For some reason, GQ Magazine (Yes, Gentlemen’s Quarterly) decided not to publish their interview with me for Man of the Year 2011. Those of us who’ve been occupying and marching on Washington, DC, got a little shine via Time Magazine’s Person of the Year issue as “The Protestor.” Obviously, we can do better. I know, I know. I’m as disappointed as you are. At some point, I’m hoping teachers get some props nationwide. But at least they passed me the first draft of the interview, and here’s what we came up with. Enjoy.
Interviewer: We have in this chair, Jose Vilson, writer, activist, and Spongebob enthusiast. He’s been rather critical of the testing industry and the proliferation of corporate rule in public schools. In the other chair, we have Mr. Vilson, math coach and teacher in a NYC public school. He handles data, technology, and a plethora of other hats, or should I say Kangols, for his school. Let’s start with this question: what’s it like working for one of the highest profiled school systems in the world?
Mr. Vilson: I must admit, it presents its challenges. I think there are definitely opportunities for schools to be at the forefront of modeling quality education. We as educators have to do the best job possible to make sure every student has the opportunity to get access to quality education. That’s why, for instance, I know of teacher groups grounded in taking the lead on work within the schools to develop their own systems for improving pedagogy via dialogues, visitations, and productive technology use.
Jose: Fuck that! I’m all about the kids, but let’s be real: we’re not even close to where we need to be to meet the challenges presented to us by our kids. We’re doing so much with less that it’s amazing we get anything done at all in this school system. While you know I’d never want to talk about my school specifically, the general gist that I get when I go to meetings across the city is that achievement often feels fleetings.
IN: Meaning …
JLV: Meaning, we don’t even address poverty effectively. And the minute we think we have something working for a kid, something changes. NYC Department of Education objectives change. Administrators change. Teachers leave. Parents go through unemployment. I get that NYC schools can’t control all of this stuff, but we’re joking if we think we actually invest in education well for the 1.1 million kids. Charters can’t fix that.
MV: Jose, don’t diss all charters. A couple really do the work that Al Shanker intended, as a progressive site that includes the most in-need. Besides, until you can reform …
JLV: Ahem, revolutionize …
MV: Revolutionize education, we gotta buckle down and do what we can with what we have. That’s all we knew about life. It’s a catch-22.
IN: Fair. Now, there’s been some discussion about the latest move from New York State to increase the amount of time on the test to three hours. What are your feelings on that?
JLV: It depends. Am I still allowed to curse around this guy?
MV: I’ll allow it. [belly laughs all around]
JLV: It’s bullshit. Mr. Vilson barely feels like he has time as is. Now he’s gotta get three hours of testing for kids who barely want to take it. It’s a lose-lose situation.
MV: I don’t believe there’s a correlation between time on test and achievement, or rigor, or anything of that nature. I know I can assess whether a student “got it” by asking five good questions. However, I do know that more testing means less time actually teaching. We in schools try to design curriculum based on the frequency of questions on previous tests, and then what order makes sense. Somewhere mid-year, we all realize that we’re going too slow and we’re going to need to speed our timeline up to have enough time to prepare students for the test. Not a functional thing.
JLV: Why would standardized testing take precedence over in-class assessments anyways? With the way kids have been doing, maybe there’s something inherently wrong with them.
IN: It seems like the climate for teachers in school gets muddied by mandates on the local, state, and federal levels. What do you believe about the perception of teachers in this country?
MV: We have a long way to go in order to professionalize ourselves. I believe the little things we do, from lesson planning and teacher teams to dialogue with colleagues in our professional development meetings and the parents of our students.
JLV: We also have to get out there with whatever talents we can muster. We need to be present and have the balls to speak up when we don’t like something. There’s a difference between the “whiny union” teacher that most people want to push on the general public and the multi-faceted and multitalented teacher that the general public gives strong approval ratings.
MV: Including myself. [more laughs all around]
IN: Now, both of you seem to have this confidence, but you have stark differences in approach. What would you eventually want your legacy to be given how you both express yourself?
MV: Well, I hate to use borrowed cliches, but it’s all about the kids. Despite all the other hats I wear, the one I’m most proud of is my teacher hat. I don’t think I’ve always worn it well, but I’m constantly trying to find ways to improve my craft. I tweak the things I like, and stick with the things that work for me. Hopefully, I can make some contribution to their lives that makes it worthwhile.
JLV: I think we agree. I’d probably say that we’re trying to make sure students get a good education. We have to live with some truths that hurt. We can’t always reach the students in front of us that we like. It’s a cold world out there and we’re only one person. But I know he doesn’t sleep until he’s thought through the week of lessons. I try to express those frustrations through our blog, through our activism, and through our discussions with people not in the education field. Those are all important.
Jose and Mr. Vilson, who can have this dialogue all by himself …