The World Is Yours (We Don’t Kiss Rings Over Here)

Jose Vilson Education, Jose



Truth: I believe you’re better than the ring-kissing I’m seeing right now.

A few days ago, I had the opportunity to speak virtually to about the importance of leading while teaching as part of a series I’m doing with the Center for Teaching Quality. In my argyle sweater and windbreaker pants (video conferencing) magic, I fielded questions about everything from educational equity (“Give back 1% from that defense budget. Radical, I know.”) to classroom management (“Keep the yelling to a minimum.”) in difficult settings.

But the most pertinent question came from a few of the student teachers who asked something to the effect of “Jose, you sound so confident and passionate in your blog, and in other stuff you’ve written. Why do you write the way you do on your blog? Is it because you naturally have these leadership abilities or because you saw something in your class that made you rise to the occasion?”

It’s important to note that I never considered myself confident until college. My formative years were spent doing homework, skipping out on teenage travails, and having a conscience much larger than the consequences of my supposed sin. I can’t pinpoint why, but others saw my stubborn intelligence for confidence. With that came a social awkwardness that kept me deferential to people I considered superiors, even amongst my peers.

What slowly switched that mentality was the Save Our Schools March in 2011. As a New York native, I’d been used to pretending to ignore Questlove traversing SoHo with his crew, Jay-Z dipping his signature Yankee cap low in the passenger seat of a car zooming to an Angie Martinez interview, Claire Danes pre-Homeland with a smile from ear to ear, or any number of random TV personalities blending in with the artisans, vagabonds, and wannabes in Union Square.

SOS March was a collection of some of my favorite people whose books constitute a heavy portion of my bookshelf, and whose words inspire my pedagogy to this day. I could wax poetic about them for days on end, and got so enraged at the materials they presented in their books, I had to lock them away for years. Once I met them, though, I found out a few things. Here’s one: the people I idolized were human, too, just like me, flaws and all.

Shortly thereafter, I dispensed of so many of these attachments and came into relationships as equals, on par with people who otherwise wouldn’t have known me from the other handful of male teachers of color with a voice, of which there are so few. Not only that, but I started to see that, if teachers wanted to change education, it wasn’t going to come from some genius above, a Luddite amongst us, or a hellraiser below. It was going to come from within ourselves.

When we start deferring our expertise to “well, so-and-so said …” before we acknowledge our own intellect, our own experiences, and perhaps our own ideas, we’ve lost a few battles. Where people are often scrambling to find experts in the form of textbooks, podcasts, television, social media, and wherever everyone else says hurryupgorealfastoverthere, we lose the ability to say, “Yes, I’m an expert, too.”

Humility is an important trait, and one that keeps us grounded in the work we do. Yet, “humility” is often a way for elites to push down others to make sure they keep their spot. It’s also a way for others who see you working hard to keep you from shining as you should. It’s also a way for people who argue about education can take a “principled stance.” Thus, when people put together (K-12) education panels, they put in business folks, education professors, journalists, tech gurus who recently created education software, and sometimes a principal.

Teachers get thrown in for the soft story, and, for too many of my brethren, that’s OK. When people say that teachers ought to be more forceful, but rarely feature educators, never mind people of color, they’re disingenuous too, whether they consider themselves progressives or whatever it is.

I appreciate some of my representatives, but I also like speaking on my own behalf.

We as teachers should start looking at ourselves as the gurus, not because we have inflated egos, but because it’s truly our turn. Teachers need to advertise themselves as knowledgeable about their craft, readily available to speak to all parts of what they do and how it connects to the world happening around them. We would do well to speak up and out, and not just give way because someone “said so” with no basis for doing so.

I’m OK with friendship, hugs, pounds, daps, props, awards, collaborations, partnerships, grants, plaudits, and any number of ways in which we show our appreciation to others, no matter how often they seem to gravitate towards any one person and / or who they ignore. I’m inclined to believe, however, that we must believe in ourselves and our individual and collective power to make things happen. I knew that before I started writing in this book, all the words past the margin.

The world is yours, the world is yours. At least, once you start thinking for yourself.