classroom management Archives - The Jose Vilson

classroom management

The Joker in The Dark Knight

In different spheres, educators of all stripes have had conversations about this idea of “character education.” Before this year, I too used to equate character education with all the positive things about schools that concentrate on the socio-emotional as well as the academic sides of students. Especially during my time at Nativity Mission School and Xavier High School, I found myself immersed in lots of reflective activities and spiritual discussions. While we searched for how we defined ourselves as men for others, we also wanted to find how best to do God’s will. As a Catholic, Jesus’ examples were the guiding force behind my burgeoning values and perception of the world. I didn’t always follow it, mind you, but at least I had a solid foundation of how to interact with others in a peaceful, well-intentioned manner.

The crap I hear these days is on some other shit.

A few examples:

  • Schools giving students an hour of instruction, then lining up the students in front of the class, taking them all on a class trip to the bathroom, and re-seating them for another twenty minutes of more instruction.
  • Schools paying kids for doing homework, doing well on exams, and generally staying out of trouble.
  • Districts installing metal detectors in front of a school that neither asked for it nor merited the metal detectors
  • Teachers complicit in telling students how they must sit, stand, and pay attention through a series of claps, stomps, and / or other inane motions.

For one, we can’t say we’re preparing our kids for the future if we give them instructions that aren’t natural to what professional adults do. Most adults get to go to the bathroom whenever they please, and (in an effective work situation) don’t have to listen to one person speak the entire day.

Secondly, none of these things actually help students actually build character. Why do we think consistently portraying students as criminals, thugs, and untrustworthy miscreants will actually benefit this country? We’ll ignore the fact that our country still over-drugs, over-feeds, under-nourishes, over-feeds, over-tests, under-loves, under-empowers our children to do better for themselves and our country.

Let’s be honest, too: we like to think about the words “character education” for only specific kids. It’s not just our Black and Brown kids, but other kids who have neither the resources nor the advocates to really fight for them. Character education is tainted to me now because it sounds more like “We’re gonna teach these kids a lesson,” and not “We’re going to teach our children.” Whereas I once thought character education meant guidance and care, it now feels like one stop short of jail.

We certainly have schools that house children with lots of baggage (mine included), schools that accept all children and take him in despite their more difficult behaviors. Some of these schools ought to be commended because they do this with limited resources and environments that only care about their bottom lines. Frankly, for some children, breaking through to them that they have multiple pathways towards personal success (that doesn’t involve the risk of jail) doesn’t resonate with them because that’s all they’ve ever seen. For them, the work of educators and supports around them becomes that much tougher.

Yet, we still have others (some educators included) that, no matter how well-resourced, still think children should fit in their little squares, implicitly creating a generation of children who obey, never take ownership, and never think for themselves, complaints that adults lob at children whenever they get fed up with their own ineptitude.

When I discussed all this with my fiancee, she snickered and said, “… I just don’t believe in that clappety-clap bullshit that these assholes do.” Sounds about right, miss. What a bunch of … characters.

Jose, who likes Louisville thus far …


“You’re not old now. You’re old when you start teaching your former students’ kids. THAT’S when you know!”

We laughed. Mr. Herrera is the type of teacher who had a way of reminding people that we should laugh at the process of aging as teachers, especially those of us who love our jobs.

This year, I have the privilege of teaching three students whose siblings I’ve taught. While I absolutely knew two of them since they first waddled in with their older siblings for parent-teacher conference, I had to dig up some information on the third. After checking his facial features and mannerisms, I threw him a lob:

“So … did you ever have any brothers or sisters who came here?”

“Yeah, ummm, my one brother came in 2001 and my other brother Alex came a couple of years after.”

“Wait, Alex is YOUR brother?”

“Yeah, you taught him?”

“Yep. How’s he doing?”

“Great. He’s working on getting a job since a semester is coming up and …”

“You mean he’s working his way into college?”


I nodded, hiding my adulation that he’d kept pursuing his academics.

“Well, tell him I said hello.”

When I taught Alex, I didn’t have the slightest clue about how to set expectations. We battled it out in a way only a teacher and a student who secretly cared about what the other thought could. His mischief and my stubborn inexperience meant that, for two years, I would have a hard time with his less desirable behaviors. For no good reason.

At some point between then and now, I realized that the restrictions I had on Alex annoyed me as much as it probably annoyed him. I had too many non-negotiables, and I didn’t believe in many of them. Cognitive dissonance demands that, even though I don’t believe in setting up prison cultures in the least, I have to institute that type of structure to keep the kids quiet. Thus, as I started to let things slide, some students wouldn’t take my non-negotiables seriously. By the end of each school year, I found myself exhausted and wondering what happened from September to June.

This year, as I mentioned in my Edutopia article, I started off my behaviors with a slogan, but, when I got to details, I found plenty of clarity from just thinking about the student I was through my academic career. Here’s a set of sample questions and the answers I had for myself before anything:

1) Do I care whether the student writes in pen or pencil? (Yes, because having to write everything all over again on another sheet of paper annoys me to no end, so let them bring pencils.)

2) Am I into composition notebooks or binders? (Doesn’t matter, though I prefer binders because they usually have a place to tuck in work. Plus, we can refill the paper later.)

3) Is food allowed in the classroom? (Nope, but, if they bring breakfast, I’ll allow them time to finish it right outside the classroom. Water bottles are fine, but not juice.)

As I’m going through these questions in my mind, I’m seeing some of my own misgivings from previous years about classroom management (and pedagogy as well). As far as I’m concerned, everything a teacher does is a natural extension of themselves, flaws and all. Teachers like me, who don’t always want quiet classrooms, happen to thrive when they have some sort of din in their environments. We pick our spots for where to be rigid (in the classwork specifically), and ease off on the others.

Because the student I was would have preferred a little autonomy and space to doodle while doing math. I’m hoping when I get back in tomorrow, the students I used to teach appreciate my growth.

Mr. Vilson, who thanks God and the United Federation of Teachers (my union) for fighting for my right to stay home due to a personal issue. It’s a blessing, really …


The 10% I Rarely Reach

October 25, 2011


Today, one of my perpetually tardy students came in. I left my door open and, as usual, I let him in without little fanfare, because it’s not a situation I need to do a lot of yelling for. I told him good morning. He reciprocated. After I got to walking around, I noticed a student passing him work that had little relevance to math. Without yelling, I told the parties, “I need you to get back to work.” They nodded and waited until I walked away. However, I noticed they continued to make it a discussion that, frankly, took them away from the task at hand. I can understand the worry of not having homework done in the class, but there’s this pressing urgency I have in my class because I know the skills necessary for them to get to high school in mathematically sound shape.

This doesn’t matter much to the student; rather, he wanted to complete someone else’s assignment in my class and told me under no uncertain terms that he wasn’t going to do my work at all. I nodded and simply stated that both the giver and recipient of homework (that they ought not copy from one another anyways) would have this reflected on their grade for the day. The giver hung her head, but the kid who was late had no such remorse. He yelled and hollered, making a scene that I’ve withstood in previous years in my career. How I responded was the equivalent of a yawn, de-escalating the situation before resetting the mood in the classroom. As the adult, I didn’t let it escalate too much further.

It just reminded me after the class that, no matter how many students I have, my 10% theory proves true. I honestly believe that I have high expectations for my students, and every so often, I get better at teaching to these lofty benchmarks. 30% of the students will do their best irrespective of whatever teacher you put them in front of. The critical 60% of students will waver depending on the teacher but generally want to do what’s best academically, even if they have academic deficiencies. Yet, for whatever reason, there’s always that 10% that we all concentrate on, and often makes or breaks the class. I’ve had hundreds of students under my watch now, and I honestly don’t quit until the very last day, finding ways to interject some math within what they’ve known.

Yet, I can’t break through. Will I display a snazzy infographic breaking down the excuses based on percentage I believe versus what most likely turns these kids away from me and / or any teacher. I’d love to point the blame at abject poverty, sordid family issues, a series of educational decisions placed upon them that eventually led them to totally hating math, chemistry between present teacher and student, lack of routines in their lives, or a consistent set of supports that might have helped alleviate his angst.

I just can’t. I can only blame the things I can control, or the thing, or … me.

That’s why tomorrow I’ll have to come in with the same temperament, un-rattled, hoping something changes. I refuse to quit on kids like that because they’re the ones that need the most attention. I can ignore the small stuff, but I have to set a standard for how I approach the job. And when he’s ready to come on board, he’ll be welcome in, too. Late or otherwise.

Mr. Vilson, who thinks he’s far too honest …


Classroom Management Tip: Call The House, Not The Dean

January 14, 2011 Mr. Vilson
Fire Extinguisher

Yesterday, something occurred to me as the dean walked past my class and our school had a change of period, I hadn’t once called the dean for anything this whole year. The students I’ve had this year are on average the same as most of the other classes I’ve had, behaviorally and academically. They’re still […]

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Laws of Power Revisited

September 22, 2008 Jose
Boy As King

When I last discussed the acclaimed 48 Laws of Power, I was still heavily entrenched in the workings of Mao, Bismarck, Talleyrand, and Lola Montez, and thus found myself quickly able to apply my readings into my daily work as a math teacher in the NYC public school system. It became especially apparent after talking […]

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Pretty Sure I Got This

May 20, 2008 Jose

Today was one of those days in which I had my homeroom for the entire day. That happens every 2 months or so, when they have a state-provided exam and the homeroom teacher has to administer said exam, order them alphabetically, and still have the same students for a double period of class right after […]

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