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Teaching Is A Political Act

An excerpt from my interview with Jose Luis Vilson that reminds us to take care of our students, ourselves, and each other in this dark and difficult time.

Shanna Peeples
Aug 18, 2017 · 5 min read

If you’ve ever had one of those experiences where talking to someone validates you, encourages you, and makes you feel like they struck a bell deep down inside you, that’s been the privilege I’ve had over and over interviewing folks for my book, Think Like Socrates.

So much of teaching — and many enterprises in America — slices us up into competitive little razor blades who are encouraged to sharpen ourselves by cutting each other.

That can look like who has the most Pinterest ready room or who manages to look like they walked right out of a catalog in their own sense of personal style and attractiveness.

On another level, it looks like “grading a school” with As and Fs, or comparing scale scores or any other such nonsense that forms our judgments about who does — and doesn’t do — a good job.

That’s where the sanity and wisdom of my interviewees come in. Great fortune blessed me in the form of speaking with people like Parker Palmer or Margaret Wheatley, making me feel like I won Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket to the Smarty Party.

Apart from that, the more powerful and lasting validation comes from listening to those incredibly gifted and passionate people who choose to teach.

Just being in the same room with them motivates me to want to be better and do better work. I’m going to feature them in a nonconsecutive series of posts over the winter because I hope they help you and motivate you and inspire you.

Jose Luis Vilson granted me an interview in the middle of his work day as a middle school math teacher in New York. He reminded me of three thoughts we can adopt to strengthen our purpose, ourselves and each other:

“I think the first thing that teachers need to recognize is we are not apolitical, we are agents of the state, so in fact, we are political even if we’re not partisan. So that’s one big thing,” he said.

For me, this reminds me that our work is not about test scores, it’s about what we do to build the success of each child in our care through the cultivation of their intelligence, individual gifts, character, and dignity.

How we choose to speak, who we choose or allow to speak in our classrooms, is a choice between speaking life or speaking death to our students.

You are no good to anyone if you stay depressed and angry or bury those feelings with food or booze. It’s no coincidence that liquor and ice cream sales skyrocket in times of national stress. Self-care, Jose reminded me, is a political act.

“It’s important for us as teachers to develop ourselves within ourselves and understand how to make peace within ourselves, and channel our energies toward building and creating a brighter future,” he said.

“It’s very easy to get stuck in this shock phase, and that happened a lot with a lot of people I knew. They didn’t know what to do and just felt super defeated. I respect people feeling that way. I also fully understand that the work is going to be even harder to do, so you’ll need to develop yourself a little bit more and understand how to stay alive and refreshed and energized.”

“Folks who’ve taken on meditation, that’s a powerful thing. Folks who’ve decided to get more creative, that’s a powerful thing. Teachers need to find ways to get in touch with their inner humanity and that’s a really big deal.”

One of the easiest ways to disempower people is to isolate them and keep them from seeing their common humanity. Resist the impulse to create a false front of strength.

I notice that my own insecurities are exacerbated by what’s going on and they often push me to extremes: refusing to speak about the events that are breaking my heart or spending all my time cursing the people working evil from their privileged places.

We need each other as witnesses to our shared pain, yes, but also as witnesses of our shared strength. Jose really helped me remember that this week: “There’s a lot of self work that needs to be done and I do include myself in that,” he said.

“It’s important for folks to build community with like-minded people — and it’s not a closed community, not a gated community. But if you can find even three or four people that you just feel like you can have a conversation with and just be yourself: Miss Peeples, the teacher. Just be your damn self, be Shanna. I’ll be Jose.”

“That’s a really big deal. You need to find that community. Some of us are more fortunate than others to be in proximity to them face to face,” he said.

“This work is a marathon as cliche as it sounds, it tells us the little incremental things that we’re doing, if you can find a way to amplify those and do those en masse, that’s when you start to see movements happening.”

Your strength doesn’t come from pulling other people down. It never will. We do the part of the work that we can, the best that we can, so we need to be easy with each other. I love the simple way Jose frames that as remembering that it’s we before me.

“It’s less about trying to critique too much or trying to find ways to pull other folks down or even just the ways people do this work on a shallow level,” he said.

“So if you just take the word equity, for example, that’s not really going to help get equity, right? The things that actually help equity are the letter writing, the conversations you have with your politicians, folks you find to help organize with you.”

“And again, that community. Making sure it’s we before me. Once you develop your inner self and find a community that also wants to do that work and then collect yourselves around a common goal I think it can really move mountains.”

Shanna Peeples

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Pursuing learning as a doctoral student @Harvard | 2015 National Teacher of the Year | Author: Think Like Socrates | Otter enthusiast