In the last decade, I’ve seen the education world through four different lenses: as a student, a teacher, an administrator, and (now) from a policy world.
When I was a student, I thought the world could be changed if we had more engaging teachers.
When I was a teacher, I thought the world could be changed if we had more support from administrative leadership.
When I was an administrator, I thought the world could be changed if we had more resources or policy support.
The rest of the blog post explores my journey through each of those roles, and the little bit of perspective that I’ve gained.
MY LIFE AS A STUDENT
I used to hate school. With the exception of a few classes, most of my memories involved me sitting in a wooden desk in a strict row, staring out the window or sketching figures on a piece of paper, waiting for the bell to ring. It wasn’t that I hated learning; in fact, it was the exact opposite! I loved learning new skills and having new experiences, and I often felt like I was being stifled in a one-size-fits-all environment.
I often felt like my real education started when I arrived home. I would spend all of my free time at the library and traipsing around the house, asking my parents to teach me what they had learned. I watched my dad teach himself home remodeling, photography, and a variety of other hobbies through his own self-prescribed curriculum of online videos- and I became enraptured by the opportunities that the Internet was able to provide.
When I was in the sixth grade, I was asked to write a career paper- and fueled by this hatred for a traditional education, I told my teacher I wanted to be a public speaker for school choice. Luckily, she didn’t take my brazen statement offensively, and she gave me the opportunity to research some of the complex issues surrounding the public school system. I modified my dream job to being a public speaker for school reform… and ten years later, I decided to take the first step of working towards that dream job by being the first person in my family to graduate from college- and with a teaching certificate.
I thought that I could take that teaching certificate into a classroom and build an environment where students felt inspired to love learning again. I also thought that I could use technology to do that.
MY LIFE AS A TEACHER
I was wrong.
After only one month of teaching in a paperless, hybrid-online classroom, I realized my students hated school just as much as I used to. I had implemented technology with the intent of engaging students, but all I had done was replace poor pedagogy with the digital version of poor pedagogy. I realized that teachers do more than just teach content, and I realized that building a learner-driven environment requires much more than putting a student in front of a computer screen.
I look back at the beginning of my teaching career as one of the most humbling experiences in my life. My perception of education -and the dichotomy of effective and ineffective teaching- was replaced by a cognizance of the complex issues surrounding pedagogy and school reform. I no longer look back at my childhood and see myself doodling in a notebook. Instead, I see my teacher trying desperately to individualize her instruction for twenty different students with twenty different learning styles. I see my teacher growing more and more frustrated because she doesn’t have the support to be innovative in a system that values rote memorization and standardized tests above authentic learning experiences and performance-based assessments. I also see my teacher being told that technology can engage students, and I see her watch new teachers use that technology as a replacement for effective teaching.
I started out as one of those new teachers who used technology as a replacement for effective teaching. However, I was incredibly lucky to have a strong support system of peers, college professors, and administrators with a deep understanding of best teaching and learning practices.
I realized, with shame, that I was looking back at my childhood with biased negativity. Yes, I had some classes where I was disengaged- but I also had a lot of classes that taught me to think critically, collaborate, communicate, and be creative.
- My 4th grade teacher inspired me to write by giving me the opportunity to attend a writing conference at a local art museum. She then took me and a classmate on a special field trip to meet a local author.
- My high school English teacher taught me to think critically about the world around me. She embedded philosophical lessons into everything that we read, and encouraged us to question the status quo and be thoughtful about the social structures we lived in. Instead of giving us an essay prompt in response to one of our readings, she challenged us to fix something in our community. My project (which was connecting elderly community members to helpful teenagers looking for community service) ended up continuing for two years- long after the assignment ended.
- My high school Autos teacher taught me that intelligence isn’t fixed. I learned that getting A’s on standardized tests in my other classes wasn’t going to help me when I was stuck on the side of the road with a flat tire, and I gained a new appreciation for technical career fields. Even though I struggled with these projects, my older brother and my dad continued to foster technical opportunities for me. Because of all of these teachers, I had the confidence years later to do my own oil changes and take a job as a theater technical director (which included basic maintenance of electrical equipment and a construction/carpentry shop).
- My acting professor in college taught me how to be comfortable with failure. His favorite phrase was, “Risk. Fail. Risk again.” There was no excuse for sitting on the sidelines, and I learned to be comfortable exposing my vulnerabilities in a public arena. I received better marks in his class for taking chances and failing than I did for playing it safe, and that lesson never left me. When the opportunities to be a restaurant manager, web designer, education technology consultant, theater technical director, school district administrator (etcetera) presented themselves, I jumped- knowing that I was taking a risk by throwing myself into work I might not be ready for.
These teachers, among many of the others who taught me and worked with me, showed me that pedagogy has been built on decades of research, and teachers have been creating learner-driven environments forever. I learned that students needed to be given authentic, real-world experiences to be engaged, and I learned that students will surpass all expectations when they are given the opportunity and support to design their own assessments.
I also learned that personalizing learning for students is incredibly difficult to sustain without digital tools; so, I started to use technology again. This time, however, I used technology to support my teaching rather than drive it.
I started using content management systems as a more efficient way to communicate with students and parents. I started using cloud collaboration tools as a more efficient way to give formative feedback on student work. I started using a personal learning network as a more efficient way to find and share resources. I started using a flipped classroom as a more efficient way to individualize the way I delivered direct content. I started using digital quizzes and e-portfolios as a more efficient way to assess student knowledge.
And when it was more efficient or effective, my students used pencils.
I know that my experiences as a new teacher were not normal. I was incredibly lucky- I was comfortable adapting to new technology because of my childhood experiences, and I was also able to improve my understanding of pedagogy because I had encouraging administers, reflective peers, and an excellent teacher preparation program.
MY LIFE AS AN ADMINISTRATOR
I realized quickly that I wanted to provide the support for other teachers that I was lucky enough to have, so I took a district administration job focused on instructional technology. I also started doing freelance work as a consultant.
After working with a lot of teachers in a lot of different school districts, I realized just how overwhelmed teachers (and administrators!) really felt. In most districts, there wasn’t a clear vision of education technology- and often, there was even a disconnect at the district level between the curriculum department and the technology department. There were curriculum directors and administrators working to improve educator effectiveness through curriculum redesign, evaluations, and initiatives like PBIS… and on the other side, there were technology directors working to put technology devices and tools into educators’ hands.
As a result of this, I often saw two types of teachers: those that knew how to use technology, and those that knew how to teach.
There were the teachers who were early adopters of technology: they knew how create websites and flip their classrooms with video lectures, but they often lost sight of how to build rich, performance-based assessments that encouraged critical thinking skills.
On the other side, there were also the teachers who knew how to build authentic learning experiences, connect with students, and drive learning- but were completely exhausted because they didn’t know how to leverage technology to be more efficient in their work.
Even worse, I couldn’t reach the teachers I needed to- because at the end of the school day, teachers were completely exhausted. Even if they wanted to attend a professional development class, they were slamming their afternoon cup of coffee and getting sucked into a vortex of after-school activities, phone calls with parents, paperwork, lesson plans, and grading. They didn’t have time to think about one more thing (especially when the vision wasn’t clear) and I really couldn’t blame them. A year ago, I was in the same situation.
I realized that I was spending my time focused on the wrong thing. Providing professional development wasn’t enough- I needed to have a plan for how to influence organizational change. I refocused my efforts on trying to develop a district-wide technology strategy and leading the media specialist team.
I became obsessed with the connection between technology and pedagogy- and I started connecting with other administrators and educators who were obsessed with the same thing. After hundreds of hours of research and connecting with experts, I was able to form a small consortium of like-minded individuals in other districts- and we worked together to build a technology integration framework, strategy, and course (www.edtechchallenge.com). The goal of this project was to promote technology adoption as a means of improving efficiency, with a focus on best teaching and learning practices. The framework for the course was built around the tasks that teachers do (collaboration, curriculum organization, resource acquisition, content delivery, behavior management, and assessment) and how technology can help make those tasks more efficient. Instead of overwhelming teachers with new education technology jargon, the focus was simply to help teachers find a more efficient way to do what they were already doing (in a learner-driven classroom environment).
As a result of this work, I was able to start providing a vision and framework for change for my district. What I quickly realized, however, was that providing a direction was not enough. What we really needed were policy changes. Making that vision a reality across an organization required eliminating as many barriers as possible. These barriers could be physically obvious (weak infrastructure and lack of technology devices) or more abstract (lack of collaborative work time with instructional coaches).
I began to put all of my energy into these “tipping points”, and finding small ways to make change happen faster and more fluidly.
One of the greatest successes I had with a tipping point was when my district switched from an hourly model of professional development to a personalized, competency-based model. Instead of requiring “16 hours of professional development”, we created a portfolio for teachers to set goals and self-track their own learning. Teachers were no longer subject to the whims of a one-size-fits all inservice model- they could reflect and grow as individuals and be recognized for the individual contributions they brought to the profession.
MY LIFE IN A POLICY & RESEARCH NONPROFIT
Without any warning, an opportunity presented itself to work on this particular tipping point full-time when I became connected with a national policy and research nonprofit. One of the new initiatives they were planning on tackling was micro-credentialing, with a goal of empowering teachers to have a voice in their professional development through competency-based certifications.
Even though I loved what I was doing, I knew I couldn’t pass this opportunity up- so within a few weeks, I sold everything I owned, packed the rest of my belongings into a Ford Fiesta, and took the six-day trek out to San Francisco, California.
I don’t know what’s next.
The more people I meet and the more perspective I gain, the more I realize how little I really know. I’ve already become wrapped up in the San Francisco startup bubble where every person I meet is going to “change the world through an app”. I know that there is no one solution that will finally make education accessible and equitable for everyone. However, I do believe there are tipping points that bring us slightly closer to the world we want to live in.
And you know what? It’s not just the startups who are focused on finding a solution.
There are also a lot of innovators in the government and nonprofit world who think that their policy might be the tipping point that will change the world.
There are also a lot of innovators in district administration who still think their leadership might be the tipping point that will change the world.
There are also a lot of innovators in the teaching world who still think that their lesson plan might be the tipping that will change the world.
Like I said, I know that there is no one solution that will finally make education accessible and equitable for everyone. However, I have met so many passionate, dedicated, and motivated people in this field. I might still be naive, but I’d like to think that maybe, just maybe, if there are enough innovators who think they can change the world… well, maybe they actually will.