Teaching isn’t a simple one-way exchange. Often there are lessons to be learned from the very act of teaching, whether it’s an instructor finding new ways to reach—or not reach—students, to watching students grow before your eyes to discovering what makes collaborative learning so successful.
Christina Romero, digital learning coach, Santa Fe Public Schools in New Mexico:
When I was teaching third grade, I had a student who truly struggled with her behavior. She lost her temper very quickly, she had to be in control of everything and she always wanted to be in charge. Any time there was a group activity, she had to be the first to share. But then she was not a great listener and often overtook everybody else. When you would call her on that, she would get very frustrated and angry, and quite often she just couldn't calm down enough to stay in the room.
We had decided her calm space was in the hallway where she could be still close by, and she could come back in as soon as she felt ready. In the beginning of the school year, it would take her quite a bit of time, 30 minutes or longer, just to get to a place where she could return to the room. Her anger and frustration where that intense.
My science lessons are very collaborative and inquiry based, so students are working together in groups or pairs, and sometimes she struggled with it. One day during a lesson, she lost it. We went into the hall, had a brief talk and I came back in to return to the lesson. Then about a minute later, she returned as well. I noticed it, but what I hadn't realized is her classmates noticed it too. And this is where I get shaky talking about it because I'm so proud of them.
One of the other little girls who really was trying to be her friend, even though there were often conflicts between them had told me, “I'm not sure I should be her friend; friends don't treat each other this way.” But she saw her walk back in the room and said, "Oh my gosh, you were only out there a minute. Do you realize it used to take you a long time? And you just came back in after about a minute and you're ready to work with us.” It was amazing.
I do a lot of work with the relationship building and I always thought of it as a way for the kids to work together, because they need to share ideas, share materials, share their learning. But I hadn't really thought about that next level where they helped each other be better people. It really is worth the time to build those relationships and it’s not just for me as the teacher—it goes beyond between me and the students. Even though they will move on to a different teacher the following year, or even other schools, they will be in the same grade cohort for many years. And the relationships that students build between each other, they will benefit from those.
Abigail Joseph, middle school director of learning, innovation and design, Harker School in San Jose, California:
When I was at my previous school, every year the seventh- and eighth-grade students studied either the Silk Road or the World's Fair. This particular year they were teaching the World's Fair, and I worked with the students to create websites. At that time I was a computer science teacher, and I worked with this amazing team of eighth-grade teachers. Teachers from humanities, science, writing and our social justice coordinator came up with a web design project for students around the World's Fair. Each student developed a website for the country that they were studying to promote a pretend nonprofit that was going to spur the citizens of that country into action around some problem that the country was facing.
What surprised me the most were the end products. They were able to do the copy for the websites in their writing and humanities classes, and I got to just focus on the technology aspect.
My words to sum this all up would be “collaboration makes ideas take flight.” It wasn't the student collaboration, it was actually the collaboration with the other teachers that made this great project possible. If we weren't all able to sit in a room and figure out how we could utilize each other for our different pieces of the project, I don’t think this great idea would have ever gotten off the ground. To collaborate is not to give up your time or compromise, but to make you feel inspired about what we teach.
Julia Dexter, co-founder of Squiggle Park:
I was interested in founding Squiggle Park after working in technology for years. I have four kids, one of whom really struggled with reading, and by grade four he was identified as a child who needed to go for psychological testing to see if there was something beyond normal struggle. Seeing how long it would take to actually diagnose the challenge and get him help just wasn't acceptable to me as a parent, and I really started to look at what did engage him. I thought he was bored at school and I wanted to find a way to get him inspired to read and to feel confident.
What always struck me was how addicted my kids were to the screen. And it was amazing to me that as a parent I could do anything to try to keep them motivated and engaged, and then I put them in front of a screen and all of a sudden it's this magic. What's happening there?
I was surprised how quickly [my son] lost confidence. He went from being a super engaged, social kid with tons of friends, to losing confidence quickly when he saw that kids were moving beyond him. I thought that if I could capture that same addiction [with technology], but have the content that they're consuming be focused on the learning that they need to be strong and confident readers and learners, then maybe there was something magical that we could do in education. And that's what got me into the education sector.
The word I'd use to sum up my experience is transformative, because I went from being a technologist, working with large enterprises on how to get people to use technologies in their businesses to really trying to understand how we can innovate in education to provide solutions that kids really love. I've been classrooms now for many weeks at a time just watching teachers and how they struggle with classrooms with diverse learners across a vast spectrum of skill levels. And I know that we have the capacity on the technology side to work with educators to provide fantastic tools.
Rudy Azcuy, CEO of Teach n' Kids Learn:
I previously had a special position at a middle school as an at-risk coordinator. I worked with students to enhance their capabilities to close whatever gaps they had instructionally, and to help them move on and graduate from high school to close the dropout rate that was very high and prevalent in our area.
In my family we had a rule when we were growing up that once we finish and graduated college, we had to go back to education. It was something that my mother required of us—we had to go back to education and teach for a minimum of one year. After I graduated, I was working as an electrical engineer prior to coming back to education. And I didn't know that I would fall in love with it. Not only with children, but teachers, my peers and the system itself. I thought I was just going to do my year like my older sister and my older brother did and then go back to whatever it was that I was doing. Little did I realize that my connections to the students and to the people that I had the fortune to deal with would change me.
I met this seventh grade student, and he was two grades behind [academically]. I was trying to appeal to him and his family to keep him involved in school and I tried everything I could, every opportunity, and it wasn't working. One day he just told me, “You could do whatever you want Mr. Azcuy, and it's not going to help me. It's not going to make a difference because I'm not here to go to school anymore.”
So many people tell you that you can't save them all. And it hit me in that moment, and it was extremely sad. It's a person, it's a life, it's a whole ripple effect right there in front of you and realizing that you're powerless at that moment.
What I learned from that moment was that I had to change, I had to do something different. I had to think outside the box to make a difference in others. In that role, I learned to do make a difference in the lives of so many people that I could touch and that they touch. I spent ten years teaching and then I moved on to make a bigger impact in professional development across the country so that I could bring this excitement and lessons learned to others.