Recording of live Q&A follows the text below.
The Full Breadth of Justice
Good noon, class! My name is Jose Vilson and I’ll be your teacher today.
I’ve been teaching middle schoolers math for 15 years across multiple grades, abilities, genders, ethnicities, and now, platforms. Because I miss my students, I felt like that was the most natural response to speaking/writing this. Teaching as performance is so underrated in this moment. Where once we educators were both stage crew and performers on our own stages, the lights have been shut off, giving way for a virtual experience that doesn’t have nearly the same flavor. The audience is more participatory, but now that the lights have shut off, it’s harder to perform without that energy.
When the pandemic hit our shores in New York, I had treated it like any other emergency post-9/11. I’ve covered windows, shut off lights, and locked doors in case of intruders during soft lockdowns. I’ve been within inches of an SUV ready to run me over because the driver thought our fire drill was inconvenient for his schedule. I’ve comforted children when judges decided against justice for Eric Garner and any number of Black citizens in the face of police brutality. I’ve strapped my Timberlands with the thickest of socks during snowstorms that kept most children and adults away from our school building.
An unseen and unfelt virus would be no match for my attention to duty and children.
As the classes got smaller, I laughed with my colleagues in between classes how we’d never get students to the end of our units now. But the jokes fell flat as the days passed. The first parent-teacher conference in which I didn’t have a plethora of parents lined up in front of my door happened that fateful month. PTCs were also part of my performance as well, an encore exclusively for parents to get a behind-the-scenes look at their students’ progress. But now, teachers had created semi-socially distant pods for us to call parents together.
As the classes got smaller, everyone started to see the writing on the wall. I held out hope. I kept coming in, even as I saw colleagues calling out sick for legitimate reasons. When the rank-and-file teachers threatened a citywide sick-out, Mayor Bill de Blasio finally shut down schools for children. For teachers like me, we came in for three more days of professional alignment, because development this was not. Teachers who normally used their computers as a tool now used their computer as a direct portal to the children they served. Outside of the NYC bubble, some were outraged that I wasn’t outraged at the fact that we had to show up those three days.
It wasn’t that I wasn’t outraged. It’s that, at that moment, I chose duty, perhaps at great risk to myself, which has been the case since I came in the profession.
The pandemic taught me so much about people’s views on the teaching profession, too. From the right, we were seen as “emergency responders” and “heroes,” which often meant we would be one of the first in line to sacrifice ourselves in the name of keeping America normal. On the left, teachers as a body weren’t angry enough at our conditions, as if teachers created the conditions we taught in. For whatever reason, people forget to keep the same energy for the politicians and pundits who put us in this position continuously. Teachers keep having to bear the brunt of society’s ill-wrought understandings about themselves and the children they’ve brought in the world.
This goes a hundred-fold for the most racially marginalized and disenfranchised citizens of our country and our schools. But blaming teachers is easy when we ourselves feel powerless.
By the time the third professional alignment came together, I was Google Classroom - trained, Google Meet proficient, IO Classroom certified, and ready to bring the four walls of my classroom into the digital space. There were a few problems with my hypothesis: human beings would technically be in a room, but we were no longer humans but digital representations of ourselves. We were no longer four-dimensional beings interacting in relation to any number of internal and external stimuli, but a set of gridded rectangles each with our specific orientation to the boxes laid in front of us. Some logged in via phone, others private computers, others still a shared iPad.
With this much variation of technology and home, the job I once loved became the data entry job I left just before I became a teacher.
See, justice is contextual. Before I was a teacher, I was in data entry for a Wall St. education research company. Before that, I was an unemployed activist and anonymous blogger. Before that, I was a computer science major at Syracuse University. Before that, I was a “talented tenth” Black Dominican-Haitian kid at Xavier High School. Before that, I was a top nerd at Nativity Mission School. And just before that, I was a promising chubby boy at PS 140. Somewhere in there, the Boys Club of New York told me to attend this program where they’d be serving juice and special cookies, a hook for me to watch the seminal Eyes on the Prize.
The cookies were delicious. The lessons learned from the Civil Rights Movement were bittersweet.
The seed grew at various moments thereafter. The little moments where I knew an event was unjust, but didn’t have that word in my arsenal. I was told my elementary school was good because I had no reference point, and our attendance charts told us we were doing good. I was told my middle school was good because I had to apply to get in, it was an all-boys Catholic school with a uniform policy, and The Robin Hood Foundation co-sponsored our trips to camp in Lake Placid every summer. My only other reference point was the education that my friends in the other, open school were getting. I was told that my high school was good because it said so on a list, I needed a scholarship just to attend, and a lot of white kids got in. Everyone told me how hard I’d have to work to keep my standing as a “good student” there, and I believed them. My college was good because another list said so, I had to take a high-stakes standardized test to get in, they had a big athletic reputation, and this university had many more white people.
When the seed from Eyes on the Prize blossomed into activism through my college years, I went from thinking school is an experience everyone deserves, to thinking I can get any number of kids the same opportunity I was afforded. Teaching would be my activism.
But the weight of the NYC public school system and all its manifestations would shove themselves against my overarching optimism. On my first day of school, we had dozens of retirees and transferring teachers while only three of us stood up as new teachers to the building. Then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein would reign over educators, leaning on a business-lite ethos that doesn’t work in a collaboration-heavy profession. Bloomklein rearranged management multiple times over his tenure, creating chaos in systems that needed stability and certainty from it’s so called leader. They shamed the school system they led by praising Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz and other charter-chain managers for their espousal of neoliberal practices. They courted technocrats through multiple renditions of high-stakes testing and fudged as much data as possible to make their political points. They welcomed Gates/Broad reforms to schools that eviscerated the arts, physical education, music, and social studies in favor of English and math. They then sent their MBA minions to tell educators, children, and parents how they were failing and that they’re the reason for systemic failure and not the outright incompetence of the colossus.
I’d find my own little bit of justice in a rectangle like the one I’m writing in now. I wrote my way out. </hamilton>
In an unprecedented move, Bloomklein blocked my blog from every computer in the nation’s largest school system for my opinions. Except in central offices where I was told they either loved to read my stuff or loved to hate it. But justice couldn’t wait for people’s feelings. After year 4 of teaching, I went from thinking I can get any number of kids the same opportunity I was afforded to thinking we as a society needed to do better. Bloomklein wasn’t just a cause, but a symptom of the idea that billionaires and their consiglieres who had no educational experience would better manage an education system filled with talented, empathetic, and thoughtful people who actually liked the kids they served.
Kids languished in impoverished homes and schools while Bloomberg sipped mixed drinks in a private island in the Bahamas while railing against me and other educators, especially those of color and conscience.
For Black educators and other educators of color, we saw how this technocracy made the decimation of the teaching profession permissible, too. Because Black and brown educators were more likely to work in schools with more Black and brown children, and because the schools with more Black and brown children were often at the short end of the testing stick, these were also the schools most likely to get taken over by the city, turned over to the state, broken up, reorganized, privatized, or shut down. Even those of us who stayed would continually practice our eye rolls at new heavy-handed mandates that took us further from directly addressing students’ needs.
But, as I got older and heard more stories from Black educators particularly, I recognized that this, too, is not new. It seemed like every education reform would somehow hamper the needs of Black and brown children. Our work towards educational justice isn’t new. It’s the same work for justice that prompted C.T. Vivian and John Lewis to their decades-long calling. It’s the same work that forces so many Black people - women, men, gender-non-conforming - to the front lines of protests for everyone’s rights. It’s the same work that forced the Young Lords and the Black Panther Party to create free breakfast programs for their communities.
Not coincidentally, in college, the first set of speakers I ever heard were Angela Davis, Felipe Luciano, Bobby Seale, and Amiri Baraka. They recognized how viral racism was in their own lives for Black and brown people across the Western Hemisphere and fertilized the seed within us that sought justice. It was their duty to do so, one that was passed onto them since time immemorial.
So as the days passed by and even my more active students started to lose their bearings during remote learning, I did two things well: I stopped myself from blaming them and I started to hit the “streets.” I helped construct a petition with 17 demands for transformational change that was co-signed by over 1,500 people. I held speaking engagements and interviews about five times a week, sometimes thrice in a day. I taught lessons on YouTube for my kids in the morning, called their parents for comfort mid-day, and yelled “Black Lives Matter” at the top of my lungs in the evenings and weekends. I recognize that justice feels further away than closer at this moment of chaos and disillusionment, but, if teaching in NYC has taught me one thing, it’s that there’s never been such a thing for the underresourced, undervalued, and underappreciated.
Namely, Black lives have never gotten the full breadth of justice in this country. Yet, we still fight. That’s hope.
Right now, justice can look like any number of things. In the immediate, it means more teachers need to embrace anti-racism not just as a trend, but as a lifestyle. What good is a curriculum full of racially diverse authors if your social circles still tend toward white? More teachers need to listen to those of us who’ve been in the hot seat for this work before names became hashtags. In the long term, it means we need to interrogate our school boards, our local, state, and federal governments, and do some serious soul-searching about the conversations and actions we must take as a country.
In the longer term, we must remain steadfast in the ideas of justice and how we must make that manifest for every child, including our white children. Our non-white children deserve a world where they can feel the full breadth of citizenship in this country, but our white children deserve a world where they start with the belief that anyone is due these inalienable rights. We must deconstruct the idea that normal is equivalent to necessity. We must do better. Teachers are standard-bearers and have a duty towards justice so justice can be done. My journey of understanding has any number of folks calling me a radical, but in math, all that means is that I’m finding the root of that which prevents our society from doing right by them.
What’s more, maybe I can’t teach students in our classroom again. But if the only opportunity I get to see them is through these rectangles so they can get these understandings, then so be it. Until we meet again, I’ll be doing everything in my power, from a physical distance, to create a world where we can come closer together again.
Justice is nigh. This, I believe.
José Luis Vilson is a math educator for a middle school in the Inwood / Washington Heights neighborhood of New York, NY. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Syracuse University and a master’s degree in mathematics education from the City College of New York. He’s also a committed writer, activist, web designer, and father.
His first solo project, This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and the Future of Education, was published by Haymarket Books in the Spring of 2014. He is the co-founder and executive director of EduColor, an organization dedicated to race and social justice issues in education. He is a National Board Certified Teacher and a Math for America Master Teacher.
He has served as a board member on the Board of Directors for the Center for Teaching Quality and the president emeritus of the Latino Alumni Network of Syracuse University. He writes regularly for Edutopia and Progressive Magazine, and has contributed to The New York Times, CNN.com, Education Week, Huffington Post, and El Diario / La Prensa NY. He has also been featured at PBS, Vox, Mashable, Idealist, Chalkbeat NY, TakePart, Mother Jones, Manhattan Times, and the Fusion.
He co-authored the book Teaching 2030: What We Must Do For Our Students and Public Schools … Now and In The Future with Dr. Barnett Berry and 11 other accomplished teachers, and profiled in two other books: Teacherpreneurs (Berry, Byrd, Weider; 2013) and Teaching with Heart (Scribner, Intrator; 2014).
He was named one of GOOD Inc.’s GOOD100 in 2013 of leaders changing their worlds and an Aspen Ideas Scholar in 2013. He has also spoken at TEDxNYED, Education Writers Association Annual Conference, Netroots Nation, The US Department of Education, and the Save Our Schools March. His blog, TheJoseVilson.com, was named one of the top 25 Education Blogs by Scholastic, Education World, and University of Southern California Rossier School of Education’s Teach 100.