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How A New York City Teacher Stays Committed To Social Change

A black and white photo of Jose Vilson smiling.

Jose Vilson’s journey as an educator began during his senior year in college when, after leading a workshop on Cesar Chavez, he decided to forgo his intended career as a computer scientist and enter the field of teaching. According to a McKinsey study, 14 percent of teachers leave after one year, and nearly half leave the profession before their fifth year, citing difficult working conditions. Now, having taught in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan for eight years, Jose is proving to be an exception to the rule, and is tackling issues on education everywhere from CNN, to GOOD, the Huffington Post, and TEDx.

How does Jose make a job with such high turnover work for him? His drive is rooted in his commitment to education equality and long-term success for African-American and Latino youth. Staying focused on this greater goal has kept him in the field, and brought him recognition as a thought-leader, following his media presence and engaging blog.

“I come from the Lower East Side, the last frontier of the ghetto. In the 90s, it was a dark time: There was drug selling and murder. Growing up, we called it Beirut; you had people shooting from behind the walls through the projects. But the best part of being who I am and where I come from is that it affords me the opportunity to be patient and be more forward thinking."

“For example, people use the old leadership model where you have to be in front in order to take control, and students will sit back and take in what you teach. I don’t believe that. People mistake the leadership I bring as not taking charge, but I am trying to get students to be leaders on their own. For example, you will hear noise in my class. You will hear more of [the students] than of me. I also ask students to leave me alone and ask their classmates about solutions before they ask me. I don’t do it to be a jerk, but they need to be self-motivated and work on [their] own."

“[The students] make me want to be better. Walking the road I did, I beat the odds and want them to do the same."

“We need people who are passionate and driven to make education valuable to students. If you want to teach, do a lot of personal reflection. The person who you think you are may not be the person you are in the classroom. I would also advise you to really read. Find best practices. Find a group of friends who you really trust. Having that dialogue that makes the experience a whole lot better when you are learning how to teach.”

This story is part of Heart at Work, a monthly series produced by and Echoing Green, in which we tilt the spotlight towards everyday people doing extraordinary work that makes the world a better place.

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