Jose Luis Vilson is a math teacher. Not just any math teacher. He is also a poet, a blogger, an activist, an outspoken professional. His blog, thejosevilson.com, is immensely popular. I am writing about Vilson today because I hope you will read his book. This Is Not a Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education.
The book is an autobiography, but it is also—as the subtitle says—a reflection on race, class, and education. As you read it, you have the opportunity to walk in Vilson’s shoes. To understand where he came from and how he became a teacher. He grew up in a mixed-race family (a Haitian father and Dominican mother), so he is both black and Hispanic. He was raised by a single mother; when a new stepfather moved in, he was often beaten for little or no reason. The family moved to the Lower East Side when he was a child, and he became accustomed to seeing rats and roaches as part of everyday life. And yet, despite all adversities, despite a deck that was decidedly stacked against him, he exuded confidence, confidence in himself and in his ability to succeed. His mother was determined that he would get a good education, and Jose took to education naturally. He loved learning, and he excelled in school. He went to PS 140, a neighborhood public elementary school, where his teachers encouraged him, then to an independent Catholic middle school (Nativity Mission School on the Lower East Side, where he had a strong mentor), and to Xavier, a Jesuit high school, where he was one of a small number of students of color. There, the issue of race became important in discussions of who would be included, who would participate, who would be slighted. In each of his schools, he remembers the teachers who touched his life and changed it.
Vilson went to Syracuse University, where he intended to become a computer scientist. Even as he studied his major field, he had some concern about spending the rest of his life staring at computer code. After he graduated, he decided to try teaching. He applied to Teach for America, but was rejected. Then he applied to the New York City Teaching Fellows, another alternate program but one that (unlike TFA) prepares teachers who are likely to make a career in the classroom. He was accepted, worked with a cohort, and eventually earned a degree from City College of New York.
The balance of the book describes Vilson’s experiences in the classroom. He is assigned to a middle school where most students are black, Hispanic, and poor. He identifies with them. But beyond identifying with them, he must teach them, get their attention, persuade them about the importance of mathematics, deal with angry and belligerent students, figure out how to respond to students who challenge him with humor or ridicule or hostility. If you want to know what it is like to teach in an urban school, read this book. Vilson does not spare himself. He is honest about his mistakes and celebrates small victories. He has no great love or respect for “the system,” but it is just one more obstacle to overcome as he concentrates on teaching the students in his care.
Through the book runs references to rap music, to Hip-Hop, to other cultural references that flow naturally among those a generation far younger than mine and in a culture that is not mine. And yet, of course, it works for Vilson, because it is his generation and his culture. These references help to illustrate one of his central themes: that teachers must be able to identify with their students to understand them, to get below their surface, to make connections beyond academics, in order to reach them and teach them. He cares deeply what his students think and feel.
He admires Jaime Escalante, the math teacher who inspired Hispanic students in Los Angeles to excel in math. When he gets word that the administration of his school is planning to give him a U (unsatisfactory) rating (which is likely to end his career as an untenured teacher) because his bulletin board was ordinary, he hangs a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last speech (“I’ve Been to the Mountain Top”) on his classroom desk, reminding him to feel no fear. He did not get that U rating.
As Vilson becomes a more confident teacher, he becomes a more outspoken activist. He is not shy. He advocates for more teachers of color in the classrooms where children are overwhelmingly black and Hispanic. When he attends conferences, he often finds himself the only person who is black (or Hispanic), and he makes sure to make enough noise so that next year’s conference will include more teachers of color, so that the issue of diversity becomes important to the conference organizers. He becomes an advocate for “teacher voice,” aware that most decisions about how and what to teach are all too often made by people who never set foot in a classroom or did so years ago.
He offers tips to other teachers: Get your students’ respect; “don’t try to change them, try to know them”; show up to student activities, like basketball games, talent shows, to show your support; talk to them; humble yourself; “celebrate and accentuate the positive”: most of your students are trying hard and want to succeed; celebrate their achievements.
When Jose Luis Vilson starts his blog, he gains a national following and finds himself invited to national conferences. He uses his new-found acclaim to advocate for kids and other teachers.
Yes, he has written a new narrative on race, class, and education. But he has also written an inspiring account of what it means to teach. He loves teaching. It defines him. He writes:
“Teaching grasps the soul like a finger probing, not clenching, the heart. It begs you to advocate on behalf of the children, even when you least expect to. Teachers learn to be selfless, to deliver sincerely no matter what’s happening in their personal lives. 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. I rarely ever have two bad days in a row (or else!). I love walking into school knowing that it’s not going to be the same exact job it was a day, a month, or a year ago. A student always finds a way to inspire me or crack me the hell up. The only real feedback I need is from the students in front of me.
“Teaching has given me no choice but to activate my best inner qualities and to accept and embrace that I will never stop being a student myself. I love that every day there’s a new set of problems for me to solve. Even as I’m teaching my kids math, I’m learning along with them…..
“I hope that becoming a key player in the lives of hundreds of students a year will fuel your fire—knowing that it’s not enough to simply do, but that you must leave a legacy of doing. As a teacher you will play such an important part in your students’ lives that even when they forget the specifics of what you taught them, they’ll remember the feelings and life lessons you left them with, the impression that someone other than their parents (if applicable) cared enough to spur them toward their own success.
“You can make the difference.”
Jose Luis Vilson gives his readers a heavy dose of honesty, self-reflection, and insight. He cares passionately about his students. He fights for them (and occasionally spars with them). He loves his work. How many people can say, as Vilson, does, that they love what they do? That is what the detractors of teachers never understand; it is a joy that they will not experience. Vilson shares his joy and his experience.