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Teacher Spotlight: A Talk with Jose Vilson

A former New York City Teaching Fellow, Vilson is a teacher and activist, and serves on the Board of Directors for the Center for Teaching Quality.


This post is in partnership with University of Phoenix

Jose Vilson has been teaching math for six years in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. A former New York City Teaching Fellow, Vilson is an education activist and serves as a board member on the Board of Directors for the Center for Teaching Quality. He is also the co-author of the book Teaching 2030. To watch the extended interview with Vilson, click above for an exclusive video.

GOOD: How long have you been teaching and what type of students do you serve?

Jose Vilson: I am a sixth year math teacher at a school in Washington Heights, New York City. I’ve also been math coaching for two years. My students are predominately Latino, lower income, and especially Dominican—about 90%.

GOOD: How do you motivate students who haven’t been successful in the past?

Vilson: What seems to work well is building a relationship. One thing that I’ve always adhered to was Lisa Delpit’s theorem on how to approach students. She has this thing in [her book] Other People’s Children where she talks about when you first approach students who don’t do as well academically you want to build a relationship first. For students who don’t have that attachment to school, it’s important to build the relationship.

GOOD: How do your students, specifically your male students, respond to you as a male teacher of color?

Vilson: I would say about 85% of my students probably respond better because I am in front of them. A lot of that conversation has to come from the point of view of understanding our boys of color and being able to respond to them in a way that says, 'I’m not here to tell you that your culture is wrong, I’m just here to show you another opportunity and another path.'

GOOD: How do you manage to be creative and still have your students be successful on state tests?

Vilson: I think it’s important to keep one motto in mind: We’re not trying to teach to the test; we’re trying to teach so that when kids come to the test they’re still able to do well.

One way that I’m able to be creative is by saying, 'Let’s look at the standards and see what we’re asked to achieve during the year.' If I have fifty standards that I have to get through, I do my best to get to the best thirty and go really, really deep into those standards. I started to notice that it was better for me to cover thirty topics in-depth, than fifty in a very shallow manner. Thus, when I got to those thirty, they did really, really well and that translated to higher achievement in high school.

GOOD: What’s the biggest misconception people have about teachers?

Vilson: The biggest misconception about teachers right now is that we don’t work 24/7. As if we don’t work as hard as we should. I understand, we do get these proverbial summers off and we have these extra holidays, but often times I find myself being Mr. Vilson and not Jose. I feel like I’m on Mr. Vilson mode more often than not. If I’m not grading papers, then I’m thinking about what my next lesson plan is going to be. And if I’m not doing that, then I’ll have to start thinking about those one or two children that didn’t do well on whatever last assignment I gave. Even just walking down the street I have to be very cautious of my own public image.

GOOD: What advice would you give to new teachers?

Vilson: Go visit other teachers and go see what they’re doing. When I first started teaching, the best way for me to learn how to teach was to go see how other teacher’s taught. I probably went on a good fifty visits that first year and that really sped up the process for me learning how to teach.

GOOD: What has been your greatest challenge and greatest success so far?

Vilson: One of my biggest challenges was not being able to look at my teaching outside of the accountability systems that have been placed in front of me.

When I first started teaching, I was way too concerned with whatever the new fad was in education. We went from multiple intelligences to differentiation, and now it’s going to be the common core. I find it very revelatory how teachers, in general, haven’t been able to take charge of their own pedagogy within the classroom.

Honestly, my biggest success as a teacher has been seeing my students graduate. They get so amped up about that process that it always gets me. I’ve worked intensely with a lot of eighth graders over the last six years and I’m always, always in awe of that procedure. I can never get enough of seeing kids graduate and getting to the next level.

Read more from the GOOD Guide to Great Teaching here.

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