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I am Superman, though I may look a lot more like Clark Kent

By Vijay Koilpillai, AVID Staff Developer and Elective Teacher, Palmer Middle School

AVID Elective teacher Vijay Koilpillai gave a stirring speech at our Orlando Summer Institute. In this excerpt from his speech, he explains how teaching became his superpower. Click here for video of Vijay and our other speakers from the event!

I am Superman, though I may look a lot more like Clark Kent. I’ll come back to the Superman thing in a few minutes.

I wasn’t always Superman. My journey as a teacher began in August 2004 at Campbell Middle School, just northwest of Atlanta. I was a classic first year teacher. I had all the content knowledge and wisdom to share, and zero knowledge of how to motivate and engage the mostly disenchanted, underprivileged students in my classes. I was naïve enough to think that my passion for literature would inspire students to become fluent readers and writers; that somehow the right metaphors would ignite a flame within my kids that previously wasn’t there. Needless to say, it was a rough year. My kids weren’t buying what I was selling. It was the kind of year where I taught with my body contorted in such a way as to never allow my back to be fully turned towards my students. It was the kind of year that required a good, long soak in my neighborhood pool and an adult beverage after work. I felt like I was failing my kids. Though I rarely complained or let anyone know that I was struggling, my parents worried, to the point of sending me a set of videos on classroom management (a great boost to your self-confidence when Mom and Dad start getting involved). I ended my first year of teaching with a vow to never allow it to happen again. See, the individual determination part of AVID was never a thing for me. I’ve always been motivated. I just didn’t have the skills or strategies to engage and inspire my kids.

So I made some adjustments and returned for my second year, during which my new principal invited me to attend AVID Awareness. During this conference, AVID educators and students demonstrated the benefits of the program. I was inspired by the local AVID students who spoke with such poise and confidence about their future goals and the strategies they were using to pave their roads to success. We were hooked. We spent the remainder of the year preparing for our first class of AVID students the following year. We also attended AVID Summer Institute and learned strategies to increase rigor and provide the support for our students to excel in challenging curriculum. I was asked to teach the AVID Elective and coordinate our program. As I immersed myself in AVID methodologies, I noticed a pronounced difference in my teaching posture. I gave up the contortionist act as I gave up the center stage of my classroom. As I began to transform my classroom from rows and sit-and-get lessons to a collaborative, inquiry-based model, I finally realized the truth about my experience as a first-year teacher. I’d had it all wrong. Our Summer Institute theme this year is “Student Success Starts Here.” I had been falsely operating under the belief that student success started with me. As I continued to grow as an educator, with the support of my colleagues and through the frequent lessons learned from my AVID students, I figured out that student success starts within each student. Success begins with the passions and dreams within each student we teach. The more I improved my relational capacity by high fiving students at the door and leading team-building lessons in which my students began to feel comfortable and let their guards down, the more successful I became as a teacher. I eventually transformed a room of apathetic faces into a space in which smiles are the norm.

Eleven years have passed since I first set foot in the classroom, and I’ve taught over a thousand students. I still work tirelessly to help students formulate their big dreams. I still believe in changing the world through education. AVID Staff Developers have taught me strategies to engage and inspire my students, and AVID Summer Institute has allowed me to share my passion with hundreds—and now thousands—of educators, extending my reach to tens of thousands more students. And in my eleventh year of teaching, I’ve finally realized…

I am Superman.

My shirt and tie are my cape,
Apathy is the only kryptonite I know.

Though I do not have X-ray vision,

I do see through the clichéd excuses of students, parents, and fellow educators that enable failure.

Though I am not faster than a speeding bullet,
I can help you get organized and on the road to acing your next test faster than you can say “binder check” and “Cornell notes.”

Though I cannot leap a tall building in a single bound,

I plan instruction, grade assignments, mediate conflicts, communicate with parents, facilitate peer-tutoring, empower student leaders, plan college fieldtrips, answer myriad emails, collect and analyze data, hire, train and manage tutors, and, oh yeah, teach six classes in a single day!

Though I do not regularly foil the overly elaborate plots of comical evil-doers,
I do foil every attempt at mediocrity plotted by those who would lead my students astray.

Though I am not stronger than a locomotive,
I am a mentor, coach, advocate, counselor, and surrogate father to hundreds of kids in need.

I am superman,

And so are you!


Vijay Koilpillai began his teaching career at Campbell Middle School in Smyrna, Georgia, where he taught the AVID Elective and served as the AVID coordinator. As a member of the building leadership team and through his role as a subject-area coordinator, Vijay served as a leader and promoted AVID strategies schoolwide. In his third year of teaching, and his first year eligible for the award, he was nominated by his peers as Teacher of the Year. Vijay is twice recognized with the Martin Luther King, Jr. Humanitarian Award, and played an active role in student extracurricular activities, volunteering as an 8th-grade basketball coach and sponsoring AVID student government. After nine years of service at Campbell, Vijay transferred to Palmer Middle School, an AVID National Demonstration School, to teach the AVID Elective class. Since then, he has co-authored AVID Critical Thinking and Engagement: A Schoolwide Approach and helped lead his site team through a successful Demonstration School revalidation cycle. Vijay attended  Boston College and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English. After moving to Atlanta in 2002, he earned a master’s degree in English Education. Vijay is a devoted husband and father of two little boys.

For more on AVID, visit http://avid.org/what-is-avid.ashx.

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Reader Comments (1)

Vijay, your allusion and metaphorical references are magnificent. Your commentary on student success starting with the student and their dreams is poignant. As teachers we can help to shape the dreams. Perhaps we can demonstrate that they are attainable with hard work. But we are not the source of the dreams. You noted the importance of relational capacity and this cannot be understated. Students will seldom aspire to exceed expectations unless they feel safe and respected in their learning spaces. They will not dream if their sole thought process is mired in apathy.

Thank you for sharing your story, your struggles, and your success. You have inspired me to find a way to step my game up--to exceed my own expectations, and for that...I am most grateful.

July 17, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Bendall

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