nyctf Archives - The Jose Vilson


A Case for the Dinosaurs

by Jose Vilson on October 19, 2009

in Jose



One day, a group of educators, including myself, was having a conversation about veterans of the NYC public school system when one of my colleagues said something to the effect of, “You see what happened to the dinosaurs right? They didn’t adapt, so of course, they became extinct.” We all blurted out a laugh, especially with the mischievous smile he posted right after that comment.

Then I thought to myself, with all the resentment people have towards the veterans of the system, how often do we really look at the practice of the veterans in our building and highlight those who do a great job? When first coming into the building, I gravitated towards the veterans, unlike other NYC Teaching Fellows in the system. I often found myself renouncing the title of NYC Teaching Fellow just so I could get into those classes and observe every lesson possible. I’d go to ELA class, math classes, social studies classes, and science classes, all while lesson planning and taking stuff with me to my grad school classes, just so I could replicate (and in some cases disavow) the practices I saw in those classrooms.

Thus, it’s hard for me to fully accept the notion that the “dinosaurs” of our system don’t actually know what they’re doing in the classroom. As many veterans themselves have posited, “good teaching is good teaching.” This axiom holds true wherever one goes, and it’s something to keep in mind as we move into the future. Can we honestly ostracize those who’ve been in the system for 15+ years simply because some of their colleagues rather sit out their lives in favor of retirement?

Maybe I’m the fortunate one because I feel like most of the veterans in my school actually have their pedagogy in order, and the handful who don’t don’t actually weigh down the rest of the school. These “dinosaurs” hold down the fort when administrative, systemic, or community changes happen, and they fought hard even when no one asked them to. As edu-crats continue the push for changes, far-fetched, self-serving, and ridiculous all at once, it seems, these dinosaurs actually carry on a legacy that’s impeccable.

Now, I’m not saying that I agree completely with every practice from any teacher who’s got 15+ years in the system. A few of them that I do know are obstinate and jaded, but with a system that doesn’t engross itself in real dialogue but just talking points and doesn’t really believe in kids asking questions but making their whole lives about testing, these veterans debunk that and question that purpose.

Maybe it’s something to think about before we call for every “dinosaur’s” extinct. It’s no wonder why they were 20x bigger than we are now.

Mr. V, who can’t even envision being dedicated to one profession that long …


A Letter To A New NYC Teaching Fellow

by Jose Vilson on August 5, 2008

in Jose

My first pearl of wisdom to you: be a student first, teacher second.

You’ve just gotten in, or you’ve been finishing up your summer training for the Fellows, and you’re wondering where to start. You probably Googled for NYCTF and ran into my site (hopefully) or any assortment of ed bloggers that either give constructive criticism of the program or completely bash it as a waste of time (the latter is definitely not my approach). Rather, I’d like to help you get accustomed to the NYC school culture as it were and how your position as an NYC Teaching Fellow gives you a unique position to help improve the schools but also grow as a person.

For your own sake and the rest of us who’ve been working diligently with our kids, please don’t come in with a mentality of privilege. Oftentimes, the stereotypes of Fellows being prissy, disengaged, hippie-yuppie, separatist, and holier-than-thou-art come from actual behaviors that fellow Fellows take on themselves and forget that they’re part of a system that’s primary purpose is to educate children, not some sort of prestigious undertaking. Yet, for the majority of fellows who want to actually become part of the community, these stereotypes prevent you from actually becoming involved in the school community.

But there’s hope! If you just follow my 5 simple tips for starting out your year as a Fellow, you’ll have no problem getting acclimated to the rather rigorous first month of the school year:

1. Stay Humble: People from NYC or other urban settings usually don’t have a problem with this (in the classroom anyways), but if you’re not humble, then be cautious: telling people outright your background, your alma mater(s), and that you got into the Fellows is probably not the way to go because, again, it indicates a vanity about yourself that’s unbecoming of a new teacher. Stick with humility and introducing yourself as Mr. / Ms. / Mrs. _____. Trust me on this one. And that goes with your style of clothes too. Professional, but no Dolce & Gabbana or Versace or even Yves Saint Laurent. You’re begging to be isolated.

2. Personality Check: Reflect. And don’t just do it as a list of activities. Identify your strengths and weaknesses. Sharpen your strengths; manage your weaknesses. Then when you’ve got alladat together, you can better relate to others in your classroom. Honest.

3. The Student Mentality: Learn and digest everything that you see around you. Be a constant observer. Ask a good collective of teachers (preferably with different styles) if you can drop by their classroom. Most teachers that I know will welcome you with open arms into their classroom, even on their break, so long as you follow #1. Take copious notes when they speak and ask away until they’re annoyed with you or vice versa.

4. The Poker Face: Look at this face:

Tim Duncan\'s Face

Notice that Tim Duncan’s face is expressionless. Emotionless. You can’t tell whether the man wants to hurt you, help you, or wants a slice of pizza. That’s how you need to roll. First few months, this sort of posturing is important because it gives the sense that you’re only there on one mission: teach the children. I know it’s hard because sometimes you want to crack up or make an angry face, but it’s better if you keep that to a minimum, not just with the students but the teachers and staff too.

5. Don’t Believe The Hype: “So let me ask you, what do you think about this teacher?” Your answer should always be: “I’m not sure. I know she works here, but that’s about it.” Keep conversations about other teachers and staff at a minimum. Students are usually fair territory (as long as it’s constructive), but by no means should you get caught up in the gossip and heresay of the school cafeteria. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t break bread with other teachers, but there are always one or two that want you to stoke their fire a little bit, and then implicate you for things that you may not have said. Please.

If you follow my advice and just take things one day at a time (while planning a week or two at a time), you’ll make it through. By now, you’ve surely got tons of material on classroom management, curriculum, lesson planning, etc., but I hope this is a nice supplement for you as you venture into the next school year. Please don’t take any of this personally; we all had to go through this self-examination.

Remember: you’re a student first, teacher second.

jose, who learned the hard way that he can’t take his position for granted …

p.s. – Please read about the case of LaVena Johnson, whose death was ruled a suicide a few years ago but had suspicious marks on her body that may have happened from some sort of physical struggle. Some are speculating that it was more than just a fight. To read more, click here while you’re at it.


The Vilson Manifesto

by Jose Vilson on February 5, 2008

Mr. V The Ruler

The one question every person in this profession faces is the ubiquitous “Why do you teach?” (The most recent comes from Sherman Dorn). It comes from kids, parents, friends, and family. I don’t know whether it’s out of pride or pity. Everyone can list their favorite teachers and most hated teachers, and those people usually had a greater influence on their lives than the teachers even recognize.

After all, I can tell you how coming from the Lower East Side, growing up in the projects where one resident compared this area in the mid-90s as a modern-day Beirut with the residue of 1980′s drug warfare and Giuliani fascism, with so many Black and Brown faces falling that Chico might have run out of paint to make those famous murals for them. I’ve seen enough roses, hearses, ambulances, arrests, little blue bags, blue, green, purple, single mothers, and red caps to write my own gangsta rap. Some of my own cousins come in and out of jail like a revolving door, and even some of the kids I grew up with were crack babies wishing for some peace in their minds. I slept with the sounds of gunshots and arguments outside my window and woke up with the same elements. People in my hood actually killed each other over a pair of sneakers or some brand new toy. As proud as I am to have come from all of that, that’ll be enough for anyone who’s even caught a glimpse of the better life to want out immediately.

I was one of the fortunate few to make it out with some sense of integrity, though other more personal issues plagued my soul. At times the only sanity I had was the rituals and routines we had in school. I knew I could count on learning and expressing myself academically, and no one could tell me different. I can personally tell you every great and not-so-great teacher I’ve had since elementary school. I couldn’t tell you much about college other than the activism and the parties, but that’s all extracurricular. Yet, even the teachers I hated had some influence as to why I teach.

I remember my language arts teacher in 7th grade, who, for anonymity’s sake, I’ll just refer to as Mr. D (and no, D /= dick, but just the same). He was a tall man who always had some nervous head movement, probably from too much coffee, and he spoke so sharply, he could’ve scratched his chalk against the board and that might have been more pleasant. He didn’t have a nurturing bone in his body. Rather than help me out when I tried to understand the present participle, he would just argue with me and act like I was trying to best him. Rather than showing me the difference between saying “What happened?” versus “Excuse me,” he’d make me write “What happened?” 1000 times (no hyperbole here, folks). Thanks to him, I not only remember the lack of efficiency in that assignment, I learned the meaning of carpal tunnel very early.

He’s not the only one either. There’s the dozens of teachers who opted to ignore me because it’s easiest to ignore the only “Black kid” in an all-honors class, who would rather throw me out of class than hear me out, or who found it easiest to suppress my inclination towards knowing my history because it’d be much easier to express their conservative views for their own pleasure. Easy pickings for a teacher when the student’s submissive.

Yet, without a doubt, I can honestly say that I’ve had some of the greatest teachers from elementary school onwards. To simply list them would be a disservice for everything they’ve done for me. And this is why I teach: not only is this a job for me, but it’s an understanding that I’ll pay forward what I’ve been given. There are teachers in our system who are case studies for the retraction of tenure, but the teachers I’ve had by and large not only made me the man I am, but gave up so much of themselves to be figures of inspiration for me. I did my end, working hard to achieve the heights I did, but when I got out of line, they disciplined me. When I needed the encouragement, I got it and tenfold. I remember their ability to make me feel like everything I had to say was important, and my thoughts mattered, and for someone with the aforementioned history, it means a million.

That and all the vast experiences from acting and singing in front of thousands to my activism and organizations helped me hone my strongest qualifications for teaching. And NYCTF almost didn’t give me a chance, but I must have lucked out. Either way, I took the opportunity, and ran with it as far as I could. I’m still running, too.

Because despite my difficulties with my homeroom, my administration, or other teachers, when I walk into my classroom, I’m given another reason to love what I do. Whether it be a student who, for a day, had an epiphany that he or she would be the best student in the class, or the teacher who’s got another student anecdote, I’m loving it. I’m not just a teacher who gets off on random praise from people. I love the feeling of an accomplished lesson. In some ways, I even love my failures because they teach me something about me as a person, not just a teacher. I’m overwhelmed usually with the amount of work I have to do with my kids, but I can never complain about this job getting too boring. I get a thrill knowing I have a set of audience members for my show from 8-3. Quite the contrary, I like how everyday there’s a new set of problems for me to solve, and even as I’m teaching my kids math, I’m learning along with them.

Now, I’m in the process of refinement, making steady progress towards getting my kids prepared for the state math test coming in March. I want to seek victory from the experiences I’ve gained this year, but it’ll come one day at a time. And to think, I was told by another teacher that it was my idealism that would prevent me from becoming the best teacher possible. To paraphrase Bobby Knight, “When my time on Earth is gone, and my activities here are past, I want that they bury me so they can kiss my ass.”

jose, who was just given the best blog of the day. i think i’ve arrived

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Welcome to the Jungle

September 3, 2007

Less than a month ago, The Village Voice published an article about the NYC Teaching Fellows entitled “Your Own Personal Blackboard Jungle” by Stacy Cowley and Neil deMause. Basically, it discusses the hardships that so many fellows go through in the NYC Public School system, and lay much of the fault on the rather accelerated […]

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Crazy Eights

August 3, 2007 Jose

Borrowed from J. Dakar: The Rules: 1. We have to post these rules before we give you the facts. 2. Players start with eight random facts/habits about themselves. 3. People who are tagged write their own blog post about their eight things and include these rules. 4. At the end of your blog, you need […]

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The Full Circle

June 20, 2007

I love existential titles; don’t you? Well two days ago, I completed my greatest public speaking gig I’ve ever had. I spoke for the NYC Teaching Fellows in front of 2000 or so people, most of which were new teachers in the program. I was anxious about 10 minutes before I had to make the […]

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