Mason alum collects accolades, but his students are the real winners

Tim Cotman, BA English '95; MEd Curriculum and Instruction '99, is the equity and excellence coordinator at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Arlington, Virginia. "When kids are exposed to opportunities," he said, "they excel."

Tim Cotman is on quite a winning streak.

The equity and excellence coordinator at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Arlington, Virginia, was named the school’s Teacher of the Year in December 2017. He was named Arlington County’s Teacher of the Year in May 2018 and Virginia’s Region IV Teacher of the Year in October 2018.

“The whole process has just been affirming, validating, exciting,” said Cotman, who creates teacher training, parent workshops and student activities that focus on closing the opportunity gap between students of different races.

The recognitions put a spotlight on Cotman’s unexpected career journey that began at George Mason University, where Cotman, BA English ’95, MEd Curriculum and Instruction ’99, discovered his true calling.

Though both his parents were educators in Charles City, Virginia, Cotman said he wanted to go into engineering. But after being a mentor in Mason’s Early Identification Program (EIP), which provides access to educational resources for middle and high school students who would be the first in their families to attend college, Cotman switched his major to English and decided to pursue education as his profession.

“I realized when I was at Mason and working with the EIP program just how rewarding it was,” Cotman said. “Because we were with the students every week, tutoring them, the consistency of having people who cared about them and who were interested in helping them reach their goals, I saw the change that it made in the students. That was rewarding for me, and I wanted to do more of that.”

“Clearly, he was a thoughtful, serious person,” said Mason English professor Keith Clark, who taught Cotman in several African American literature classes. “And there was always the curiosity and intensity with him that I recognized.”

Cotman has put his equity and excellence program at Jefferson on a broader footing.

“When I started in this position, I felt like it was more designed to fix the kids,” Cotman said.

Cotman said he realized that teachers also needed training in cultural competence and responsiveness. And parents needed to learn to navigate the system to get the most out of it for their children.

“There are stereotypes about kids of color that can play into how we interact with them and their families,” Cotman said. “When we’re talking about bias and implicit bias and thinking about the messages we’ve received about people who are different from us, we need to take note of how we interact with students and families.”

“With students,” he added, “it’s exposing them to opportunities so they can see all the different areas they can go into, areas they may be underrepresented in.”

For example, a robotics team for girls of color, started a few years ago at Jefferson with a community partner, went to a state competition.

That’s another reason to talk about an “opportunity gap” rather than an “achievement gap,” Cotman said.

“Because when kids are exposed to opportunities,” he said, “they excel.”

Tim Cotman (fourth from right) with the robotics team for girls of color at Jefferson Middle School.