Question of the century: how do we create a profession that we can love and can love us back?
These ideas aren’t diametrically opposed, but they’re worth considering in the largest school district in the nation. The New York City I grew up in has changed in trajectory and culture, but not in its uncanny ability to amplify one’s aspirations. It’s cool to make fun of New York culture now that gentrification and social media have diluted our symbols, but Timberlands and a baseball fitted cap are appropriate uniform for four fierce seasons. And our tongues fire warning shots as barometers for trust.
You can walk 20 blocks in any direction and the empire uncovers a new facet of the body. The same hood glorified in our rap music changes into the architecture that poke its heads to create the preeminent skyline. Citizens discarded the stars for the artificial lights, and the concrete we walk on weathers weather and the economies.
New York City teaches us power lessons at an early age. When I walk through the Upper West Side and Chelsea, I expect their denizens to hold their bags tightly and move swiftly past me. When their sons and daughters run through the Lower East Side and Harlem, I expected rents and condos to rise as well. When I was a teen, I could walk down 14th Street and could see the Twin Towers, the Empire State Building, and Times Square all before heading to school, a scene so normal that I never considered what would happen if any of them fell.
Before the advent of blogs and cell phone cameras, native New Yorkers didn’t gawk much at celebrities. The culture taught us that just being from here put us on par with the another person’s lot. Outsiders would not outdo our hubris.
At the Schomburg, Brian Jones threw softball questions that I hit to the upper deck. As a 14-year venerated veteran, I felt it necessary to both represent the best of us as educators in NYC, but also shine light on the city as a whole. I remember watching one of our chancellors losing his job flanked by NYC parents and not knowing what to make of it. After college, I remember another chancellor standing in a privatized school and telling the schools under his stewardship that he wants his schools to be more like that one. I remember another chancellor lasting just shy of 100 days, rebuked for her inability to smell the smoke all around her.
I remember all of the bosses afterward while speaking to teachers new and old, who had only felt the material conditions of their schools worsen. Many of us literally voted high stakes testing and accountability out of our schools only to find similar approaches to schooling coated in words like “equity” and “access.”
When I first came to my school, the 100+ member teaching staff would tell stories of gang lockdowns and students both lost and found in their ways. The new chancellor had sought to shake the stories and anchors of our public institutions through school closures, breakups, turnaround models, and eventually turnover. No matter how hard the adults in the school worked, the neighborhood saw our school as the dumping ground for students who couldn’t get into the surrounding middle schools, a view that still persists. The difference is that now, instead of a handful of middle schools, there are multiple. The difference is also that, instead of 2000+ students in our care, our school now has one middle school with 250 students and two high schools on the upper floors.
The teachers and the students in our building get the blame for “flat” scores, even as the cast of characters has changed. Goals like “raising scores” assure that the institutions thrust its full force upon the most vulnerable and easily displaced, similar to the weight of economic policy. Educational gentrification.
People from outside of here will say “Why don’t you just leave?” Upending one’s entire homestead (and schoolstead) has proven harder than I could have imagined. People have this odd impression that a teacher like me is heralded by my principal / superintendent / chancellor (and his offices), as if I didn’t have to do much of what I’ve done against previous administrations’ wishes. For the last decade, I fought an array of different labels, all perceived differently by people with supposedly more important things to do than worry about my opinion. Anyone can name an initiative, an accolade, a speaking engagement, and I can name an equal amount of folks and events that tried to imperil that success and then some. The name tags continue to have both my name and my employers’ name at times when my employers both near and far refuse to hear me (and us) out.
But what does it say about a school system that works so hard to represent its students, its teachers, its city can so readily pretend to ignore … us?
The NYC me has always known wins and losses with no compromise. In any given hour, my students can both remind me of my purpose and assess my deep well of patience. I live for the sparks in their eyes when they understood ideas without me, the dopamine of our profession. I stretch my wishes for forgiveness when I take wayward behaviors too personally. I embody both the professional educator and the troubled adult, and thank God whenever the first identity beats out the second daily. I want people to visit me, but only come to my classroom to help me become better, not to belittle my way of being. I’m not concerned with being better than my colleagues as I am at being better than the previous me.
The NYC I grew up in fortified my resolve. Gunshots don’t ring outside of my Harlem window quite as often as my Lower East Side window heard. I still step on dime bags and the occasional dog feces on the sidewalk. I still see social and economic stratification as I cross Central Park both West to East and North to South. I still get my morning café from the bodega in my only Dominican accent, nod at the passersby, and still run up (not walk) the stairs to my room. I still poke at my kids who blame the train for tardiness when I was on the same one only a few minutes before.
I still know what teachers of color in NYC have gone through as a matter of legacy. The ways might have changed, but the means have not. No one discovers this, but some of us foist these truths to light. It just takes a little longer because of the burgeoning structures directly in the sun’s path.