The Jose Vilson - Educator - Writer - Activist - Father

Here It Is, A Profession Transformed

by Jose Vilson on July 29, 2014

in Jose


I just got back from three packed-house events in Chicago, Chapel Hill, and Philadelphia in July. In each space, the energy in the room took me aback because I’m still not used to the idea that a bunch of folks with busy lives want to hear my mouth run for two hours. Yet, by thinking that I don’t belong on that stage or on that mic, I perpetuate the power structure which often leaves teachers like me from believing we can set the table in education.

For instance, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation invited me to speak to 500 new teachers from all across the states about teacher leadership. This decision came shortly after they projected that only 5% of the teaching workforce would be of color, woman or man (it’s at 18% now). For a moment, instead of saying, “Yes, of course I’m a natural choice!” I thought, “Wow, why me?”

I thought long and hard about what I might say to a group of burgeoning teachers and the sort of energy they needed to bring back to their schools. All of a sudden, something pulled me back to those first years, and the reason why I saw myself breaking away from the traditional routes of teaching. Our current school systems (and the people who inhabit them) force their visions upon us. They implore us to go into administration if we’re motivated individuals. They almost force us into dean roles or central roles if we have other talents outside of teaching (and even excellent teaching isn’t part of the equation for many leaders). Seeing these folk, quietly listening to them, and hearing that sense of optimism and disappointment in their districts took me to a place where I offered myself as the change I wanted to see.

I didn’t want to, nor still want to, be famous.

The issue with so many of us is that we’re so quick to douse the flames of our brightest without even knowing the source of their flames. Anyone in my intimate circle will attest to how grateful I am for these opportunities, but I also see how any sense of fame in education, especially for a teacher, can become notoriety, infamy, and unwarranted antagonism. Unlike other professions, like writers, doctors, and college professors, teachers are too often asked to put their head down in the service of others.

To some extent, this argument has validity. We do have a set of folks who only teach as a stepping stone and don’t actually get better at their teaching. Also, collaboration and team building are critical to any school environment whereas competition amongst staff members doesn’t improve collegiality. On the other hand, it suggests that we can’t simultaneously shine bright individually and collectively and still get better at our craft by sharing their passions. When I first mentioned the idea of celebrity teachers, I mentioned this as a tongue-in-cheek comment about society’s views of teachers. Now, I’m far more convinced of how even our most progressive institutions rarely handpick teachers to speak unless a) that teacher follows the “message” or b) that teacher rumbles.

I generally fall into b. Because of this, I use my platform to elevate as many folks as possible, and hoping to multiply that energy so others can pass it on. In places where teachers are given scripted lesson plans from publishing companies, where governors argue whether teachers should get paid a little less or a little more than minimum wage, where the ostensible representatives quip that they will shut down an entire school system because they feel like it, it’s critical to have folks who want to take that extra step and say “Something’s not right here.” Teachers rely too often on someone outside of K-12 education to empower them when we could easily do it ourselves.

Before her passing, Maya Angelou left us a jewel about the difference between humility and modesty.

“‘I don’t know what arrogance means,’ she said.  ‘You see, I have no patience with modesty. Modesty is a learned adaptation. It’s stuck on like decals.  As soon as life slams a modest person against the wall, that modesty will fall off faster than a G-string will fall off a stripper.’


“Whenever I’m around some who is modest, I think, ‘run like hell and all of fire,’’ she said. ‘You don’t want modesty, you want humility. Humility comes from inside out. It says someone was here before me and I’m here because I’ve been paid for. I have something to do and I will do that because I’m paying for someone else who has yet to come.’”

And so it goes, and I implore everyone who’s gotten these opportunities to see them as gifts, and the way we honor them is to push them to your limits. Lead from the front, back, or the side. Set an agenda separate from whatever the current education debate is or with the current agenda in mind. Be proud of your gifts and use them wisely.

Whether it’s 30 folk, 100 folk, or 500 folk, we are the teachers who will slightly transform this, make it a bit of a break from the norm …



In my travels this summer, I’m often asked to ponder this idea of expertise, and specifically, how education researchers and those in higher education can help K-12 teachers.

Since I entered the teaching profession almost a decade ago, I’ve had this struggle with this idea. From articles where a writer with a PhD in education lays out a plan for how school systems should be run to speeches where a professor from a prestigious college tells us why the Common Core will and must work, I’ve grown weary of the disconnected dialogue between well-meaning K-12 teachers and the plethora of college professors who’ve come to rescue American education from the vice grip of mediocrity.

Instead, I proffer the following: who is the real expert?

For instance, there’s a study out there (that I won’t point to for a multitude of reasons) that shows the difference between what K-12 teachers are currently doing with Common Core State Standards and what the writers of the CCSS think teachers should do with the CCSS. First, the writer of the study assumes that the expertise of educators comes second to those studying education from the outside. Second, it presumes that students aren’t variables all their own. Third, and consequently, it assumes that the teaching conditions set forth in places like Japan, Singapore, and Finland are equivalent, or at least negligible, to those in the US, and currently they aren’t.

Then again, who are teachers but the practitioners of the CCSS the experts have proffers to our local and federal governments?

Despite some districts’ best efforts to counter this, teacher expertise is necessary if any progressive change moves. Whether a teacher agrees or disagrees with the CCSS as a best practice may be second to whether a teacher can actually teach. Teachers can’t grow as educators if the only way they’ve seen teaching is through the lens of their own teachers. Our country readily discounts pedagogy because standards and their assessments are a much more accessible, short-term way to move education than revamping the idea of school for everyone involved.

More importantly, we discredit the knowledge students, parents, and others bring in a way that doesn’t get buy-in from all involved. The idea of accountability sits too often on the laps of teachers, and not the plethora of experts brought in to supposedly train them.

It’s dangerous for us to suggest that we reframe this idea of expertise. It’s dangerous for us to ask that we create a new table rather than having a seat at it. It’s dangerous for us to push back when TV shows, magazines, and even our teacher-friendly institutions highlight a certain type of expert over another. It’s dangerous for us to even ask who created these lines and divides over expert and teacher.

This is why we must step on the line, and, for many of us, jump over it and walk on.




Last week, I delved a little deeper into this issue of teachers of color, hoping to sow some of the prevailing narratives up and construct something more cogent.

Yet, when it comes down to it, the lack of teachers of color is a symptom and not a cause of the education gaps we currently see.

Time and again, we get reports from former teachers of color about why they leave, and often, it’s the same symptoms for why teachers in general leave: lack of empowerment and autonomy, working conditions, and low pay. With teacher of color, education systems only exacerbate this problem because many teachers of color come back so they could give back to similar communities that they grew up in. Yet, they see some of the same deficiencies from their childhoods manifest in teachers’ lounges and observations about their colleagues. Because many teachers of color who come from similar neighborhoods they’re serving don’t have a family-established wealth to fall back on, they tend to leave at faster rates than the average teacher, too.

But there’s more. This research by Ivory Toldson done on this topic suggests that lack of teachers of color isn’t for lack of want, and that systemic elements of our education system will continue to put people of color at odds with their education system, regardless of whether it’s public, private, or hybrid (charter).

I’d take it one step further and say, why bring in more teachers of color into a system that continually ostracized the already disenfranchised? If teachers of color want to “give back” to the places they grow up in, then we have to consider why the neediest schools consistently get shut down, “turned around,” or transformed into a charter school, replete with uncertified teachers. If teachers of color want to go to schools where the children have similar experiences to them, then we have to wonder why we don’t make all teachers, regardless of race, culture, or gender, take cultural competency classes so teachers of color don’t have to teach both their students and their peers.

Because even the prospect of having more teachers of color threatens the status quo in a way that those who currently staff our schools aren’t prepared for. Too many folks think TOCs might take “seats” (see this comment by Renee Moore here). We aren’t. We can create more seats.

Because “education progressives” are perfectly OK with diversity as long as it doesn’t affect their specific school. Then, it’s a question about “dynamics.” Uh yeah. You should hope so.

Because some folks get mad at the new-found attention teachers of color have garnered, so someone quips, “Teachers of color are equally capable of being assholes.” If so, then why bring it up unless you’re nervous someone will take your seat?

Because we can’t address any of the shortcuts to equity without actually addressing the pillars of race, gender, and class across our education system. Without those honest conversations, I don’t see policies as anything more than a “We’re doing something for the sake of doing something” scheme.Because the symptomatic failures of our education system often doubly affect teachers of color: as the students they once were and the teacher they wish they could become. We can do better. Jose


Teacher Quality And The Decline In Teachers of Color

July 9, 2014 Mr. Vilson

This morning, I came across this article on Huffington Post (I know, I know, hear me out, though) and thought I should ask questions about President Obama’s initiative to enforce former President George W. Bush’s mandates for “excellent teachers” to stay in the highest-need communities. Read this: President Barack Obama’s new initiative, titled “Excellent Educators […]

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Digital Tools As The Gateway Drug To Real Pedagogy?

July 3, 2014 Jose

On Sunday, I spent some time with the good folks at SMART Technologies (yeah, I can’t believe I’m saying that either, but more on that later) for the annual ISTE conference, a mega-large education conference hosted this year in Atlanta, GA. SMART Technologies asked me to give some words of wisdom to their partners around […]

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You Can’t Educate With Us (On Tone-Policing When Silent)

June 24, 2014 Jose

I called someone a racist this past weekend. And a sexist for good measure. I don’t have much authoritative experience with the latter as I do the former, and I don’t go throwing around such a title lightly. I won’t go into the incident, but it was a long string of events that triggered me […]

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