Who Created The Cages? [About That Teacher Life]

Jose Vilson Education, Jose

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to speak at William Paterson University in New Jersey to their college of education. Their education program definitely has the right leaders to move their future teachers forward. After I spoke at length about being a teacher, cultural competence, and teacher leadership, I was enlightened by so many students, future counselors, and faculty who wanted to push back against our current education reform agenda. They also had a keen eye on equity questions, and I was happy to elucidate wherever possible. I’m blessed to do such things because I don’t know any K-12 educators (if any) who have a similar speaking schedule while full-time teaching.

But don’t let the itineraries fool you: my first professional priority is teaching my students math.

There’s an exhaustive tally of items I have to worry about since the honeymoon period came to an end. A student or two have taken calculators home, perhaps never to be seen again. A student starts off with high expectations for himself and falls off into his own distress and lack of self-confidence. A few students get suspended for the incomprehensible, though I’m sure it made sense to them. A few students learn to love math, while one student spends time with me after class so I can make the case for why she needs to be present. Mothers and fathers have come in with different objectives, content with my response and their child’s. Most students will meet my passing requirement. Some students won’t, but have a math teacher that will give them opportunity to do so. All of this happens underneath a wet blanket that policymakers, education professors, and some advocacy groups cast upon students, parents, and teachers, the former group assuming the latter group has little to no skin in the game.

It’s not that we don’t have the skin; it’s that the game is being played upon us.

Don’t tell me about cage-busting teachers without questioning who created the cages, what dimensions are teachers working with, and who’s got the keys to the locks. Teachers didn’t create their own cages, though surely some of us have adapted to the steel bars. In some instances, teachers can even perpetuate the cage by suggesting that, because it exists, it must be right because that’s all we’ve ever known. Even as we band together to figure out the cage, if we continue to validate the cage’s existence instead of seeking liberation, the cage persists despite our efforts.

A true busting of cages would liberate more than a handful of us in earnest.

We can be as creative and aspirational as we want to be, but, until our education system continues to relegate educators to third-tier pseudo-professionals, the cages remain intact, melleable, and fool-proof. The education system is still rife with entitlement, and we don’t have mechanisms that blunt the force of institutional conservatism. What’s worrisome is that society generally views any teacher who does remarkable work in and outside of the classroom as a one-hit wonder, an edu-talisman worth a few minutes of our time. It’s also why I suspect, for example, some former educators have given up and created fake authenticity on social media, buying up followers and creating their own provinces where they rarely have to worry about power, because such things are rarely offered to them in general society.

Who cares, though? Accumulate 100s of thousands of followers. Sell dozens of boxes of books. Get all the corporate titles, visits to government offices, and yes, free lunches. The issue is, the cage is never busted. It simply changes its bounds. Perhaps the floor isn’t so rectangular. Perhaps the roof doesn’t crush our heads as hard. But it still exists. And the only way for us to dismantle these cages is to dismantle it for all of us within schools. I mean, what good is being free if my students can’t enjoy those freedoms?

photo c/o