What Gets Taught – The Jose Vilson

What Gets Taught – The Jose Vilson

Whenever I do a keynote presentation or workshop, I’m often asked: “How does this apply to me when I teach in a school with all-white staff and an almost all-white student body?”

The moment we’re in right now is why. Say less about the Rittenhouses, the Carlsons, and the Trumps of the world and more about the society that has created pathways for permission towards white nationalism, murder, and fascism.

The current pandemic has taught us several lessons. Among them is that our solutions must be contextual, historical, borderless, and structurally compassionate. To bring this to the school level, it’s cool when a student has that one teacher who believes in them as a student and as a person, develops culturally-responsive and engaging lessons, and wants to stay in the profession for more than a couple of years, but if it’s only one teacher out of seven or eight that the student has, we need the goal to be higher. Every one of us may have a right to close our doors so we can focus on our own lessons, but, at some point, we must see how our teaching and the teaching across the hall or on another floor (or school) have a relationship to one another. Unfortunately, some students might not see any teachers in their lives who meet these criteria, but this makes the imperative that much more urgent.

This is to say, we have plenty of evidence that all of our classrooms are interconnected. We can’t pretend that individual choice can trump collective failure … or success.

If this moment hasn’t taught us anything else, it’s that we need a serious reimagination about what education is. Let’s say schooling is the set of formal processes by which we try to manage mass instruction for a given populace whereas education is the set of lessons, values, and understandings one acquires from society. To give a common example, plenty of people who society has labeled well-educated never graduated high school. Policymakers and pundits have flooded the narrative about education reform as one of failure, but, time and again, we see instances where the onus for that failure has been set at the feet of students and communities who simply want an education or, at least, their right to schooling.

Much has been made about what’s wrong with black and brown kids, not enough about what our society teaches all of our students time and again. Contrary to popular belief, I have yet to find a community that doesn’t prioritize education. I also haven’t found a country willing and able to completely transform school systems to keep that energy with its schooling. In fact, we see historic waves of people fighting for the right to an education and for the societal responsibility to grant every child an education.

On the other hand, we rarely interrogate what the winners of our school system learn from this system. That’s also part of the machination here.

If the winners of our system only learn compassion through charity and hardship as an inividual function, are they truly getting a good education? What do we make of students who are neither college nor career ready, but have access to both because their distant relative owned slaves? How do the winners of this system graduate from their elite schooling, then insist on pushing this country and the globe towards white supremacy, fascism, and economic stratification while 99.9% of us continue to feel that pressure? If educators are the vanguards of a community’s and society’s values, why are pundits and politicians outlawing them teaching the truth?

Must the truth reveal itself in our society’s inequities or can we teach children about them so we can collectively take action against it?

I also prefer we not do this from a colorblind lens, either. I’m more suggesting that the truth about our racialized society can’t be resolved without a thoughtful analysis of power and systems. Also, what gets taught may or may not align with the Common Core State Standards and all their derivatives. If all of our children get the optimal amount of learning provided by the content (whatever that means), but still treat people with less power as less-than people, what how does this work? Maybe we should worry less about alignment to the Common Core or to preconceived notions of literacy, math, or whatever subject area we’re focused on and more towards actual citizenship, dignity, and authentic respect for others in this space we share. I want no parts of a schooling that doesn’t include these elements in our children’s education.

Education and love might not be the answer, but without them, policies and laws simply won’t work.

It’s not to say that kids can’t get their education elsewhere. Surely, freedom schools and all types of schooling systems have sprung up across the country trying to find pockets of re-education “for me and mine.” These are valient efforts. I also fear that, for each of those, there are a plethora of swindlers hoping to create a schooling structure for the express purpose of capital, much to the detriment of the children society consistently leaves behind. I also wish we did more in exploring the erasure of Native American/First Nations people and the social exploitations of people who are identified as Asian, both East and South, and how they’ve often been shoved as a wedge in this Earth we share. Our ways and means of schooling demand this.

So, to the original question, I replied, “White and wealthy kids ESPECIALLY need these lessons from willing white people because, when we don’t teach these lessons on justice and empathy to them, they might even run on whiteness and wealth and become president someday, to the detriment of everyone else!” A few folks walked out. The person who asked it stayed. I’ll keep doing my work as I generally have much more patience for children of all backgrounds than I do for adults. However, I have hope that the work I do with children and adults can transform the systems.

We have an obligation to share what we’ve learned with each other because, otherwise, we end up learning in ways that keep us further from our most authentic lessons.

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