Educator-Activist José Vilson: Teacher-Student Relationships Cannot Be Standardized

Educator and activist José Luis Vilson, a member of New York State United Teachers, was at NEA headquarters in Washington, D.C., recently to discuss his book, This is Not a Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class and Education. In addition to reading excerpts from the book, the accomplished math teacher of nearly ten years touched upon practice, advocacy, and stewardship.

“There are real moments that even education policy can’t touch,” Vilson said, referring to the natural interactions between student and teacher—which cannot be standardized—and is invaluable to student success. He shared, for example, the story of Azzam, “the class clown.” Vilson gave Azzam a certain amount of space in class to tell jokes because he wasn’t being disruptive. Coming down too hard on the student, he believed, would isolate him. At the end of the school year, Vilson looked at Azzam – now an engineering major –  more as a son, not a student.

In print and in person, Vilson is unabashed about voicing his strong opinions about the shoddy reform policies that leave students confused and frustrated.

In This is Not a Test, Vilson calls out the Obama administration for its inconsistencies. “You hear the president claim to appreciate educators of all stripes while reinforcing ideas from the previous administration, an administration that was supposed to be much worse on education issues.”

He also emphasized that teaching is a caring profession. “Teaching grasps the soul like a finger probing,” he writes in This is Not a Test, ”not clenching the heart. It begs you to advocate on behalf of the children, even when you least expect to.”

Vilson explained that when he was a New York City public school student, teachers cared enough to think he could be something more than what he envisioned. Vilson inspires his students in the same way, while making sure they are learning, too.  “There has to be those two elements of ‘I teach and I care,’” he says.

His stewardship in education transcends his classroom and he uses his expertise, experience, writing, and voice as platforms to not only advocate for students, but encourage his colleagues to do the same. In a blog post for the Center of Teaching Quality, he penned, “…I find myself in places where I can empower others. I want them to see themselves as I see myself as equally deserving to be on the panels, presentations, and offices that others have. I want them to seriously consider sharing their expertise in micro- and macro-levels…”

The idea behind an educator sharing his or her story is powerful. Vilson says those voices could potentially translate into education policy that reflects the thinking of the experts—educators—and transform the teaching profession.

Vilson is passionate about the need to recruit and retain male teachers of color into the profession. He says real professional pay for teachers will help. “If you increase salaries for all teachers…there will be more men attracted to this profession.” Vilson also addressed other important topics including the importance of a responsive curriculum, more effective parental engagement, and improved working conditions—elements of education that address the needs of the whole child, he said.

He also suggested that NEA is in a good position to address the changing demographics of U.S. public schools.

“When I think about the NEA’s role in public schools…there seems to be a sense of trying to develop the profession in a way that’s responsive to the growing needs in our schools,” he commented, adding that there’s a serious need to develop methods and procedures to consider cultural competency, especially when the demographics show a disparity between educators (70-80 percent White) and a population of students who hover over 50 percent. “That’s something NEA can move on.”

Vilson believes that unions must always unapologetically stand behind those teachers who want to share their story. With union support, fear of retribution from unsupportive administrators could be switched to crucial conversations that lead to positive change.

Without his union’s backing, Vilson, who’s now a candidate to become a National Board Certified Teacher, said he would have earned an “unsatisfactory” evaluation in his second year of teaching for having an ugly bulletin board.

“It’s easy to say ‘bad teachers love their union because bad teachers want the protection…’ That’s the narrative versus how about the one teacher who is pretty good at everything else except bulletin boards,” explained Vilson, adding that his administrator came after him for his board, even telling his students that he was displeased with it.

After getting his union representative involved and seeing the process through, Vilson gained more confidence “I at least have some backing and let me see if I can take this a little further,” he recalled.  It took it “a little further,” by starting to speak out on what education policy should look like in the classroom, which eventually led to the start of his blog, which was supported by the United Federation of Teachers.

Knowing that “my union will come to bat for me when I need them” is critical, Vilson said, especially for educators who want to get their voice onto a larger platform to talk about their work and how it translates to the students they serve.

For more of Vilson’s musings on education, math, and race visit his blog.