By Annie Tan
When I started the process of becoming a teacher, I was idealistic. I was going to be Ms. Sheridan, my first-grade teacher, who made me feel confident for the first time. Or, I was going to be my second-grade teacher Mrs. Yee, who sat with me through lunch periods to work on my handwriting. I was excited. I was going to incorporate social justice into my teaching, and make sure everyone was heard! Yes! Then I started teaching.
As any teacher can tell you, it has been exhausting. It’s not just from preparing for and teaching my students who have autism, cognitive delays, and developmental disabilities. Everything seems so overwhelming when you’re new: the evaluations, testing, constant meetings, new policies, learning Common Core standards. So, it was refreshing to attend the VIVA Teachers Talk with Jose Vilson and Melinda Anderson, to hear research and personal experiences from other teachers on the ground going through cycles of reform, all while learning how to teach, and teach well.
The June 14th event, “Race, Class, and Justice in Education,” featured Vilson via video chat (his plane to Chicago was grounded by weather) and Anderson via Twitter @mdawriter. Vilson began by reading excerpts from his book, This is Not a Test, about his first years of teaching and the difficulties he faced being a teacher of color in an urban education setting. He weaves in elements of memoir and research to speak to the pertinent education issues of the day. I listened and related to his story. I know what it’s like to be a young, idealistic, and often lost teacher who’s trying to make a difference with my students. I too am a teacher of color and who knew, at least a bit, what my students were going through. The discussion that followed Vilson’s reading covered a dizzying array of topics related to everything education reform: teacher tenure, especially in the wake of Vergara in California; diversity in our teaching force; Common Core; the influx of teachers through programs such as through Teach For America; and how to incorporate social justice into teaching today.
One key thread through the conversation was about creating trusting relationships between teachers and students — something Vilson said was simply not on the top of the education policy agenda and constantly ignored.
Vilson said we cannot focus so much on building curriculum if we don’t have humanity, trust and camaraderie in teaching. That’s hard to do, especially with everything teachers are juggling.
Race and class complicate and widen this issue of trust. Vilson called it “hair-raising” how few teachers of color — all colors — there are. I am Asian, so I very much related to what he was saying. It’s not something that’s often talked about when we talk about education reform today, but as a student, I know how important it was for me to see people who looked like me. It wasn’t just about representation; it was feeling that I could trust this person, and that this person had lived, at least a little bit, what it meant to be Asian in America. I teach in a predominantly Latino neighborhood in Chicago, so I don’t always look like the kids I teach. This makes me responsible for learning the neighborhood, having good parent relationships, being as open as possible while checking my own biases. Without that trust, openness and honesty, especially with parents, students don’t buy in either.
In my mind, much of the frustration in education today is based on not feeling heard. I know I oftentimes don’t feel heard when I have to administer test after test and complete different paperwork every week, without really understanding why I’m doing such work, and without feeling like I know how to apply this to my teaching. For me, it comes from a top-down approach to education. Both those who provide education services and those who fight for their rights to an education deserve a voice in the conversation.
When teachers feel they have a voice and are heard, they can do wonders. Vilson and others spoke about the importance of treating teachers as professionals, like they know what they’re doing! As Vilson said, schools succeed with teachers of all ages, teachers who are open to new methods, veteran teachers sharing their experiences, not through de-professionalizing education.
I think everything comes down to trust, in all aspects of the education system. From administrators, teachers, principals, students, community members, boards of education, secretaries of education, we need to trust each other in order for us to work together. And we need to put our kids first.
As I saunter around this summer, planning for the upcoming school year, I’m going to focus on my role in advancing social justice in education. Social justice starts from something very basic: hearing from everyone, especially those who aren’t often heard. It’s important to have an anti-testing, anti-corporate movement in education, but it’s also important to make sure those who are at the mercy of such reforms, those who have been and are marginalized, are those who are heard through these conversations. It can be hard for teachers to incorporate that social justice mindset in their classrooms. It can be especially hard as a special education teacher, when most of my students have speech and language impediments due to disabilities. But, I know when my students actually say what they mean, whether through augmentative communication systems, picture cards, one to three word utterances, or scripts and songs, they actually feel invested in building something in the classroom with me. If I’m going to be like Ms. Sheridan or Mrs. Yee, then I have to listen. That’s the way to build critically conscious and aware citizens in our country. And that is how trust is built … one step at a time.
Annie Tan is a special education teacher in Chicago Public Schools. While building up her teaching, Annie is also working with many other teachers, activists, and community members to fight for voice in Chicago.