to help recruit other teachers via their perspective in order to curtail the declining number of teachers applying to teach in New York City.

Before I was picked though, I remember getting one question that I still think about 12 months later:

“Why do you think there is a shortage of male teachers of color in New York City?”

I gave an answer, one that escapes me. Sure, any number of answers would “make sense” in this end, mostly your text-book responses: low-paying, poor working conditions, societal views of what a teacher is, the bureaucracy from the top down, and so on, but I feel those answers aren’t good enough because hey, I recognize those answers and I’m still here.

I received that question because I am part of that 8% of NYC teachers who are men of color. I’m a seven-year special education teacher at a school in Washington Heights and I’m a Puerto Rican man, born and raised in a Puerto Rican household, despite my Polish daddy leaving me with nothing more than a last name and a check every month until I was grown. I grew up in Paterson, NJ, home of Fetty Wap and heavy crime. My family sacrificed as much as they could to help me succeed, becoming the first four-year college graduate in the family. They taught me how to live independently.

I came into teaching because I loved working with kids and I thought becoming a teacher was the next logical step … at least after I had a horrible psychology course grade and after I was bored trying to become the next Bill Simmons at Fordham. These last seven years have been mind-numbingly difficult and the constant changes have taken its toll: Common Core, Charlotte Danielson, differentiation, data-data-data, higher-order, increase rigor, “the tests were too easy”, “the tests are too hard”, “the tests are missing pages”, Pearson, Questar, it has become an incredible track of education jargon with failed practices to dodge through constantly.

On my toughest days, my students hold me down. My colleagues hold me down. My bed holds me down and I keep trekking through, not allowing Pearson, Cuomo, Bloomberg, De Blasio, or anyone or anything else hold me down (shout out to Puff and Matthew Wilder).

But I’m 28 now. The shine of being “new” has worn off. I’m still a special education teacher in the same school, dealing with a new principal and a whole host of changes on top of the ones we as NYC teachers deal with on a daily basis. I’m in that “new chapter” zone, realizing I’m working less about survival and more about my own health, both mentally and professionally.

I can’t help but start thinking “what’s in it for me?” What is keeping me working as a NYC teacher? Yes, I have a union, I have benefits, my love of teaching hasn’t left me, and the salary is enough to allow me to send some money home to help out my abuela. However, I wonder if those “answers” are enough.

Teaching should be a respected profession within all walks of life, but the way our society treats teachers has destroyed that shine, that spark, that light and we now have numbers that reflect that effect. Some male teachers of color have expressed being pigeon-holed into being the “disciplinary” force of the school and in some elements, I get that view as well. The lack of freedom to teach in the matter that helps our students the most can be stifling. In a simplistic sense, teaching is viewed as a “fulfilling” profession, but what’s “fulfilling” about teaching test prep and enduring hours of tests I won’t even know the results of until after my students have moved on? I don’t want to be held down, but the system can make me claustrophobic.

As a young Puerto Rican male teacher, what’s in it for ME if there are all these obstacles in the way of me being able to do my job, the most important job of all: educating our kids?

Ultimately, this question that’s plaguing me is the same kind of questions recruiters, data analysts, and DOE administration deal with as they attempt to tackle this question with new initiatives. The difference between me and many of them is that I live this question day after day. Many of the 8% do as well. Heck, many of us all together do as well.

There is a host of reasons why Jose and I and many other men stay in the profession, pressing on year after year, fighting the good fight, and fighting for change in big and small ways. But 12 months later after my interview, I still don’t have a good enough answer to that question for myself.

And as my career transitions into new challenges, that question nags at me more than ever before.

Author’s Note: I was listening to “Once in a Lifetime” on repeat writing this piece. Same as it ever was.