LaGuardia Community College holds a special and soft place in my heat. Having grown up a few blocks away between the neighboring borders that intersect Woodside and Sunnyside, the sight of LaGuardia’s buildings always signaled to me, while crossing the 59th Street Bridge on train or by car, and from Manhattan into Queens, that I had arrived home.
Going to schools in the neighborhood where one lived in wasn’t an option for me, or my sister, or other families like ours–but rather a given. Yes, we went to neighboring schools perhaps because they were the most centrally and conveniently located. However, the real, often untold reason was because they were the only options that either, one, we knew about, or two, that we were told about: by teachers, school administrators and other people that knew better. Framed as options, but in reality, they were the only choice.
I went to Flushing High School because it was a straight-shot ride on the 7 train to the last stop. I rationalized that I could easily catch up on sleep or get homework done during the solid, uninterrupted commute. Afterwards, I went to Hunter College on and off again for three and a half years before transferring to the New School. It was the only college I had applied to because it was the only college I had heard about, a family friend had gone to their school of social work years before. No one in my family had gone to college, and no one aside from me has since graduated. I don’t remember the specifics of the application process, but I do know that I wasn’t encouraged to apply to other schools–other CUNYS or private schools–or that going away for school was an option.
I say all this, and give this context and background, because it shapes and informs my decisions, pedagogy and politics and as an adult, a practitioner and professional. Choices and options. It why I went into teaching (rather than other more profitable fields or professions), why I teach where I teach (rather than in other institutions that pay more for similar or even less work), and why I teach the things that I teach (rather than teaching from packaged curriculum or textbooks.)
Teaching at LaGuardia, and returning to my childhood community, is my choice and option.
Teaching is hard. It is fundamentally the most humanizing kind of work.
But being a person of color, a teacher of color, and a student of color–existing and navigating between these textured, multilayered, and interlocking identities–is the most jarring, out of body, kind of experience. The most difficult kind of work. The kind of work that white people will never have to experience, let alone understand. We have survived what this writer describes as surviving institutions that were not made or designed for us.
I often describe my coming into teaching as accidental; the role and identity of teacher never feeling quite natural. Who am I to be in front of the classroom? What do I have to offer? To contribute?
“Because white eyes do not want to know us, they do not bother to learn our language, the language which reflects us, our culture, our spirit. The schools we attended or didn’t attend did not give us the skills for writing nor the confidence that we were correct in using our class and ethnic languages. I, for one, became adept at, and majored in English to spite, to show up, the arrogant racist teachers who thought all Chicano children were dumb and dirty.” –Gloria Anzaldúa, “An Open Letter to Women Writers of Color,” This Bridge Called My Back
Teaching for me is a political act; a purposeful and intentional reconceptualizing and remapping of what gets taught in the classroom. What constitutes as knowledge and intellectual production, while simultaneously interrogating, challenging and re-envisioning who gets to do the teaching.
Teaching, on the macro, is a political act, but on the micro–the nitty-gritty, everyday, on-the-ground praxis–is fundamentally humanizing work. Vulnerable. Scary as fuck.
Having to navigate dualing and often competing identities of being a person of color, a teacher of color, and a student of color often feels contradictory.
As an adult, practitioner and professional, as a person of color, a teacher of color, and a student of color, in the fields of teaching and urban education, there are little to no safe spaces for me, and other people of color like me.
Being in mixed racial and class spaces, and listening to white people in positions of power talk about students of color, and about/across race, class, poverty, immigration, education, etc.—often in an abstract and non-lived experiential ways—as a person who intersects all these spheres and categories is the most cringe worthy, out of body experience. The colonized at the colonial labyrinth listening and witnessing the colonizer talk at and talk roundabout colonizing and colonization.
White folks who talk about how “diverse” and important community colleges are, and praise all the folks of color who graduated from CUNY colleges and come back to teach at CUNYS, but according to Le Google, they all went to private and elite universities:
Here’s the thing about being a person of color: no matter how many years you study, or how many degrees you accumulate, white people will always think they know more than you. Better than you. Study you, and believe that they are the experts of you, in and about your own life. “Pick your brain,” learn from you, and then co-opt and steal your own production from you. Use your own words, tools and analyses against you. Benefit from you, and then discard you when they no longer need you. When you are no longer, to them, serviceable.
Then blame you for what has been done to you. Leave you to survey your own damage, leave you to your own devices, and still have the nerve to charge and bill you for you. For what has been done to you.
What a profound neurosis, what a deeply disturbance, is the white ego.
How pathetically sad.
When I walk through LaGuardia’s door I remember my year’s at Hunter College. How I too was once a SEEK student.
I was a SEEK student during my three and a half on and off undergraduate years at Hunter College. Every time I enter LaGuardia’s buildings I am reminded of that. Back then, I remember experiencing (though lacking the words or language able to fully describe) the program and the “services” it provided like a white person’s hand extending a handout festered with pity, stinking of low expectations and presumed incompetence.
I knew that pitiful stank all too well.
Remember feeling stupid and worthless taking math remedial classes, the bane of my existence, even though I had scored college credit earning grades on my history, English and French advanced placement exams. Remember feeling all the pre-established course requirements like an extension of high school’s regent diploma, the high school experience I had just left not that long ago.
I didn’t even know what the program’s name stood for (which now I know is Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge Program), nor its herstory/history (which now I’m learning is incredible, activist-centered, feminist, rebellious and militant). I remember SEEK just being that extra check that allowed me to pay the books white teachers who taught the anthropology courses said I needed to have. The canon. Books I have never touched since again.
I was once a SEEK student.
It’s funny how we give so much value to a piece of paper.
This paper has allowed me to walk through doors and have them opened. This paper has allowed me to be hired over the phone or over email before even meeting me face to face. A piece of paper that gives me so much power and yet can still be treated like shit and assumed, by white people, that I know nothing. Resurrects a wall of difference and disconnection between me and my family.
It’s funny how we give so much value to a piece of paper.
It was my second week of teaching at LaGuardia and I was sitting alone early one morning waiting for the reception to bring copies of readings for class, I was bombarded by two faculty at the department where I’m teaching a course at.
They: who are you? How did you get in here? What are you doing here? Students are not allowed here!
Me: My name is José Alfredo. I’m a new part time faculty and visiting fellow from the Graduate Center. And sorry, who are you?
Real talk: 75-95% of the time I feel like I’m not meant to be a teacher. And it’s not because I don’t know to teach, or that I’m not creative and innovative in my course design, materials and assignments, or that I am not smart enough and don’t know a lot about a lot of things, or that I don’t know how to give good feedback, or that I am not flexible or compassionate. But rather, it’s because those who are the most unqualified—have never taught or been trained as a teacher—offer uneducated opinions, and often unsolicited advice, on teachers and teaching. Assume to know more and better than you. Pick and pull at one’s teaching and pedagogy apart, in ways they have never and would never dare a cis, white male teacher.
As a queer male of color, that shit has followed me in every aspect and sphere of my life: familial, academically, profesional, personal, etc. The most unqualified people always assume that they know better or more than me.
People always wonder and talk K-12 public education, “at risk” youth and students of color, and how to best prepare them to enter the “real world.” Well let me tell you what can happen to said student in the real world: no matter how much you study and prepare yourself, no matter how much prove your intelligence, skill sets and gain credentials, no matter how much good you do in what you do, there will always be people—almost always white people, but also the occasional person of color—who thinks that they know better than you, at what you do and at what they do. Will break your back and then ask you why your back is hurting. Will humiliate you and then ask why you are emotional. Will drain and deplete you, not replenish you, and then ask why you are stifled in your imagination. Give you paper and glue to make wings but when you fly and soar too high, burn your wings to the ground so that they can fly higher.
Somehow everyone wants and feels magically qualified to assess teachers. But how many of those very people wanna put in the sweat, labor, and costs that it takes to be a good teacher? Go get trained, study and get degrees to be teachers? Clearly by what’s currently going on in America, and in the confirmaron of this ridiculous secretary of education, the answer is clearly not enough.
Last Thursday, after class and on my walk to the train station, I made a stop at a fancy gourmet supermarket and stocked up on way too many overpriced food items. Afterwards I stopped by the local wine store and picked up a nice bottle of wine. I told myself in both occasions that I had worked hard these past couple of weeks, and deserved to treat myself. I had earned the splurge. I climbed into bed, and even before finishing a glass of red, I knocked out and slept for a solid two or three years. It was only 2 in the afternoon.
Here’s the things that students don’t know about adjunct professors:
- We are typically students ourselves, studying, working on our Ph.D.s, while navigating similar bureaucratic bullshit, like them, except on a deeper, higher and more pervasive level, and with more complex and career altering consequences;
- We get paid per credit, per class, and often have to teach 3-4 classes to make a pale semblance of a salary or work several part time jobs and still struggle to make ends meet, like this adjunct professor. Full time tenured faculty at CUNYs and private colleges typically teach 1-2 courses as well, but have, you know, an actual salary, and carved out time to advise and meet with students one-on-one as many times as they need to throughout the semester because it’s part of their paid job description.
- If you’re a good professor and thoughtful teacher you construct and build all of your own lesson plans, materials and curriculum from scratch, pull from multiple lenses, disciplines and theoretical frameworks, rather than teach from a standardized textbook or the same crusty, outdated course year after year, like many professors even at the doctoral level do.
- Your work as an adjunct professor is a tireless, never ending and often a thankless job because at the end of the day you and your course are just one small small small fraction in a factory model that tends to over burn and overturn adjuncts and over churns students until the next adjunct or student comes along.
From 10 plus years of teaching and working with people, one of the biggest learnings I’ve had to wrestle and come to terms with is that you can’t go into teaching or education wanting to “save people.” Especially people of color. It’s contradictory, paternalistic, and ego-centric; the self-serving need to help and “save others” as a means to humanize our own existence. To feel our roles and titles as important, necessary, and having purpose in this world. Especially for white people.
The reality is that we won’t be able to “save” or make an impact in each and everyone student and young people’s life.
Heck, we might not even be “liked” by many or all of our students. And that’s okay. People need to want to save themselves. Be able to save themselves. Given access to opportunities and structural support to fuck up and make mistakes. To stretch, grow, learn and evolve. To try again and again. To save and realize themselves for their own selves.
We can (and need to) support, provide guidance, compassion and encouragement along the way. Be their #1 cheerleaders all the way til the finish line. But we can’t carry them to the finish line. Can’t walk or run their journeys for them. Can’t own or assume the weight of their decisions, mistakes or journeys as our own.
Neither can we lose sight of our own saving, journey–of our own selves–in the process.
I’ve been mediating and reflecting a lot lately–today in particular–about teaching and what it means to be a teacher. What it means to be regarded as the teacher and expert, while also being a listener and learner. What it means to be the shaper and wielder (of the course content), while also being malleable, flexible and adaptable to change (as a community member). What it means to be the craftsman but also a consumer. What it means to be the assessor yet holder, possessor and keeper of so many multiple, intersecting and competing things. To carry all these things in your mind, heart, spirit and body.
I’ve been mediating and reflecting a lot lately–today in particular–what it means to be a teacher. What it means to be teacher of color, who they, themselves, have undergone the same or similar kind of teaching or educational environment that they, then, return to. Have experienced a lifetime of a sanitized, white-washed, colonized public education. What it means to be a teacher of color who have mostly had racist, privileged and mediocre white teachers. Teachers who have never given a shit about them, their lives, their identities, or their cultures. Teachers who have never asked to hear their stories. And in spite of this, or perhaps because of this, do everything in their power and human capacity to do and be better.
Everyone has (and can have) an opinion and critique about teaching and a teacher’s pedagogy: what was said + what could’ve been said, what was done + what could have been done. Endless and infinite would’ves/could’ves/should’ves. Sometimes dids and sometimes did nots.
But who is thinking about these teachers and what it means for them to be the assessor and holder, possessor and keeper of so many multiple, intersecting and competing things and carry all these things in their mind, heart, spirit and body?
To all the teachers of color, past, present and future: I am thinking of you.
I see YOU.