A Conversation With #EduColor's José Vilson About Inclusive Teaching
Listen to this week’s EdSurge Podcast episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music, or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page. Below are lightly edited highlights from the conversation.
How can educators make their teaching more inclusive? The question has only gotten more pressing—and challenging—in this time of social unrest and political polarization.
For perspective and advice, we recently talked with José Vilson, co-founder and executive director of #EduColor, a nonprofit advocacy group dedicated to issues of race and social justice in education. He’s also the author of “This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education,” and he blogs about his experience teaching math in a New York City public school.
This episode of the EdSurge Podcast took place last week in front of a live online audience at the ISTE20 conference. (ISTE is the parent organization of EdSurge.)
EdSurge: Let’s start with the start of your teaching career as a New York City Teaching Fellow. You write in your book that your mentor in that program told you at the end of your summer training that when he first met you, he didn’t think you were going to make it because he said you were “too idealistic.” What do you think he meant? And what did you take away from that comment?
José Vilson: There's a lot of folks who get confused when it comes to teaching in inner-city schools. I think too often people have thought about teaching in terms of you have to be tough, you have to be mean—you know, no smiling until December. And that if you were to show some sort of surface-level care for children, then you necessarily weren't going to make it.
I actually came from the very ’hood that my kids were growing up in. And so being able to walk into a classroom and say to myself, yes, I can relate to the students. And I'm going to have high expectations for them, and really being that “warm demander,” as Gloria Ladson-Billings often likes to say. Somebody who really is in tune with the children and always has that sense of hope. Because every teacher knows … how critical it is for us to have that hope as the passenger's seat, and then the cynic as the backseat driver, but hope is always right next to me as I'm teaching.
Long story short, I feel like because of that mentality, it allows for so many people to say, well, José isn't going to make it because he cares so much about kids. I'm like, no, actually I'll probably make it real far because I have these two tensions in mind, and I already have that background knowledge [of the community I’m teaching in.]
In a way is this the heart of our topic today, about inclusive teaching?
I like to think about it in terms of math. It's about belonging. It's about sets, and once you start getting into higher orders of math, whether it be logic or anything like that, there's set theory—this idea of what belongs, what doesn't. And then specifically in my case, who belongs and who doesn't, and what are the characteristics of belonging and inclusivity that would really allow me to be the inclusive teacher.
It is to say that when you have a classroom, if you are in a public school, you necessarily understand that generally you don't have control over admission. So whoever you get is whoever you get, so you need to assess who they are as people, first and foremost.
That's a good starting point for the framework. Then the second part is you try to understand who you are as a person. And if you've been around teaching for like eight, nine years, by that point, you should know who you are as a teacher. Because that's a different person than perhaps who you are as a person [outside the classroom]. And then this is where you say, OK, how can I adjust myself to better serve the people and the students who I try to address in point number one. And so when you think about that simple framework, then it becomes really easy to define who belongs and how you can make them feel like they belong again.
You need something to anchor you at all times. And inclusive teaching is that anchor for me because it allowed me to be fluid, but also have that anchor whenever I feel like I got lost somewhere. So, and I think because I have that framework, it allows me to work with any number of things, including discipline, including assessment, including even how much homework I give and how many times I called parents. Like all of that is based on the three principles that I had just aligned.
How did you come to start #EduColor?
Actually, conferences like these were some of the inspirations. So like I remember back in 2012, I think it was, there was a TEDx conference, and there was a conversation around educational diversity within conferences. And I think I just blurted out, ‘We need to make an #EduColor to be a sort of clearing house for diversity within the big major education conferences.’ Almost every education conference was predominantly white. And a lot of that wasn't just a function of race, but also a function of class and work and where folks were coming from. There were all these different elements at play. And so what I started to think about was ‘What are some systemic things that I can help do in order to ensure that educators of color were able to be at the forefront of the education dialogue?’
We're at an edtech conference as we speak, and in your book you mentioned some concerns around edtech. You wrote, “I'd rather have a school that uses only pencil and paper, but teaches its kids very well than a school equipped with 1,000,000,001 glitzy dohickeys and thingamajigs that don't in themselves teach anything. Why not be authentic?” Do you think edtech can actually get in the way of inclusive teaching?
Yes. ... I think where edtech can be well-served is in trying to build more communities, especially across different states and across different countries. Unfortunately, where edtech sometimes gets a little bit ahead of itself is doing things like facial recognition, taking too much data from students, trying to figure out how to capitalize off of and monetize anything that they were able to collect as far as private information. And we've seen that time and again.
I do my best to be judicious about that because I think there's power in technology in education. As someone who is a computer science major, I want my students to have access to all the things in the world. Like if they can have access to 3D printers or iPads or any number of technologies. I’ve seen kids get really excited when they get to touch the smart boards, and then that's great. And the more that we can engage kids in their own media—the way that they already engage in the world outside of school, then good. But then just trying to make sure that we don't have that overreach.
We had a presidential election about a month ago, and it looks like we've got a new administration coming in next month. And there's a lot of speculation about who's going to be the next secretary of education. And in a recent Forbes column one of their contributors, Peter Greene, named you on his list of people that would be a perfect ed secretary for the moment. What would be the first three things you do if in fact you got that call and were leading the education department?
Listen, I am blessed that I'm even mentioned in the conversation, but I will say too that I'm pretty sure I'm not going to get it, given the trend that [Biden is] going for in terms of folks who are careerists, folks who are very deep in the weeds of things. But I'm going to go ahead and imagine anyway.
I think the first thing I would love to do is set up a real good conversation around the diversification of the teaching profession. There’s something to be said for saying to ourselves, ‘We are at a moment now where not only did we just have a racial uprising in the form of Black Lives Matter. But then we also have a real good platform for this goal of discussing culturally relevant, culturally responsive education.’ And then we also have the majority now of our students are students of color. And so a lot of our white students also need this sort of education. So this education is for everybody. And one of the ways that you do that is by trying to diversify the teaching profession. It is not to say that we're going to get rid of every white teacher that's out there. But it's to say that we can expand and be more thoughtful about staffing and hiring to ensure that every child gets all the experiences necessary and to level the playing field for every single body.
Secondly, I want to talk a lot about how we actually elevate the teaching profession. I know that in very early on in 2009, Arnie Duncan had been doing a lot of research around what international studies say for teacher's salaries. So thinking about what that will look like to have a teacher that starts off at let’s say $100,000, and then build all the way up. It means that you're not just getting folks who already have generational wealth, but folks who are really invested in the long-term benefits of being a teacher. And of course, that's also coupled with the movement toward canceling student loans. There has to be something for teachers who actually have sacrificed.
Third, I would really love to attack discipline. And I want to be very thoughtful about this too, because Representative Ayanna Pressley had put forth a bill and it was based on Monique Morris's work. Because we also recognize that there are disparate issues when it comes to [what] black children, but specifically black girls, are really going through right now. So that can be a really good framework for how we discuss discipline and corporal punishment, which by the way, is still legal in dozens of states all across the country.
And we can bypass this idea of bipartisan support in the name of human rights, and really being thoughtful about, how are we going to rebuild this nation to best reflect our best values?