September/October 2020 Issue
August 22, 2020

5 Questions for Jose Vilson, Math Teacher, United Federation of Teachers

Source: NYSUT United

1. You’ve spent more than decade in the classroom. How has that experience influenced your career?

As a 15-year veteran of New York City Public Schools, I’ve learned the importance of pedagogy when advocating for students, especially when it comes to race and social justice. That’s why one of the goals of EduColor, an organization I cofounded to highlight race and social justice issues in education, curates and creates resources that educators can use with their students.

We’ve amplified educators’ voices by helping them get big ideas out, including columns in Education Week and appearances on PBS NewsHour. We also work with organizations to help them improve policy.

2. How did EduColor get started?

I’ve always had a sense of activism and social awakening, but it really came out around the time of the Trayvon Martin case, when the outcome didn’t go the way it should have. We started EduColor because there was no organization exploring racial and social justice issues in education at the national level.

Our 26-member team has experience across the field, including pedagogy, practice, curriculum, policy, labor and communications. The work isn’t new, but we bring activism to a new generation of younger teachers.

With more than 21,000 followers on Twitter and more than half a million #EduColor views, we’ve mobilized the digital community toward concrete action on equity, justice and anti-racism and allowed hundreds of participants to ask questions, provide resources and answer questions.

3. EduColor released a petition, “NYC Schools for Transformative Change.” What is the goal?

The petition calls on the governor, mayor and other school leaders to reimagine NYC public schools in 17 specific ways. My top three are giving students a voice, rethinking standardized testing and changing how students are disciplined and classrooms are managed.

Kids don’t have the same filters adults do. They’re quick to say “this is wrong,” “this is right” and “we should do better.” My son’s class had a great conversation right after George Floyd was murdered. They wondered why our justice system didn’t handle it appropriately. One student even asked why, when there’s a pandemic going on, we still have to protest to make things work.

We also need to rethink standardized testing.

We’ve spent years testing students (often at the expense of arts and physical education), but we still haven’t made gains in the achievement gap or closed the opportunity gap.

Student discipline and classroom management need less policing of kids, and more relationship building.

4. You’re a sought-after speaker and a published author. What inspired your book?

My book, This is Not a Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class and Education is an ode to the teacher who stays in the classroom. I’ve been blogging since I started teaching and I’ve seen lots of books by teachers who left the classroom, or by celebrities or politicos. My book is personal stories and essays about race, gentrification, LGBTQ issues and the teaching profession through the eyes of a Black-Latino educator — things that went well, the lessons I learned and the teacher I want to be.

5. How important is the union to your work?

Back in 2014, when the UFT was in contract talks, Michael Mulgrew [UFT president] and Janella Hines [UFT vice president of academic high schools] hosted a book talk for me downtown.

The next morning, Mulgrew read from the chapter in my book titled “Why Teach?” as he announced that we had a new contract.

Although I’m not a union rep, I couldn’t do the work I do without the union.