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Helping teachers find their voice

Veteran educator says real reform starts in the classroom
José Vilson’s book, "This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and the Future of Education," examines education reform through personal stories and hard research.
José Vilson’s book, "This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and the Future of Education," examines education reform through personal stories and hard research.

José Vilson wants to reclaim the teaching profession from the education theorists and reformers who dictate standards and curriculum, and put it back in the hands of the people who actually work with kids and get results.

In his book, This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and the Future of Education (2014, Haymarket Books), Vilson discusses education reform through personal stories and hard research.

A math educator in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York, Vilson says teachers don’t use the voice they have to fight for their cause.

Ironically, his highly acclaimed blog, TheJoseVilson.com, has been blocked by his own school system. “It’s funny,” he says. “The only place where it’s not blocked, from what I understand, is the central offices. But that’s OK. Keep reading, and I’ll keep writing.”

One of the concepts in your book and in your appearances is the “teacher voice.” What is that and how does it inform your work?

Teacher voice, for me, represents the individual and collective ability of teachers who voice their expectations and experience in the classroom, and then project that outside of the classroom.

Teachers don’t often get the opportunity to speak up about their own profession in proportion to the years of experience that we have within the classroom. If we’re lucky, we might get to participate in a meeting with administrators or speak with superintendents beyond, “Hello, how are you?”

I don’t believe teachers get the proper respect that the profession deserves in terms of creating policy decisions, and in terms of general society.

We’re not funded as well as we should be. We don’t get the proper resources. Our work conditions are not good, especially in the marginalized communities—where we’re very passionate about our jobs, mind you—but there definitely should be a bigger conversation around that.

We’re quickly approaching majority-minority status in much of the country, yet the majority of teachers are white. How do we attract more teachers of color when, as you said, the cards are stacked against them?

It seems to me that right now our country is doing the best job possible in terms of recruiting. I think the best recruiters for the profession are the teachers themselves.

Oftentimes when I’m out there, I do a much better job of recruiting people of color to be in the profession than, say, somebody from a district administrative level.

We want to see living examples to inspire students in the classroom. A lot of students—and parents—need faces. They need names. They need experiences they can relate to.

The National Teacher of the Year is a black woman named Jahana Hayes. Many people look at her and say, “Oh wow! I can be a teacher too, and I can do all these things.”

The bigger problem that we haven’t been able to address, however, is that we’re also losing our teachers of color at the highest rate right now. So it’s not just recruitment, but also retention. That needs a lot more work.

You once wrote, “What we don’t often discuss is whether we train teachers for the schools that they’ll have in front of them.” Can you elaborate on that?

Teachers need to be prepared not just to teach overall, but also for the actual situation that they’re going to be in.

Learning to teach is not necessarily about content knowledge, it’s also a healthy mix of pedagogy and understanding how to work with students—especially in schools with heavy concentrations of people of color.

Developing relationships and trust with students matters as much as content. A lot of these pedagogies may transmit across all races and genders, of course, but teachers need to be able to say, “Yes. I am prepared to teach at this specific school because my training actually prepared me to go to that school.”

In your writing and in some of your appearances, you speak in two voices. One is Mr. Vilson, and one is José, who likes to keep Mr. Vilson in check.

These days I think Mr. Vilson and José are a lot closer than they used to be, but when I was in the classroom, I needed to develop a persona that kept me sane. Mr. Vilson was more strict, adhered more to the rules, and tried to work within the system. He was the more professional one, the one who always had a serious face on.

José is the person you’re talking to now. He sees through a lot of what Mr. Vilson has to contend with. He’s the normal person. I think most teachers develop a persona inside the classroom that makes it easier to be a teacher.

It’s weird. As we get older, I think a lot of us are saying, “You know what? We are who we are.”

We really can’t put on that façade for too long. That’s where a lot of people start to have that conversation about who we are inside the classroom versus who we are out of the classroom.

What kind of adult do I need to be to make sure that kids are actually going to be able to learn in my classroom?

You came up teaching in the midst of the reform era, beginning with No Child Left Behind. How can you satisfy those reforms but still stay true to what you believe about your job?

One thing I learned from veteran teachers is that a lot of reforms secretly come back over and over again. The only thing that doesn’t really change is how strong you are in the classroom.

You can change up the language to suit those people and reforms outside education, but then you go back to what you were originally doing anyway because you know what works. That was the way I was able to satisfy whatever reform was needed.

But you also have to have a sound rationale for deviating every so often from what is necessary. For instance, I didn’t always teach directly with the books that are recommended by the district.

We have a set series that we’re supposed to abide by, and we’re supposed to be following the exact page order to fulfill whatever the district requirement was. I would just say, “No, this book doesn’t necessarily address what our standard is.”

Overall, my whole orientation is thinking about how the kids respond to what I’m teaching. If what I’m doing isn’t working for them, then I need to switch it up. I need to do it in a way that is perhaps contrary to whatever the district is demanding.

You described what happened when you were given a supervisory position as a math coach. I got the impression that it stifled you rather than helped you grow.

In some ways, yes. Becoming a math coach when I did it served a purpose of giving me a larger worldview about what it takes to actually run a good school. It gave me insight in terms of being able to freely see many of my colleagues at work. That was powerful—not to mention developing relationships with students that weren’t necessarily assigned to me as well.

However, I started to see over time how it was harder to challenge my fellow adults when I was in a position where I had to be a liaison and a support person for them.

In my current role as a teacher, I’ve decided to just focus on my classroom, and the inner workings. I think it has actually made me a stronger advocate because I’m not strapped to trying to be a liaison between our administration and our teachers.

I have found myself being able to push folks to be more thoughtful about teaching our students as a result of not being a math coach anymore. I can really challenge folks when I don’t feel they’re addressing the needs of our students.

Besides your teaching, you’re involved in some education activism, particularly with the launch of EduColor. What is that about?

EduColor is a collective of educators, parents, researchers and other like-minded individuals who came together because we wanted to create a different vision for education reform. Specifically, it’s about supporting more people of color in education.

We came together because we found common cause in the things that we were doing. We try to find solutions for dealing with the lack of cultural competence in many areas of education. For example, in educational technology, when a startup company releases a piece of educational software that is culturally insensitive—we look to find ways to address those issues.

Tim Goral is senior editor.