Learn more about the 2020-2021 New Jersey County Teachers of the Year:

What is your name & job title?

Alicia Vilas
5th grade teacher

Do you love your job? What do you love about it?

I love being a teacher because I get to create future innovators and changemakers. I believe in the individual potential of all my students, but I am hopeful in the collective power. I feel energized when my students engage in or assigned group tasks because our individual strengths serve to fuel our collective outcomes.

Tell me about your students.

My students are my WHY and serve as fuel to constantly search for growth and development. They encourage me to be the lead learner and facilitator of their learning experiences. They challenge me to be better and do better via their questions, wonderings, and interests and simply by the ways in which they assert themselves and what they express concern over. They are unafraid to take risks because the environment I try to create encourages the idea of failing forward and growing from our mistakes and life’s lessons. Serving such a diverse population and diverse family structures, forces me to work with purpose given the authentic experiences they bring to the fabric of my classroom. There is such beauty of serving the Jersey City community. They inspire me to stand tall in the face of adversity for I know all too well the hurdles some have overcome and may face daily external to our school walls.

Tell me about a project related to your work that you’re really proud of.

My colleague and I are working on an iOS and android app for educators and student teachers. We are calling it Educate180. It all started when I was one of 26 educators world-wide chosen as a Google Innovator in the spring of 2017. My cohort went to the Google headquarters in London. There is where we started our design thinking training since we had to work on a year-long project. From that point on, I started thinking about various problems I faced as an educator and how I can solve those problems. One day driving to school I was thinking about the work I had to do at the end of the year, and how I had to gather all my evidence and artifacts for my teacher portfolio. All of a sudden I thought how cool it would be if there was an app and all I had to do was snap pictures during the school year to capture “good teaching.” Many educators have their cell phones with them. If I had a teacher portfolio app, I could have taken photos of my artifacts throughout the year and as I uploaded the image, I could put it into the correct domain and component. I thought how much easier that would make my life as a teacher, and I thought how beneficial it would be for new teachers and even for student teachers. We are thinking of possibly adding videos in the future to the Educate180 app to help teachers stay abreast of teaching techniques and continue to enhance their skills. We would also like a way for teachers to receive feedback and communicate with other teachers and even possibly the school administrators through the app. Hopefully the app will be ready to be launched in a month or two, and I can get the feedback from other educators who will try out the app.

What is your connection to your union/local association?

I try to constantly communicate with the union reps in my building to let them know what is working and what areas can be improved.

Why did you choose a career in public education?

My parents tried their best for me to have a much better life than what they had when they were younger. Both my mom and my dad had to overcome difficult times when they were younger. They only have an elementary school education, and they both had to start working at a young age to help their families. After my brother and I were born, my parents came to the United States and were determined to have a better life for their children. I remember as a child, my mom saying to me in Spanish almost daily as she dropped me off at school, “Alicia, be the best you can be. Don’t ever let anyone make you think you can’t do something. Anything is possible.”

I received a great education as a Jersey City public school student. I attended Public School #23 in Jersey City from kindergarten to eight grade, and I attended McNair Academic High School, also in Jersey City. I was a bilingual student from 1st to 4th grade. I enjoyed my 13 years as a public school student, and I want to give other Jersey City students the same great public school education I received.

Have you had a teacher or educational support professional who inspired you?

When I started teaching I worked with a wonderful teacher. Carole Czeto was a teacher who planned interesting lessons, and she always had high expectations for her students. She made sure her students knew what was expected, and she modeled and showed them samples of exemplary finished products. I admired her love of teaching and the way she would express her concerns at staff meetings. She wasn’t the type of teacher who would sit in the teachers’ room and complain. She used her time wisely and would speak up when she had a valid concern. She would offer ways to improve the situation or correct the problem.

If you had to describe public education in one word, what would that be?

Transformational

Public education is facing many challenges. One is the impact that COVID-19 has had on how we teach and how students learn. What have you learned about how you, your colleagues, and your students adapted to remote instruction?

I always hear the advice to move beyond dittos and worksheets. As a district we quickly had to come up with worksheet packets a few days before we started remote instruction. We had to gather work that would be sufficient for 2 to 3 weeks. After spring break, grades 3 and higher focused on digital learning. Many tried making learning fun, for example I assigned a steam challenge with simple household material, and I allowed family members to get involved with this project. Students shared their creations on FlipGrid. Parents and students explained how much they preferred the creative projects and activities versus the worksheet packets. Many kids actually disliked doing work from the worksheet packets we had to create for the first 3 weeks of remote learning.

During remote instruction I realized the difficulties parents face, and the importance of listening to their concerns and creating resources for parents. This proved to me that we need a data bank of various resources such as helpful simple documents and videos. Engaging parents with clarity is extremely important. I think we must always be on the lookout for ways they can support the work we do.

I think teamwork was also shown to be extremely important during this time. Creating and finding resources as a team, left you with more time to interact with students and parents and to provide helpful feedback for students to show improvement.

As a result of George Floyd’s murder, along with other tragedies targeting Black people, more and more people are supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. How has this affected you as an educator, and as a person, and how do you see yourself addressing systemic racism through your work as a teacher?

I have spent most of the summer listening to podcasts and attending virtual professional development discussing systematic racism. I decided to carefully plan my lessons and do plenty of research to show the different perspectives of events, especially when teaching reading and social studies. I am incorporating many picture books which deal with multicultural topics and social injustice. I have already received about 30 picture books from Donors Choose, and I am waiting for another set of 30 books to be fully funded. I am carefully studying the Teaching Tolerance’s Social Justice Standards which is a road map for anti-bias education at every grade level. Teachers can use the standards to guide curriculum development and to make classrooms and schools more just, equitable and safe. Teaching about “Identity, Diversity, Justice, and Action” allows educators to engage a range of anti-bias, multicultural and social justice issues. Currently I am connecting each standard to my read aloud picture books, and I am creating a timeline to cover all 20 standards. Another thing I would like to set up during the school year is a teacher/parent book club to address systematic racism.

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