Our Profession Requires Hope, Now And Ever Since

This post is part of our series entitled Teaching and Learning During a Pandemic, in which we invite guest authors to reflect on the challenges of the Coronavirus pandemic for teaching and learning. Our contributor today is José Luis Vilson, a math educator for a middle school in the Inwood/Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. He publishes regularly on his own site. Otherposts in the series are compiled here. 

On most mornings, I tweet a good morning message intended to share my intentions for the day and the work ahead of me. People usually receive it well because they understand I’ve worked at a school that serves marginalized students in underserved communities for the better part of 15 years. On occasion, I have to remind the occasional tweeter how important this context is in the midst of my more optimistic tweets. In many people’s minds, rage and fury are necessary accouterments for activists where positivity and smiles look like tools of the apparat. To express any form of affirmative outlook is to betray the ideals of disruption to the status quo. 

Yet, teaching in our most dire contexts necessitates hope, and this is no more evident than in what we’ve dubbed “remote learning.” In New York City, we’ve now entered two months of correspondence with peers and students through the Internet and called this process schooling. For years, we understood school as compulsory, inequitable, and vital to the very environment that created these conditions. More learning begets unlearning. More education presumably leads to more engaged citizens who would create a better world for their children than we did for ours. Many of us follow this principle in systems deeply antagonistic to these goals. 

When our government asked the nation’s largest public-school system to flip our entire system, we did so dutifully. Yet most of us knew that such a transition would exacerbate the already entrenched inequities in our system.

But teach and hope we must. Educators went back to school for three days to teach each other how to use virtual classroom and live conferencing tools. Others distributed electronic devices and classroom materials to parents. We followed that up by trying to replicate school from home, creating daily assignments and scheduling sessions. We doubled the stress we felt for students who we had a hard time reaching when we were face-to-face. Notifications on our phones quintupled as we kept up with every comment, question, and concern we fielded. We saw students forming their own schedules, turning in assignments on midnights and weekends and responded in kind.

Students, parents, and educators needed a break. The governor took that from us. We needed time for religious observance. The mayor took that from us. We kept working.

None of this could have been possible without the relationships I forged with my students, peers, and communities. I wasn’t willing to simply post assignments and have Sal Khan handle the instruction for my students. I don’t disparage folks who use Khan Academy or the plethora of instructional videos that tutor our children on any number of subjects. I also recognize that, as the lead pedagogue for my students, I earned their trust and must proceed as such. I developed my methods for explaining the math to work with my students. I couldn’t develop such an orientation if I didn’t believe my students didn’t have the capacity for proportional reasoning and quick calculations. 

Hope is the engine for the work. I hope my students understand what I’m teaching them and, if they don’t, I hope I get the opportunity to teach them again. The distance means I have to hope harder.

What’s more, hope in the context of disaster has been our disposition since we came into the profession. Those of us who teach in underserved schools already knew that the same students who experienced food, shelter, and job insecurity during our country’s prosperous times would feel the brunt of the collapse in disastrous times, as is the case now. My students live in Washington Heights, Inwood, and Harlem, all neighborhoods that collectively have thousands of COVID-19 cases. My students’ parents have worked in bodegas, supermarkets, livery cabs, hospitals, senior citizens’ homes, and subways. Which means that our students may have one degree of separation between themselves and someone they know who has passed away from coronavirus.

During parent-teacher conferences, the most common refrain from parents to their children has been “I work to the bone to make sure that you have everything you need.” Parents stake their lives on assuring their children get opportunities for success that they weren’t afforded. 

If parents can invest that much hope in their children, then our education system – including the educators that serve at the behest of the public – can reimagine the operations and principles of schools better now. We can do away with high-stakes standardized testing and other narrow measures of intellectual capacity. We can make Internet access and high-capacity devices a public utility for everyone. We can bolster schools that serve as community hubs. We can develop deeper communication with parents about their students’ educational progress, while creating flexible plans for students whose parents have been deemed essential workers from now on.

But none of this happens without a pillar of hope that permeates everyone working in our most vulnerable contexts. While tens of thousands of deaths and cases pile up across the country — and while our country has plenty of indicators that the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel is far from our current moment —. we arm ourselves with anticipation and aspiration to do better than our current situation. 

Hope has always existed in the places where we lacked evidence for hoping. If we are to transform education, we would do well to lean on the people who know this most intimately.

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