When Joseph Frilot graduated as his high school’s valedictorian in southeast Houston and started college at the University of Houston Honors College, he always thought he would become an attorney one day. In his mind, attorneys were considered prestigious and made a lot of money. After his LSAT instructor pushed him to question his ideas about a law career and he had an opportunity to speak to his sister’s graduating high school class, his entire career vision changed before his eyes. On this episode, Joseph tells us what it’s been like to follow his calling to become a social studies educator working with predominantly Black and Brown kids in Austin, Texas.
I know I’m doing, like, 50 different things right now, but these are things that I actually enjoy doing and I found a way to juggle all of them, and it all aligns with everything that I wanted to do in life as far as being a teacher, being an advocate of others, fighting against the school to prison pipeline, fighting for social justice. I’m doing all of those things right now in the classroom.
Welcome to The Early Career Moves podcast, the show that highlights remarkable young professionals of color killing it on their career journeys. I am your host Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger, proud, Texas Latina, daughter of immigrants and lover of breakfast tacos. Meet me for a coffee chat every Friday as we dive into a special guest story and hear all about their challenges, milestones, and lessons learned. If you’re a young professional of color and you’re feeling lost in your career or just need a dose of inspiration, you’re in the right place. Let’s get started.
Hey, y’all, welcome to episode 22 of the first season, we are going to soon be wrapping up our first season of The Early Career Moves podcast. We’ll be wrapping up after episode 30, so just keep that in mind as you’re listening that we are going to be wrapping up the first season at episode 30, but so excited to keep this going.
So today, we have Joseph Frilot on the show. Joseph is a teacher leader out of Austin, Texas and I actually crossed paths with him about five years ago when I was a talent recruiter working for Idea Public Schools which is a national charter school district.
Joseph is a social justice leader. He has personal lived experiences that a lot of our students at Idea shared with him, and so it just makes his conviction and his why for the reason he’s doing the work that he’s doing so much stronger, and as you listen to this episode, there are a few themes that are really strong, but one of them is that your career doesn’t always have to look like vertical progression. It can sometimes be horizontal progression, and towards the end of the episode, Joseph really goes into what that looks like for him and why he’s so happy remaining in the classroom as a teacher. So, I thought that was a wonderful perspective that he brought to the table, and Joseph also talks about being a religious person and being spiritual, and how that has also helped him release like a need for control over his career, and instead, he spends a lot of his time listening to God and what he believes God is telling him to do and that is what has led him to pursue his calling in teaching.
So I hope that that resonates with some of my listeners. Our careers can be very personal and because of that, I think if we are people who are religious or spiritual, that plays a big part too. So, if you identify with that, I hope that you find that part of this episode very validating and reassuring.
So with that, I’m happy to introduce Joseph Frilot. He is a University of Houston 2014 grad, he’s from Houston, he also has his Master’s of Education in Curriculum and Instruction from UT Austin. It’s a program called UTeach Urban Teachers and he has a secondary social studies certification. Joseph has been teaching sixth and seventh grade pre AP humanities at Idea Public Schools in Montopolis and he’s been doing this for five years. He’s also a humanities course leader. He’s a teacher policy leader, and he also works with Austin Community College as an upward bound academic success coach. So, Joseph has a lot of plates spinning in the air, but he is very passionate about being an anti-racist educator and just advocating and pushing for Black and Brown kids. So, I hope you really enjoy his story.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: Welcome, so Joseph, will you quickly introduce yourself to the audience? Tell us a little bit about where you live, what do you do today? Tell us where you’re from.
Joseph Frilot: Alright, my name is Joseph Frilot and I am in Austin, Texas. I am a sixth and seventh grade social studies teacher at Idea Montopolis College Prep. I am also a great team leader, course leader, teacher policy leader, and also I work as a academic success coach for Austin Community College Upward Bound Program. I think that’s everything, that’s everything.
Priscilla: Yeah, you have a lot on your plate for sure, really cool to hear that. So, for the audience, Joseph and I actually crossed paths maybe five years ago, I want to say, when I was a talent recruiter at Idea Public Schools, and I just remember looking at Joseph’s resume and being like, oh, my God, we have to have him at the school teach humanities because you had such a strong emphasis on social justice issues, and so it’s been so cool, I’ve left Ideas since then, but it’s been so cool to see your journey growing into a full-fledged teacher leader and so excited to hear about that journey, but yeah, so tell us where’d you grow up? Where are you from? Tell us a little bit about that story.
Joseph: Alright. So growing up, I went to schools in Southeast Houston where it’s predominantly Black students, In elementary, I used to get in trouble a lot, and then in fifth grade, I joined band and I joined this math club with this teacher who actually made math seem way more fun than what I thought it was, and so from fifth grade, I just continued to be more of a student that really cared about academics and wanting to do better.
I ended up graduating at the top of my class in high school, so I was the valedictorian of my high school class. This was another predominantly African-American Latino field school, and at that moment, I actually decided to go to U of H and mostly because of the fact that I didn’t want to move outside of Houston because my mom was sick at the time, so I decided to stay in Houston because I wanted to be close to my mom. While in college, I always planned on being an attorney, but then during my senior year, my sister was at the same school that I graduated from, and so I was asked to come back and speak to her high school graduating class and that made me realize that I wanted to go into education, being able to speak to her class. So, after taking the LSAT and trying to convince myself that I wanted to go to law school, I shifted gears and decided to go to grad school instead because I found this amazing grad program at the University of Texas, where it really focused on providing more critical social justice-aligned education to communities that I grew up in like lower income minority communities I grew up in. So, moved to Austin in 2014 and graduated in 2016, and at that point, that’s where, I think, Priscilla, you found me or I found them, and I’ve been working with Idea ever since.
Priscilla: And what was your experience at U of H like? I know you did really well academically and everything, but what was that experience like? What was hard about it or was it pretty straightforward kind of thing?
Joseph: Definitely wasn’t straightforward, and so that kind of influenced what I wanted to do as well, like when I graduated from high school and going into U of H, I wasn’t aware of the. Um, oppression that existed in, we didn’t learn about oppression in high school, and so when I went to college, first off, even if I graduated at the top of my class, I did not feel like I was prepared for college at all. At U of H, I was a part of the honors college and I was probably one of the few African-Americans that was a part of the honors college, and those that were a part of the honors college, there weren’t African-American or that were White, they went to a more affluent schools like Lamar High School in Houston and other schools that I was aware of that was way better than my high school, and so here I am in college, my freshmen year feeling like I don’t belong. So, I felt like I didn’t belong there, I was having a fight through imposter syndrome.
In college, I was a political science major, and so I took social policy classes that informed my thinking on the issues that my school and my classmates went through as far as not receiving the best education and I started to learn that like, this is systemic, these issues that I went through, that I’ve witnessed my classmates going through were systemic, this whole emphasis on tax tests, and students not being motivated and encouraged to think beyond post-secondary education, as far as like, a lot of my classmates were just encouraged to pass the tax tests, and they weren’t encouraged to go to college, especially those that weren’t in AP classes. I learned that this wasn’t just my school, that this was happening, again, in a lot of these schools across our country, and so that kind of motivated me even more to become a teacher and actually want to make a difference. Our education [00:08:40] students because ultimately, I feel like education is one of the great equalizers of upper mobility in our country.
Priscilla: Yeah, so there’s so much that you just said that honestly resonates with me, so I was also a poli sci major in college and it sounds like for you, college was a time where you were able to take a step back and realize how broken the system is, especially in terms of education, opportunities. At the time when you were a Poli Sci major, were you still thinking attorney? Was that kind of where your head was at or when did the teacher thing happen?
Joseph: Yes, I was so focused on being a lawyer. I did a lot of internships with the government, working with congressmen and representatives, and council members. One of the main reasons that made me want to be a lawyer was, like I said, a lot of it was about the money and the glamour that I thought went behind it. During my senior year, I took the LSAT class, I took the LSATs and everything, and I was still thinking about going to law school and it was still looming over my head, like okay, we have to start applying for law school, Joseph, at some point, and when I took the LSAT class, the LSAT teacher made me move away from being a lawyer, too. He was like, “You don’t want to do this. Don’t do it. It’s not as glamorous as you think it will be, It’s long hours, a lot of long hours, you may think the pay is going to be amazing, but it’s really not,” and so that made me question, do I actually want to be a lawyer? Is this actually something I’m actually passionate about? Do I really want to go to law school and pay all of these student loans for something I’m not really passionate about? And when I spoke at my sister’s school, it just really made me change gears completely and made me realize that, oh, I feel like I can definitely thrive in education. Speaking to those students really made me feel a level of inspiration and it gave me the tingly feelings that I didn’t really feel before. I really felt very proud of myself. I was like, dang, I feel so proud of myself. I came to and I just motivated these students to go to college and spoke about college to them. I can actually see myself doing this long-term and I truly felt like education was that path for me.
Priscilla: Yeah, I think that when you were saying that tingly feeling, I totally know what you mean because, so I taught high school in Miami, Florida before becoming a recruiter and I just remember, even though it was really hard when I was a teacher at the beginning, there was just this really intense feeling of fulfillment and connection to students, and so it sounds like you got a little taste of that when you gave that speech or you talked to them, and you were like, okay, how do I get more of this, right?
Joseph: Yes, I didn’t feel like law school was for me. Like I said, I feel like it was something that I was willing to do because I felt like it was the right thing to do. It wasn’t like I was making a decision based on what I wanted to do in life. It was because I felt like it was something that was put on me in, even at a young age, and I also told myself like, do I want to work long hours? Like, do I want to live my life like working long hours unhappy? I didn’t want to do something just for money and to not have a level of comfort and happiness that I feel like I should have. So yeah, when I found the grad program at UT, it really just like, I don’t know, it was like so many things were set in motion because really, that grad program really made me believe that education was the right path for me.
Priscilla: Yeah, and what’s funny is that now that you’ve been a teacher and you have all of these other things going on, you probably realized, you’re still putting in a lot of hours, right?
Joseph: I am, yes.
Priscilla: Like, you can put in so many hours but it’s different when there’s a purpose and a mission behind it, your why is so strong, like, you’re like, I know why I’m doing this versus being in a law profession where you are working those hours but you’re not motivated at all behind the why, right? Like, trying to support a company from getting sued or something, you probably wouldn’t get very excited about that.
Joseph: Exactly. I’m putting in work towards a greater goal of helping others and not just trying to help myself, and that really, that brings the most happiness to me and sense of pride to me, is knowing that I’m making a difference for someone else. I’m not totally doing everything for myself. I’m helping my communities that I really value and want to see grow.
Priscilla: And so when that moment came, when you were like, you know what, I think I’m going to apply to this graduate program, I want to be a teacher, how did your parents or your family members, or your partner, how did people around you respond when you told them, “I think I want to be a teacher”?
Joseph: They were supportive for the most part. At that time, my mom actually passed away, and so it made the transition to Austin easier because I don’t believe I would have ever move. If my mom didn’t pass away, I don’t think I would’ve ever moved out of Houston because she passed away in 2013. I was a senior when she passed, I was starting my senior year, it’s October, 2013 when she passed away, and so it made the transition to going to graduate school to Austin, move to Austin a little bit easier and for the most part, like I said, my family was supportive of that decision, but I did get questions like, “Oh, what happened to law school? I thought you were going to law school? You should go to law school,” and I was like, “I can’t live my life trying to do what people think would make me look good in their eyes,” because I think a part of my wanting to be a lawyer was I know that people look at this in a more upstanding way if I go this route versus this route, but I had to really follow my life’s purpose and follow what I believe the path that God set for me. I can’t live my life according to society’s standards and rules, and I’m so glad I didn’t because when I think back over everything is I followed the path that God has led me to, not the path that I wanted to leave myself too, so that kind of brings me the most pride then and the most sense of value than anything else.
Priscilla: So, your spirituality played a big role in you also making that decision in terms of what you’re supposed to be doing, right?
Joseph: Right. It’s just a lot of things that happened that didn’t seem like it was a coincidence. It was just so many things that happened, but senior year, that, I can just be like, oh, this happened by accident, like for example, speaking to my sister’s graduating class. It was just so many things that, so many opportunities that presented itself to me that led me to follow these paths. I wasn’t doing my own thing at that time. It was like, alright, God, I’m gonna do everything, whatever path you set me up for, I’m just gonna follow it, and that’s what I’ve always done for the most part, like I’ve never just like chased after something; things have always come to me for the most part. So yeah, I definitely believe that God led me to where I’m at right now, as far as my life.
Priscilla: Yeah, yeah, that’s really beautiful. It’s like being open to life and where it takes you and listening, like the ego can be very much like, I should have this, I should do this, or really concerned with what other people think, and it sounds like you’ve successfully silence that voice and followed what you believe God is telling you to do.
Joseph: Yeah, and funny story, actually, my senior year too, I was actually given the opportunity to do an internship. It was a paid internship too, in Washington, DC. It would have required me to pretty much give up me going to graduate school and doing a career, doing a two-year internship in Washington DC, and this was at time of like when Barack Obama was president, and so I was like, oh my gosh, like here I am being presented with another opportunity. In the midst of me going to grad school, here I am being presented with this opportunity to do a paid internship in DC, which I had the chance of actually visiting DC before that and loved the area and everything. It was another fork in the road decision to have to make and I ultimately chose grad school. I was like, okay, no, I am going to grad school, I’m following, I do want to be a teacher, this is something I actually seriously want to do.
Priscilla: So that happened your senior year of college also? That is wild to me. So, it’s like, that year really was pretty pivotal for you career-wise because of what happened in your personal life and then this huge opportunity in DC, and then you speaking to your sister’s graduating class, thinking about teaching, finding the UT program, it’s almost like that was just such a huge moment for you to really be really clear with yourself about what you wanted to do.
Joseph: Yes, it definitely was. It was a huge year.
Priscilla: Yeah. Okay, so those two years in Austin, you did a Master’s in Education. It’s called the UTeach Urban Teachers Program. What did you do during those two years and what was it like?
Joseph: Oh, during those two years, we took a lot of classes, a lot of training when it comes to writing curriculum that focused on how do we teach students in a more critical and engaging way within the teaks? So, pretty much gaining a lot of training in that area and also allowing us to learn about researchers and philosophers that pretty much were more geared towards learning about the oppression that exists in our country and globally, and the ways in which we can resist, and I’m learning how to deconstruct the dominant narrative that’s typically taught in history. We’re taught a dominant White narrative in history. How do we make this more diverse? How do we make the stories in history that we tell more inclusive of other voices that are also left out of our history? And we learned how to teach too. Our first year, we had to intern at actual schools in Austin ISD. I was a student intern at various schools where I had the opportunity to gain a lot of teaching experience before I actually stepped into the classroom.
Priscilla: Okay, so one thing I’m really curious about is for your graduate level program, you were in the classroom, I’m sure, in some way doing like student teaching. What was it like going from what you imagined it would be like to teach versus the reality of your first year teaching at Idea/? Was that a rough transition for you?
Joseph: Oh, my God, it was really a huge transition. I thought that my grad program prepared me for everything. I really thought that I was like, okay, I’m ready, I’m prepared, and my first year of teaching at Idea, it was not the best. It was good, it was better than what I heard other people went through, but it was definitely what people described the first year to be, like, it was definitely a first year of teaching for me. After my second year, I was like okay, I have great classroom management and great culture of achievement in my classroom, but one of my struggles was that I wasn’t building relationships with my students. They looked at me now as like the authoritative figure, which I was happy with, I was okay with that, but like I said, each year, I always reflect on what I can do better. That second year, I reflected on how I can actually build better relationships with my students. I wanted students to not just see me as the authoritative figure, I want them to see me as someone that they can trust ad also someone that’s fun because I wasn’t the fun teacher. So, between these years now and then, it’s been my challenge to find a sweet spot between being this classroom management guru that has high culture of achievement and also being a fun teacher that students can trust on. I want to be the best teacher that I can be, and part of that is reflecting and growing on everything that you experienced as a teacher, and that’s something I just try to do continuously.
Priscilla: Yeah, and so are you someone who’s thinking about staying in the classroom for a long time? I ask because I feel like teachers, when you get to a solid place, there’s a lot of pressure to consider school leadership and just a lot of other roles. How have you thought through that decision about like, do I stay in the classroom or do I leave kind of thing?
Joseph: That’s a great question. To be honest, I have been asked to go into leadership roles. I’ve had people on LinkedIn even reach out to me, and for me, I went into education to be a teacher, I didn’t go into it to do anything else, and that for me, I really enjoy being in the classroom. I’ll tell myself, like I’m going to teach until I can’t no more, pretty much, until I physically can’t anymore, and to be honest, I never imagined that my job would be as lucrative financially as it is because of all the roles that I play and having another job, like I’m not feeling pressured as far as financially-wise to leave out the classroom. Pretty much, if I was to leave out the classroom, it would be a pay cut that I would have to take a pay cut and more people I’m responsible for, and so that’s just something that don’t really excite me, is like, do I really want to take on a responsibility that requires me to be responsible for more adults and more people, if it’s not paying significantly more than what I’m getting paid? I make around the same amount of money as a principal, so it really just doesn’t make sense as far as my mental wellbeing and as far as for finances, like my happiness comes first and I just don’t want to be the person that’s working late nights or thinking about too many different things that I don’t necessarily have to. I know I’m doing, like, different things right now but these are things that I actually enjoy doing, and I found a way to juggle all of them, so as long as I’m able to like juggle all the things that I’m doing right now, and it all aligns with everything that I wanted to do in life as far as being a teacher, being an advocate of others, fighting against the school to prison pipeline and fighting for social justice. I’m doing all those things right now in the classroom and I’m also able to do things outside of the classroom, too. It’s just like I’m in a very blessed and fortunate position that I don’t really have to think about wanting to progress vertically career-wise.
Priscilla: Yeah, I really appreciate that answer because I can tell that you have thought about this a lot and you have weighed the different factors that contribute to career fulfillment, and one part of that is finances. Another part of that is what gives you energy? What excites you? And then, another part is that mental wellbeing piece, and yeah, if you move into a school leadership role, it is really cool, I’m sure there’s a lot of growth there, but you do give up other pieces, and like, my mom was a school teacher for 30-something years, never wanted to become a school leader, and so she didn’t, and she was just like, I don’t want to work with adults, I love working with kids, that’s what gives me energy in life, and I just think that’s so cool because society will tell you, “Why don’t you just move up? Like, move up to the next level?” And sometimes, success doesn’t look that way.
Joseph: And I’m a huge proponent of horizontal growth. You don’t have to progress vertically to maintain, to make money or to grow in your career, especially one thing at Idea, that’s one thing I don’t have to necessarily worry about, it only makes sense to me if I’m looking for a higher title pretty much, and like I said, I don’t really care for titles that much anymore, I still do, but not really to the point where I’m willing to give up my mental well-being and comfort for something that doesn’t pay significantly more. So, I feel like I’m good where I’m at for right now.
Priscilla: Yeah, awesome. Thank you so much for being with us today, Joseph. It’s been really cool learning about your story, how you got to where you are today, so yeah, thanks for being with us.
Joseph: No problem, Priscilla, thank you for having me.
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