Saving Summer: The Expert
My best skill, my most beloved gift, is teaching writing.
Hold that thought.
This morning it occurred to me that my task every summer is not to just ‘take a break,’ or enjoy the nice weather, but to clean up my mental lag, too. (Notice how I used the words “task” and “break” in the same sentence? That is the paradox of teachers’ years.) Little phrases or incidents roll around in my noggin until they lose their centrifugal force and drop off of my mind. All the little slings and arrows, missteps and frustrating meetings and discussions, worrisome students, and…other stuff. Just. Other stuff. It takes awhile for it to go down my mental head drain, and then a few weeks in, right about now, I’m feeling confident again, have my sense of agency and rest, knowing in those few weeks until school begins again I’ll be refreshed and capable. And more importantly, take back some modicum of control over my responses to outside forces. That’s is what these weeks are for. That and dentist appointments.
And today, very timely, preternaturally coincidentally, a friend posted this Medium essay by Jose Vilson, “Why Teachers Need to See Themselves As Experts.”
Mr. Vilson says many wise things, strong things–but not radical things. We teachers, who spend hours searching for the best and better ways to practice our profession, do not need permission to own what we know, our expertise, and our talents.
If this happens to our most visible spokespeople, what does that say about the rest of us? We have systems that constantly bombard us with deficit modeling. I’ve sat in a billion PDs where we’re told that we’re failing our kids, even when the kids themselves say otherwise. The person saying it is usually a professional developer who isn’t worth their weight in whiteboard ink. Politicians tell us that we’re not yielding results with measures that are both inappropriate and wildly unstable. Then, they turn around and tell us they can’t alleviate and eradicate oppressions like poverty, institutional racism, gender inequity, and the prison injustice system. We’re told by any number of folks that they’d left the classroom for greener pastures but still taut the “teacher” title and get to speak on behalf of us. (Nah.) We get stacks of books from folks we love (few) and folks we have no love for (many), but the letters “Dr.” or “Ph. D” legitimized why a district spent thousands of dollars on folks who may or may not have better pedagogical knowledge than the folks being handed these books.
Can I get an “Amen?!”
He’s not suggesting bragging for bragging’s sake. The most skilled professionals know it is safe to say “I don’t know, but let’s collaborate and figure this out together…” No one knows everything, nor should they. There is no growth, no creativity, from a vacuum in professional development space. I’ve said many times that there are those who know how to naturally, seamlessly collaborate: they ask questions not assuming the answers and have the flexible thinking skills to roll new thoughts in their heads like Play-Doh and create something new.
“In our quest to demonstrate humility, we can tip over into modesty, where we don’t acknowledge the fullness of the gifts we’ve been given. We don’t have to pretend to have it all together, either. I’m more suggesting that we should be allowed to express the depth of what we do and put our strongest foot in the work we’re already doing with our students and communities.”
Now I am ashamed to say this is my first time knowing about Jose Vilson, and he is the real deal. Go to his page and read his bio. I’m an NBCT, too, and an NWP Fellow. And if he says I should own my expertise, then own it I shall. It’s for my students anyway, because it gives me the joy to see them grow and find their voices, too. That simple. I know how to teach writing, and help students become writers. That simple.
And I have made a promise to myself, that if I am ever at a meeting like one that occurred in December, I will respectfully, politely, leave. It won’t be an act of defiance, but self-respect, and respect for our work.
“Teachers who do the work model justice in this way. When given a platform, the best of us can look at the rest of the society eye-to-eye, feet firmly planted, and let truth sprout from within. That’s the work, and if a teacher’s already there, then they should take a mic and pump up the volume. Shake the corridors.”