Episode #51: Reimagining the work done in math classrooms: An Interview with Jose Vilson

Nov 18, 2019 | Podcast | 0 comments


This week we talk with Jose Vilson, an educator from Harlem New York. Jose is a national speaker, an author he was  named one of GOOD Inc.’s GOOD100 in 2013 of leaders changing their worlds and an Aspen Ideas Scholar in 2013. He has also spoken at TEDxNYED, Education Writers Association Annual Conference, Netroots Nation, The US Department of Education, and the Save Our Schools March. 

His blog, TheJoseVilson.com, was named one of the top 25 Education Blogs by Scholastic, and Education World. We chat with Jose today about How we should REIMAGINE THE WORK IN MATH CLASSROOMS, Why trust and classroom culture are the most important parts of teaching and Why Teacher Voice is important at the district level.

You’ll Learn

  • How we should reimagine the work in math classrooms
  • Why trust and classroom culture are the most important parts of teaching. 
  • What strategies and tips you can use to change your classroom culture. 
  • Why Teacher Voice is important at the district level.


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Jose Vilson: I think so much of what I’ve learned comes from consistently listening to my students. I think kids’ voices are severely underrated. Even at this point in time, too much of what we consider student voice right now is just them talking in the ways that we want them to talk. And by we, I mean like people who are very fixated on kids sounding like adults.

Jose Vilson: Versus, us saying, you know what, we’re going to listen to kids are telling us about our pedagogy and how we can better change it, how we can move it. For instance, there’s a…

Jon Orr: That there is Jose Vilson, an educator from Harlem, New York. Jose is a national speaker, an author. He was named one of GOOD INC’s 2013 Good 100 Leaders Changing Their Worlds. And he’s an Aspen Ideas scholar in 2013.

Jon Orr: He’s also spoken at TEDxNewYork ED, Education Writers Association annual conference, Netroots Nation, the US Department of Education and the Save Our Schools march. His blog, thejosevilson.com was named one of the top 25 education blogs by Scholastic and Education World.

Kyle Pearce: We chat with Jose today about how we should reimagine the work in math classrooms. Why trust and classroom culture are the most important parts of teaching and why teacher voice is important at the district level. Let’s get to it. Hit it.

Kyle Pearce: Welcome to the Making Math Moments That Matter podcast. I’m Kyle Pearce from tapintoteenminds.com.

Jon Orr: I’m Jon Orr from mrorr-isageek.com. We are two math teachers who together-

Kyle Pearce: With you, the community of educators worldwide, who want to build and deliver math lessons that spark engagement-

Jon Orr: Fuel learning-

Kyle Pearce: And ignite teacher action. Jon, are you ready for this episode with The Jose Vilson?

Jon Orr: Of course, of course, Kyle, we are super pumped to bring you this episode. But before we do, we want to take a few minutes to say that the first ever Make Math Moments virtual summit that happened just this past weekend was a huge success. We had over 15,000 teachers registered, and a huge portion of those registrants attended live.

Kyle Pearce: If you attended, then you know what powerful messages were shared, great resources for your classroom that were given out, and you walked away rejuvenated to keep making math moments that matter for your students. If you didn’t attend, then something big must have come up this past weekend. Or, maybe you knew about the replays that are happening this week right now, and you’ve already scheduled them into your busy schedule.

Jon Orr: That’s right. If you’re listening to this episode the week it went live, which is Monday, November 18th, 2019 then you have until this Friday, November 22nd, 2019 to watch any and all of the 25 sessions that aired over this past weekend.

Kyle Pearce: You can take action on this opportunity by visiting makemathmoments.com/summit right now and you’ll be able to access the session from Peg Smith on orchestrating powerful discussions, or Sara VanDerWerf on secondary math talks. Or, maybe Christina Lincoln-Moore and her work around ratio tables, plus 22 other hour-long sessions that hit a range of big ideas, from kindergarten through grade 12.

Jon Orr: After November 22nd, 2019, all sessions will be then go inside our Make Math Moments Academy for members to binge watch all year long. If you’re not a member of the academy yet, then you can still join over at makemathmoments.com/academy, but you’ll need to sign up before November 22nd, because the doors to the academy are closing for the rest of this year.

Kyle Pearce: Whoa, you heard that right, my friends. The doors are closing and we will not be opening the academy doors again to the public until next year. So make sure to visit makemathmoments.com/academy to sign up. That’s makemathmoments.com/academy to sign up and maintain access to all 25 summit sessions, plus all of our courses, our community discussion area and our curiosity task tool that’s available to all of our academy members. Go ahead, check it out, makemathmoments.com/academy.

Kyle Pearce: Now, let’s get to our chat with Jose.

Kyle Pearce: Hey there, Jose, welcome to the Making Math Moments That Matter podcast. We’re so excited to have you on the show today. How are things over in New York?

Jose Vilson: They’re pretty good. Thank you for asking.

Kyle Pearce: Awesome. Absolutely. We are super excited. I know that I had an opportunity to hear you in Orlando at the end of the month. I was really, really excited to be able to have a conversation, so we can dive into some of what you said there and learn a little bit more about you.

Jose Vilson: Okay, I’m happy you’re happy.

Jon Orr: Wonderful, wonderful. Jose, could you help our listeners understand a little bit about yourself, where are you located, where do you teach your work? And also about how you got into teaching in the first place. A little bit of a background story. We’re always curious on how teachers got into being teachers.

Jose Vilson: Well, my name is Jose Vilson. And I’ve been teaching students math for the better part of 14 years. I’m about to enter my 15th year in fact. I’ve been teaching middle school. So for your listeners, I live in Harlem currently, but I’ve been teaching in Washington Heights for the better part of all those years, actually.

Jose Vilson: Now, how I got into teaching is fascinating. I was always a straight A student, up until high school. And that’s when things got a little bit tricky, but I eventually got a degree in computer science. And of course, if you’re a computer scientist, you know that you have to be taking a lot of math.

Jose Vilson: I was about one class away from a math minor, but I also started engaging in a lot of what we would dub ethnic studies. And through some of the work that I was doing, activism and that sort of stuff, I saw teaching as the pathway for me, but not so much trying to be a code monkey. So, that was the thing.

Jose Vilson: I went to the NYC Teaching Fellows program and they looked at my resume and said, you’re going to be teaching math. I said, okay, that’s what I’m doing. And then I had a few choices. I ended up choosing the neighborhood that was closest to where I grew up, which is the Lower East Side. So, Washington Heights fairly resembled where I grew up, and I was like, okay, I can totally do this. I speak Spanish as well.

Jose Vilson: I’ve been teaching ever since. I mean, yes, I was six months unemployed in between when I got my bachelor’s and when I started these menial programs, but generally, I was just fascinated by teaching, since maybe junior, senior year of college. So, that’s been my thing.

Jon Orr: I think we got very similar paths. And then I’m always amazed that we do have similar paths to many of the teachers. You had majored in computer science and maybe minored in math, but mine was reversed. I was the major in math and the minor in computer science. I think Kyle has a double major in computer science and math. So we’re in the same realm there.

Jon Orr: You being in New York, I have a connection to New York. When I first started teaching, I was coming out of university and I just wanted a job. I went to a job fair in Toronto and the New York City Department of Education was there and they were hiring. This is back in 2004. They were hiring 3,000 new teachers that year.

Jon Orr: I had no ties. I was a young guy, not tied down. I had no girlfriend. I just wanted a job. I went and interviewed with them at that job fair, international job fair. It’s like most of them hire on the spot, which was amazing to me.

Jon Orr: So I went to-

Kyle Pearce: Then they take you in a van and drive you back or how does that happen?

Jon Orr: Yeah, yeah. I went and had an interview that day with the New York Department of Education. And they hired me on the spot, because I taught math, and they had placed me at a school already. And then I had another job interview. I didn’t accept that job. They were like, here’s where you would be. Here’s your offer. I had another job interview that same day for a school in the Caribbean.

Jon Orr: Same approach, they hired on the spot. I had to make a decision there. I ended up choosing the Caribbean school. But I was almost in New York.

Jose Vilson: Almost.

Kyle Pearce: Fantastic. Well, Jose, that’s awesome. Thank you. We’re going to continue diving into your story. And in order to do so, we always find it fascinating, because it’s the Making Math Moments That Matter podcast we love to get inside our guests’ heads and their memories of math class.

Kyle Pearce: So, do you happen to have a math moment from your math class experience that you might be able to share with the Moment Maker community?

Jose Vilson: You mean, when I was teaching or when I was studenting?

Kyle Pearce: We tend to leave it wide open. But when we say the word math class, sort of what do you think of? I know for me, I tend to think of my experience in math class. So, if you do have something that might have been a defining moment for you, or it may have left a sour taste in your mouth, or it might have been the reason why you sort of ended up going down the path you did with computer science and math.

Jose Vilson: Now, that you’ve mentioned math moments, there’s three of them I have in my mind. The first one was when my mom had taken me and my brother to the Dominican Republic. And we went a little early. I mean, I’m not sure how familiar you are with that culture. But there’s always this thing about trying to make it to the Dominican Republic a little earlier than the actual Christmas. So that way, you spend the two weeks, it’s less expensive to go by plane because it’s a ritual. It’s wild, and airlines took advantage of it, price wise.

Jose Vilson: So we ended up having to cut out of school a little early, and I asked for all of my math homework. I was given these fractions to multiply, so I had to multiply, I think it was fractions with whole numbers. So, I ended up playing around with them a little bit, and seeing common factors and multiples.

Jose Vilson: And even though I thought there would be a way to reduce it even before I got to the product, I said, well, this is probably what my teacher wants anyway, so I’m just going to go ahead and multiply and then divide using long division.

Jose Vilson: And then of course, when I came back from Christmas break, my math teacher at the time was like, look at this denominator, look at this numerator, start reducing, don’t even worry about it. And I was like, oh, okay, so this is what we do. And he probably cut like, he could have cut out at least a good, I would say, 30 minutes out of my homework time, if he had just shown me that prior. But at the same time, I mean, I probably wouldn’t have been critical of what I was doing in front of me, if he had already given me the way to do it.

Jose Vilson: The second thing I think about is my math teacher still, like maybe later on, he was teaching us about circles. I was like, well, I’m not sure how he’s going to make a circle without using anything like a compass, a protractor. He didn’t have any of that. He just had a piece of chalk and a big chalkboard.

Jose Vilson: And he just gets up there and says, okay, just watch. So he puts his hand parallel to his side, and then he whips his arm around in very quick fashion. And there was a perfect circle right in front of us, all of a sudden. I said, what? How’d that happen? And I was like, oh wait, because your rotator cuff and your shoulder and… Yeah, okay, circle. That’s awesome.

Jose Vilson: So I wanted to be that math teacher, that just all of a sudden, legerdemain, okay, we’re doing some magic here, right? And of course, from my own teaching, I remember my very first year teaching, I had this young girl named Sonia. I do talk about her in my book, but I don’t think I fully delved into why she was so critical to my math teaching.

Jose Vilson: Because she had a thing where she knew how to speak English well, but she understood language differently than other people did. So I would explain something and I would say 90% of the kids in the class understood exactly what I was talking about. Because I was trying to be as concise, yet, I guess sharp as possible.

Jose Vilson: She, on the other hand, said, I don’t get it. I’d be like, but look at what I just explained. I mean, at that moment, I could have just been like, just sit down. But instead, I said, I’m going to force myself to try to get her to understand the concept that I needed her to get, at the point. Because it’s not that she didn’t understand what was coming out of my mouth, is that she just had a different way of interpreting things.

Jose Vilson: So she’s one of the reasons why I started coming up with at least three to five different ways of explaining things, because I would say after the seventh or eighth time that I explained it in my own way, she was like, oh, why didn’t you say that in the beginning? I’m like, I can’t help you with that.

Jon Orr: True, true.

Kyle Pearce: Fantastic. Listening to some of your moments there and going back to the fractions experience, I wonder sometimes if you were given a gift there, because your teacher didn’t get in the way of letting you tinker a little bit. Now, maybe you had a couple of weeks away, so you might have done it a lot longer than maybe you would have hoped, playing with all of those ideas.

Kyle Pearce: However, that experience, like imagine that, like that’s a math moment that now you remember, actually putting in that work and that effort and coming up with some of these ideas, essentially, through that exploration. And then obviously, the teacher there to help you make some of those connections. So, that I think is fantastic.

Kyle Pearce: We’re wondering if we were to look, you said, entering your 15th year of teaching. Jon and I talk about this all the time about how earlier in our career, just how we essentially taught the way we were taught and we didn’t really know anything otherwise. And we feel like we’ve grown since then.

Kyle Pearce: I’m wondering, can you help folks get a window into maybe your classroom early in your career, and maybe some of the things you’ve done. You’ve already given us a bit of an aha moment in Sonia, that through Sonia and the experience with Sonia, that you sort of realized that guess what? Everyone has different ways of viewing the world and understanding language and interpreting and building their own conceptions of the world around them.

Kyle Pearce: That means that me as a teacher, I’m going to have to do some work around that. Are there any other things that you feel over those 14 years in the classroom that you’ve done differently than early in your career?

Jose Vilson: A part of me feels like I was a better teacher my first year, than perhaps I am now and I do say this semi-humbly. Understanding that when you come in, you have not just a zeal and a zest for changing your pedagogy, you’re also like a big sponge. So, you start saying, oh, I can experiment with this, I can experiment with that.

Jose Vilson: And people are going to have their criticisms, but they’re not going to pull the lever on you and say, you’re an experienced teacher. You should know this. No, actually, he’s just experimenting and I’m good for him.

Jose Vilson: Whereas now, 14 years later, there’s just so many different initiatives. And the first thing that they always tell you is, well, you’re a 14 year teacher, you should already know how to do these things. And it’s like, yeah, but the person that was telling me this only had two years of experience in the classroom, what are you talking about?

Jose Vilson: And all the while, you’re just trying to assure that A, the students can actually get what they deserve, but then B, that you have to do some of these things subversively, because it often clashes with the initiatives that the district mandates from you. I think people are weird when it comes to math, because there’s folks who, as you said, they believe in the very math that they learned, the way that they learned it.

Jose Vilson: And some believe in it so rigidly that they enforce it upon all the people who they are in charge of now, and that’s a disservice. And it often clashes with some of the ideals that come from any number of institutions including NCTM, including MAA or any other professional organization where they’re talking about explorations and deep dives into maths and even the common core state standards.

Jose Vilson: So many people still believe that, well, if you just put a set of standards in front of people, but you do it rotely, that you’re still going to get the math that you deserve. And it’s like, that’s not the way this works at all. We have to be able to experiment to the point where we’re going to fail at points, but the students are going to have a better experience with the math in front of them.

Jose Vilson: So a part of me feels like and I’ll be quick about this part, a part of me feels like I was pretty good my first year, because I didn’t have these adult expectations of me. All I had was me and the work. And then over a few years, I got better and better, but then at some point, I perhaps fell back a bit, because I was trying to align myself too much to what this district needed, in order for me to survive in my job.

Jose Vilson: Then I also found a way to also be subversive about the really good stuff. So I’m always trying to tinker and try toe that line. And then at some point, I say, okay, we’re going to push this line a little forward. And I think that’s going to be my initiative for year 15.

Jon Orr: There’s a lot of teachers still who have been around for a long time, who voiced that opinion that if it worked for me, it works for them. And they’re the department heads or the curriculum consultants, and some of them are just like, I know what works for math, because it worked for them. And they’re not considering the kids that are sitting in front of them, and that they are probably the minority in the situation, that math came easy to them. And not thinking about the class that they have. And it’s sad to think about that, in that case, for sure.

Jon Orr: I want to move on to a similar topic, but a new topic. Kyle was saying that he went to your talk in the Orlando conference, and he was sharing it with me and it was called Reimagining the Work in Math Classrooms. I’m wondering if you can paint us a picture of what that work in the math classroom looks like right now, for you and your school context.

Jose Vilson: Well, it’s been a couple months since that and obviously, I’ve done some hard thinking even since then. So, I went to a professional development space for about eight days this summer. And even that’s changed my thinking somewhat.

Jose Vilson: But the context of my talk was about how students don’t learn, especially the students that I work with, they don’t learn math without learning who the people are in front of them and trusting in them. I think so much of the focus around math has been about that very direct teaching.

Jose Vilson: But when you have a pedagogy that says, I’m going to have this conversation with you, then that changes the power dynamic in that classroom, and then it also allows for people to really acclimate to what you’re trying to get them to do. And this again, goes contrary to what we had learned growing up about what math was supposed to be. Everybody has a single row, a single aisle. Give them 100 problems, just have them do it over and over again with different sets of numbers.

Jose Vilson: Whereas now, the focus is on far fewer problems, but deeper conversations and questions, right? The mere fact that we’re even having, I guess, a conversation around questions, means that we’re changing the relationship between the student and the teacher.

Jose Vilson: I think it’s even deeper than just saying this person is facilitating your learning, right? It’s very much about like, no, actually, this person is building the trust in you, for you to become the best mathematician possible. So that when you do get into spaces where other people who are your peers, who are your colleagues have mathematical conversations with you, you’re also able to argue your standpoint. You’re also able to fail in front of them. You’re also able to do any number of things that allows that math access to continue to happen.

Jose Vilson: So, I mean, that’s where my thinking is right now, in terms of my own presentation. I was trying to do it from a policy angle where, yes, I have been a staunch critic of the common core state standards. But my criticism doesn’t necessarily come from, I guess, child readiness, which I don’t have the expertise to critique on.

Jose Vilson: But it does come from a standpoint of saying, it doesn’t matter what standards we put in front of children, if the policies that are in place and the people who are regulating these policies continue to allow students to have experiences with math that are antithetical to the standards themselves.

Kyle Pearce: I got that message from your talk. I completely agree, because really even just looking at standards alone, even how teachers interpret them and how differently different teachers interpret it and all of those things, there’s so much confusion just on that level. And then when you sort of zoom out to the bigger picture like you’re referencing here, you’re absolutely right, it doesn’t really matter.

Kyle Pearce: And after your talk at that Orlando meeting that we had the opportunity to share with different educators, I was talking about proportional relationships and trying to clarify some of the ideas in proportional relationships that are in the Common Core. And Common Core is not brand new. So, that’s just confusion with the language. So imagine, outside of that, the problems get even larger. So, you are talking about this bigger, bigger issue here.

Kyle Pearce: I want to go back to something you said that really resonated to me and I wrote myself a little note here, but you had said and explain this idea, that you almost felt like you were a better teacher early on than you are now. And you referenced and you mentioned that you feel as a teacher who’s been in the classroom for 14 years, we all feel it. Like there’s this expectation in North America, we’re supposed to know certain things and why would you ask a question about that? We should already know it.

Kyle Pearce: So how do we help to build that trust that you reference? What are some good strategies or tips that we can help build that trust? Because I know there’s a lot of new teachers that are listening to the podcast. We also have a lot of other teachers who have been teaching 15, 20, 25 years and maybe they’re feeling like, I don’t feel confident to share some of the things that I don’t feel comfortable with. Because I don’t want people to look down on me as an educator, as an expert. I’m supposed to know this stuff already.

Kyle Pearce: Do you have any ways that people can start to build that trust with one another, so that we can address some of these issues?

Jose Vilson: I think so much of what I’ve learned comes from consistently listening to my students. I think kids’ voices are severely underrated, even at this point in time. Too much of what we consider student voice right now is just them talking in the ways that we want them to talk about. By we I mean like people who are very fixated on kids sounding like adults, versus us saying, we’re going to listen to what kids are telling us about our pedagogy and how we can better change it, how we can move it.

Jose Vilson: For instance, there’s a large set of people who are afraid of student voice, because they think that students are incapable of assessing how much they’re actually learning. But not only is there research to show the contrary, but I would also argue that even the teachers who are strict but fair, kids ended up liking. The teachers who are firm, but can still build relationships, still end up getting liked.

Jose Vilson: But the teacher who has lower expectations of the students, the one who’s always kidding around with them, but then doesn’t actually teach them anything, the kids can read that. And they may not necessarily have the precise language, they don’t have the professional jargon, yada, yada. We already know what the issues are with professional jargon, right? But if students can actually tell us what’s going on with them and how we can better serve them, I think we’re all better served for having that conversation. That’s one.

Jose Vilson: And then two, I think we do have to come with a reckoning that we don’t have enough administrators and higher ups, if you will, that fully understand math pedagogy and the direction that it’s going right now, there’s too many people who still want to argue about reading, writing and arithmetic. I thought we were way beyond that, thought we left that last century, but we did not.

Jose Vilson: And so too much of it is about compliance and not enough about the actual struggling with the math itself, the productive struggle, if you will, of building a culture that assures that the math can flourish. And even when you see a teacher experimenting with any number of different practices, if we’re not allowed to at least give it a shot before saying, okay, well, here’s some ways that it worked. Here’s some ways that it can be improved. Then again, that’s another disservice.

Jose Vilson: I think too many people are afraid of test scores dropping. So, they believe that there’s a correlation between a teacher constantly doing the same thing and then keeping the same test scores as is, versus trying to experiment a little bit. And even though the test scores might drop one year, they may go astronomically well the next year.

Jose Vilson: And so that’s their angle, whereas my angle is like, I’m not too worried about the test scores, because that’s only one very narrow dimension, a snapshot of the breath of things that I can show through my assessments. So I think that was the crux of what I was trying to get at there. I hope that it encapsulated things.

Jon Orr: Yeah, I think you did. And I’m glad you brought up test scores, because I think that’s a major stumbling block to teachers changing their practice, is they get hung up on that test score. If I’m going to do this, how do you guarantee that my test scores are going to go up? And sometimes like you alluded to, sometimes they might not go up and especially the first time you try a strategy, they probably won’t go up.

Jon Orr: Because you’re working, you’re working through some of the issues that you want to deal with.

Kyle Pearce: Or it might go down as you’re experimenting.

Jon Orr: You’ve got some good tips about building trust. I think we all agree that the culture is super important in that classroom, like you’ve talked about. I know teachers also, when I’m sitting in the staff room or the teacher lounge, it’s like teachers complain a lot about kids and teachers will complain about missing class and a variety of other big problems that they’ll talk about.

Jon Orr: I’m wondering like, after you’ve built that culture and that trust in your classroom, what impact have you seen on some of those big problems?

Jose Vilson: I think some of the things that we get fixated on as problems end up dissipating once we reframe what that problem sounds like. So, for example, I have been a proponent with specific classes. Well, this year specifically, I actually allow students to have headphones if they need the quiet time to themselves.

Jose Vilson: And it used to be a problem. Because I was like, well, can the kids control themselves? Are they going to be disciplined, are they listening to me? Yada, yada. But then if I know the guidelines that we’re going to work through, and let’s say they just want to do independent work, I’m not going to be mad if the child decides, well, they want to listen to music, just to keep them animated, to keep them focused on whatever work it is. Because there are studies that show that music does help you focus, right?

Jose Vilson: But then of course, conversely, I do my best to assure that students understand that yes, my work is super important. And so trying to be in the bathroom for 20 minutes out of a 45 minute period is a no-go. But I think so much of what we want are very strict draconian rules that are now guidelines.

Jose Vilson: So I feel like if you give too many rules in the classroom, you can’t also say, well, we want kids to be independent thinkers. Those two go right against each other. Don’t they? Versus saying, we’re going to establish a clear set of guidelines that may not be equal for all, but they’re going to be fair to everybody. So not everybody’s going to need every single thing. But at the very least, we all have a guiding set of principles by which we abide.

Jose Vilson: And I think once we can get to that level, that some of these others just start dissipating. But, of course, it also means that there has to be some level of consistency across the school, right? So being able to actually talk to your colleagues about the ways that your classroom is being approached, being able to tell you administrators I don’t necessarily believe in this and this sort of thing is working fine for my classroom and my kids are happy with this, when I do it this way. Those things matter.

Jose Vilson: And being able to have a good collegial conversation with your colleagues matters. I mean, I don’t think the teachers lounge is a particularly fair measure, because that’s where humans go to decompress about working conditions and working conditions end up being learning conditions for our kids. But it’s just a thing where we have to be more mindful about the student experience, even to the supposed detriment of teacher experience.

Kyle Pearce: I think you said that so well, especially going back and thinking about the idea that if we set too many rules for our students, that we’re not actually teaching them to think and teaching them to be independent. And obviously, like you had said, it doesn’t mean don’t go and have no rules. It’s a free for all. Because as you mentioned earlier, oftentimes, those are teachers that students tend to not really end up liking. Or, when I say liking, they don’t feel like they had a connection or that they got a good learning experience from.

Kyle Pearce: Thinking back, you had mentioned about reading, writing and arithmetic, like the three Rs. And it sounds like without building these relationships, without getting that trust, we can’t even get to those three things. So not that those aren’t important at all, but if we just hyper focus on those, but we haven’t done the necessary building of that relationship, the trust building and getting our students to realize that, hey, we’re here for you and that we actually care about you, then those three Rs that you referenced aren’t going to matter at all. So, that to me is so huge.

Kyle Pearce: I want to talk a little bit more about teacher collaboration, you had mentioned that the staff room on lunch break, everybody gets worked up here and there. They’ve had a rough day and sometimes people are just getting it off their chest.

Kyle Pearce: Are there any structures that you find helpful in your own school, or in other schools that you’ve worked in, in order to get staff to build some of those norms? Because as you mentioned, having guidelines is important. You want some consistency. But we as humans, we tend to be pretty digital in nature, we like yes, no, we like this or that, we really struggle with balance.

Kyle Pearce: And obviously, it sounds like I’m hearing this word, this message of balance again, that the rules of my classroom might not be identical to the rules in your classroom or the norms in your classroom. But we all have to have some sort of consistency to ensure that the messaging kids are getting from class to class, grade to grade, is at least jiving.

Kyle Pearce: Do you have any ideas on how someone might be able to help their staff sort of get on the same page, without going too far in one direction or the other? Like where it’s all these rules, everyone must abide by them or there’s no rules and now it feels like there’s no consistency. There’s no connecting or there’s no working together.

Jose Vilson: Well, some of the things that I appreciated in the last year, because I decided to take a more overt role with school culture. And, no, I did not become an assistant principal at all, thank goodness. But I started to do things that assured that I would get the buy-in when we needed it.

Jose Vilson: So I check in regularly with my colleagues, I just say, hey, how are you doing? How are you feeling? Yada, yada, like that’s very helpful. Because we as adults don’t often check in with each other on how we’re doing personally. So then, when things transpire, very seldom incidents, but when they do transpire, then we have a good sense of what was happening with said adult or said child that day, right? We need to do a better job of checking in for human beings, even before we check in as professionals.

Jose Vilson: Secondly, being able to visit each other’s classrooms from a standpoint of humility, and not as a form of accountability, is really important. Just saying, like, hey, I’m going to go to your classroom. Yes, I’ve been teaching for 14 years, but there’s so much more to learn. I want to see just how you approach things.

Jose Vilson: And it doesn’t necessarily have to be in math either, right? Like you can go to any classroom and just say, hey, I want to see how students interact with your classroom. And constantly putting yourself in the position of learner is so important, so important. And it sends a very implicit but direct signal to everybody that you’re in it for students, you’re in it for the culture.

Jose Vilson: Three, leaving your door open for others to come visit you is also important, and just being able to say, hey, what’s up? Come visit my classroom, see how I’m doing this, it’s okay. And being able to make mistakes in front of your colleagues is also really important. Because it says, hey, I also make mistakes. I know for myself, I know I make plenty of mistakes, and I’m okay with that too. But I think people do get a sense that students are very receptive to my method.

Jose Vilson: And even just like the hallway stuff, being able to do like that interpersonal stuff, and just say, hey, everybody needs to go to class. Oh, you are expected to be in class, why are you not going there? Not necessarily from a punitive standpoint, but from a, I expect you to be doing your best in all the subjects that you’re going to, not just my own class.

Jose Vilson: I mean, there’s any number of things that we can do. And notice I haven’t even really mentioned math yet, right? All I’m doing is talking about the relationships. And when people see your face, they know that you mean business about all of the work that they’re going to be doing in the school.

Jose Vilson: Now, imagine if everybody else had that vibe, then that’s the culture that ends up being built. Everybody has a good expectation about how their students are going to perform, regardless of what classes they’re going through. And of course, when you go back to the class, and then they see you again, they’re like, oh, like he actually cares about my learning. I’m going to have to be focused in on this too, because I’m going to hear about it regardless of where I go.

Jon Orr: Yeah, I’m so glad you brought up that, but also the idea of getting into each other’s classrooms. I don’t think we do that enough.

Jon Orr: Robert Kaplinsky has shared his #observeme, which I think has almost given permission to so many teachers to go into other classrooms, and put that sign on your door that says come in and look at what I’m doing and help me learn and help me get better and here’s what I’m working on. That whole observe me movement has been great for so many teachers to just open the door, that I can go visit someone and someone can come visit me. And it’s no, like you said, it’s not assessment for my teaching or evaluative. It’s more of just helping. So, thank you for mentioning that, for sure.

Jon Orr: I want to move more into a district decision-making thing. You’ve spoken often about the importance of teacher voice. Where does systems miss the mark when it comes to structures, procedures and processes in schools and classrooms? Like if a district leaders is listening right now, what are some of the ways that they might be able to ensure that the importance of teacher… our voice, is important and heard in decision-making at that district level?

Jose Vilson: Well, I would say that there’s obviously a very wide gap between what people perceive to be teacher voice, versus what teacher voice can do, is just complicated. So on the one hand, you do have a whole swath of teachers who actually want to improve the district through any number of different initiatives, trying to assure that pedagogy across the board is better, more experimental, more learner centered, et cetera.

Jose Vilson: And of course, there’s also like the stereotype of teachers who are just going to gripe about everything that you put on the table. And you don’t necessarily want to hear from them, because they leave right at the bell. There’s that sort of stereotype as well.

Jose Vilson: But even within those voices, I do believe there are things that have merit. And often, we need to find ways to A, check in with the folks who we do actually believe in their voices. And because we’ve seen the strides they’ve made or the professional progress that they’ve made. And we also need to be very attuned to dissenting voices too, and understand where their gripes are coming from, what is the internal angst that’s happening there?

Jose Vilson: I think these are adults. And again, it’s very much like students, we want to hear from the students who are doing well in our classes, and the students who are struggling with our classes and why are they struggling? And how can we make their experience better?

Jose Vilson: We’re not always going to get it 100%, which I think too many administrators do believe that they can just get it 100%, just by forcing them to do so, instead of trying to build that buy-in. But buy-in matters and teacher voices matter and I think the ways that they matter are critical to ensuring that you have that liaison between the macro view that so many higher administrators have, and then the very important classroom view, which seems minuscule, but is probably the biggest deal.

Jose Vilson: It’s hard, because a lot of this is fraught with ego, it’s fraught with personality, it’s fraught with just different visions for how things ought to be taught. But I think it starts with the buy-in, it starts with the relationships, it starts with getting good listening towards going… Just coming in to listen first without projecting any of your real values first, and then coming in that second time and saying, hey, I’ve done some reflection and here’s some points of convergence. Here’s some points of divergence, and how we are going to build it, so all of our schools can perform well for all of our students, especially our most marginalized students.

Kyle Pearce: I think you highlight something so important, and just in the buy-in part, I think that is something that all district leaders feel that buy-in is a struggle, right? And I mean, because you’re at such that macro level, as you had mentioned, and these ideas are coming down and teachers often feel like they’re being pushed on them, because their voice hasn’t been heard. And obviously, that’s hard. As you had mentioned, it’s very complex.

Kyle Pearce: But doing things to at least feel like they’re being heard or at least acknowledging, so that you can find some sort of happy medium. It doesn’t matter what you do at the district level. If teachers aren’t seeing it, because they’re not being heard and they actually don’t understand your reasoning behind it, from the district level, then nothing will happen anyway. Even if the idea was a good idea, it’s just not going to happen. So I think that’s so important.

Kyle Pearce: And I’m looking at the time here. I want to hop over a few things here, because I want to give an opportunity to hear a little bit more about your book, This Is Not A Test. I know that you have at least been a co-author on a few books, you’ve been featured in a couple books, in case studies and so on and so forth.

Kyle Pearce: However, you have a book, This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education. Can you give our Math Moment Maker community a little bit of background about this book? What inspired you to write it and what messages are you hoping that people will take away, after they pick it up and give it a read?

Jose Vilson: The essential question, I’ll put it that way, the essential question is, what happens to the teachers who stay? I think too many of the books that have come out that have become popular with teachers are, oh, this teacher made some magic happen for about two years and then they left. And that’s how they got popular and they left. It’s always that theme.

Jose Vilson: And at some point, I just said I’m going to write this book from the perspective of somebody who has decided that he’s going to stay. And as a result, so much of what’s in the book stems from my own coming of age, my own understanding of what teaching ought to look like. And then again, that macro level view of, this is what teaching looks like in response to everything that’s going on around me.

Jose Vilson: So that’s where the book comes from. I’ve been very blessed. A lot of folks whose opinions I very much care about have a lot in the book, it’s still doing well, as far as I’m concerned. It’s being used in a lot of different spaces to promote the ideas of teaching.

Jose Vilson: It’s been a precursor to so many of the books that are coming out now around education. I’ve been very happy to witness that too. But more than anything, I really just wanted to write it. There was two wings, it’s like, one, I wanted to write it for the teachers who are still out there grinding and still doing that good work. And then I wanted to write it for the general public, for them to understand what it’s like to teach.

Jose Vilson: So much of the language is geared towards making the argument that teachers do have a say in all these things, whether they’re coming in from a very privileged background or not. Everyone has to be able to read the book from a lens of saying, you know what, teaching is a lot harder than I thought it was. It may be simple to some, but it is not easy.

Jon Orr: Those are definitely admirable approaches too, because so many people, like you said they get a lot of success and then they’re almost looked upon to like, what are you doing to do next with your success? And it’s like, it’s easy for us to go you know what I should go and teach the teachers. Or, I should share my success. It’s easy for them to leave and go tell others how to teach and what works.

Jon Orr: But does it still work? And how much has that messaging changed since leaving the classroom? It’s a unique situation that we just have a little bit of success and we rise to this other level.

Jon Orr: It also makes me think about this idea of level of incompetence, especially prevalent in the business field, that people get promoted to a point where they’re no longer doing a really great job at that one job. If you think of a person in the office that’s like, I’ve done really well here at this current position, and then like you should be promoted.

Jon Orr: And then that person gets promoted, and then they don’t get promoted anymore, because they’ve reached a point where it’s like, I’ve done as much as I can do, and I’ve already reached my peak and it was actually at my last position. I think about that with teachers. It’s like, I was a really great teacher and I left and I’m now going to present to other teachers and some people do that well, but some people are, there’s a point where I should probably have gone back to the classroom or I should have stayed there to begin with, because that’s where the best work is done and who are we doing this work for anyway, but the kids, right?

Jon Orr: So I get torn on the idea of leaving the classroom, because I’m still in the classroom, but I get torn on leaving the classroom to help other teachers reach more kids. But I worry about being a better teacher than a better presenter.

Jose Vilson: Yes. Yes, oh, Lord, yes. Oh my gosh. What I’m going to say too is, I’m very happy for folks who want to develop that side of them, where they feel like they have some really good ideas, and they want to share it out into the world. But I also want us to be very judicious about what ideas need to be shared.

Jose Vilson: And if we were really good at teaching, and we get out there and we just say, well, I have this good idea and I’m going to share it out into the world. I’m going to make a ton of money on it, and then that idea gets diluted. And you’re like, oh, wait, you totally lost the mojo, because you no longer have a connection to the classroom and people don’t believe you anymore.

Jose Vilson: And that’s weird. I think there’s a lot of people who probably need to do that reflection about what the teaching profession is going to look like, and how we actually professionalize and how we share ideas in a way that allows for people to feel some sort of growth in our profession. So teacher leadership is really critical in that element too.

Kyle Pearce: Yeah, no, I love that. And just reflecting on that, until you said it about how many books that are out there, about people who left teaching and the message behind those books, we obviously get it. It’s like we need to change things because teachers are leaving the profession. But then it seems so simple now, but you’re like, well, what about the ones that aren’t going to leave?

Kyle Pearce: I’m so happy that you’ve taken on that role. I know for myself, I’m in a district position right now. I’m happy that in my district and different districts in Ontario tend to do this where teachers can take a term. I’m in a four year term and after that, I can go back to my previous school and carry on.

Kyle Pearce: And there’s such value in that. And even in this role, I’m lucky to have some great colleagues and one in particular, Yvette Lehman, who Jose, you saw in Orlando co-present with me, she is so dead set on making sure we’re getting into classrooms as often as possible, despite how busy we are with all the things going on in the district and the meetings and the this, and the PD sessions. We get into classrooms and we get our world rocked so often.

Kyle Pearce: And it’s the best learning experience for us every time, right? Because we’re taking what we knew from our experiences in our own classroom, we go into this position, we plan PD, we do all of these things. But over time, things change. I know that the way I look at things is different than I did even just a couple years ago in my own classroom.

Kyle Pearce: So when I go and try it in another class, and I know there’s differences because I don’t have the same trust with other teachers’ kids. But you go in there, and you go like, in your mind, it was going to all play out perfectly, and then all of a sudden it doesn’t. And then you very quickly are reminded about how every teacher feels so often, right? When you plan that lesson, you spend that time and you go in and it just doesn’t happen the way it was supposed to happen in your mind, right?

Kyle Pearce: I’m sure you have that fresh in your mind. It’s only been a couple months of summer for you before you get back in there. So Jose, when are you going to be back in school here? Before we talk about where people can learn more about you and wrap up for the episode.

Jose Vilson: In the States, it’s after Labor Day for New York. We end up being one of the later starts, if not the latest start in the country, but you mentioned failing. I’m like, oh my gosh, I have failed so many times.

Kyle Pearce: I can’t wait to do it again.

Jose Vilson: Right.

Kyle Pearce: Yeah, I know, you’re like, actually, I could hold off on failing again.

Jose Vilson: I’m going to fail, but I’m not very happy with having to do so, in order to learn.

Jon Orr: Right. That’s the tough one. Yeah, we are the same way in Canada. I think all of Canada goes back after Labor Day. I think there’s only one time we went back before Labor Day and it was just because of the days in the year, but we aren’t going back until another month or so, or less than a month, for sure.

Jon Orr: Jose, this has been a wonderful talk. Where could our listeners learn more about you and what you’ve got going on?

Jose Vilson: Well, my website is thejosevilson.com. T-H-E-J-O-S-E-V-I-L-S-O-N.com. People say google me. Yes, you can google me. I’m happy with that, first 10 results are pretty good. I’d watch out for that second page though.

Jose Vilson: I’m hyper active on Twitter, @TheJLV. I’m pretty active on Instagram, thejosevilson, and on Facebook, I’m pretty good as well. TheJLV. But more than anything, I’m pretty dang responsive. So I’m blessed to be able to do so, even as I’m still teaching. I will answer a whole lot of questions on teaching and culture and any number of things like that.

Jose Vilson: So, not to mention, I could pop up in any town near anybody. So I have a few things that I’ll be able to speak upon in the next year or so. So, hopefully everybody’s attuned to their schedules, because I might be in your city.

Kyle Pearce: Oh, nice. Awesome. Awesome. We are hoping we’ll get to bump into you sometime soon. And you made me laugh about the whole google me thing. For a long time, I wouldn’t say that because actually on the front page, there is a different Kyle Pearce and if anyone’s really curious, you can google. Luckily, I think it’s moved off of the front page. But if you dig deep enough, you’re going to find a very interesting story about a Kyle Pearce and an airplane. I just wanted to confirm, it is not this Kyle Pearce on this podcast.

Jose Vilson: Allegedly.

Jon Orr: Allegedly.

Kyle Pearce: Exactly, until proven otherwise. So, folks can have some fun. Go do that google but you might have to go a few pages deep now. I apologize for what you will read, but yourself a fantastic day. Jose, thanks so much for your time. We hope to stay in touch on Twitter and hopefully in person at an upcoming conference.

Jose Vilson: Thank you for having me. Appreciate it.

Kyle Pearce: Awesome. Thank you so much.

Jon Orr: Take care.

Kyle Pearce: We want to thank Jose again for spending some time with us to share his insights with us and you, the Math Moment Maker community.

Jon Orr: As always, how will you reflect on what you’ve heard from this episode? Have you written ideas down? Have you drawn a sketch note, sent out a tweet, called a colleague? Be sure to engage in some form of reflection to ensure that the learning sticks for you.

Kyle Pearce: And before we move on out with this episode, be sure to check out the academy, make mathmoments.com/academy. Doors are closing this weekend. You can watch replays for the virtual summit all week long until Friday, November 22nd, 2019. And then after that, they will be going behind the academy doors, and we will not be reopening until next year. So make sure to go check that out, get yourself in, so that you can access all of the great virtual summit sessions, plus all of our online courses, our community discussion area, and our curiosity task tool. That’s makemathmoments.com/academy.

Jon Orr: In order to ensure you don’t miss out on new episodes as they come out each week, be sure to subscribe on Apple Podcasts or on your favorite podcast platform.

Kyle Pearce: Also, if you’re liking what you’re hearing, please share the podcast with a colleague, and help us reach an even wider audience, by leaving us a review on Apple Podcasts. And tweet us your biggest takeaway by tagging @makemathmoments on Twitter.

Jon Orr: Show notes and links for this episode can be found at makemathmoments.com/episode51. Again, that’s make makemathmoments.com/episode51.

Kyle Pearce: Well, until next time, I’m Kyle Pearce.

Jon Orr: And I’m Jon Orr.

Kyle Pearce: High fives for us.

Jon Orr: And high fives for you.

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Thanks For Listening

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  1. This Week at Global Math – 11/26/19 / Global Math Department - […] in self-directed professional learning. The @MakeMathMoments Podcast that dropped last week, Reimagining the work in Math Classrooms, featured José…
  2. Episode #168: Highlighting The Missing Voices In Math Education - […] Episode 51: Reimagining the work done in math classrooms: An Interview with Jose Vilson […]

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