School's back in session today - in fact, my prep period finishes in six minutes and then it's lunchtime, and I have about a million unfinished jobs - not to mention the fact that the school scanner seems to have a built-in roulette wheel, and once again I've scanned a student's comic and the scan looks TERRIBLE.
But I'm feeling really, really good.
This morning I wrote "Welcome Back" on the top of my whiteboard. It's a small detail, but it's not something I would have done two weeks ago, and I'm conscious that I did it because I'm thinking about the sort of culture I want my class to have - and I want the "default setting" of my class to be kind, warm, and supportive. More to the point, that's how I want to be.
This post isn't about the pedagogical ideas I heard at the conference, though I'm thinking about it a lot after the Deeper Learning conference, and it isn't about authenticity in projects (though I'm desperate to start designing projects by going to local nonprofits and local government and finding out what kinds of challenges my students can help them with).
This post is about returning to my roots.
Nine months ago, I was an education researcher, writer, presenter, and teacher of teachers. Sometimes when people asked what I did, I said "teachers and school leaders outsource their reflection time to me." I looked at different models of 21st-century skills, I studied schools that didn't have school buildings, schools that didn't look like schools. My most frequent criticisms of "innovative schools" were comments like "The actual TEACHING that happens is pretty traditional." I cowrote a publication entitled 10 Ideas for 21st Century Education. Here's how it starts:
People make a lot of assumptions about education: lessons should last for about an hour. Mobile phones should be switched off during school. Pupils should learn in classrooms. And, fundamentally, pupils come to school to learn, and teachers come to school to teach. These assumptions are so common, because they match the way that most of us were educated
But this version of education was designed in and for a very different time, and there’s no reason to assume that it will meet the needs of today’s learners. In response to the challenges we face in the digital age, schools are starting to do education differently. Why restrict lesson times to an hour when half-day sessions allow pupils to delve really deeply into subject material? Many young people have smart phones, so why not allow them to be used as learning aids? Adults learn in the real world, why not let pupils? And, fundamentally, the best teachers are people who love learning, and the best way to make sure that you understand what you are learning is to teach. The schools that are taking this seriously are still in the minority. But across the world there is a growing global movement towards achieving the vision of 21st century education.
I won't take credit for those words (they were revised by several different people, several times, and i can't remember who actually wrote most of them) but when I read them today, I stand by them. However, something changed since "10 Ideas" was published: I started teaching.
Today, a part of me wants to share this publication with my students - but another part of me says "Do I REALLY want to have a big discussion about cell phone use in the classroom? What about hour-long lessons? MY lessons last an hour! And going out in the real world is awesome, but it's such a hassle getting parent drivers..." And of course, my revolutionary attitudes about overturning teacher-student power structures are much less attractive now that I'm a member of the ruling class.
But my thinking has changed in another way: I keep finding out that other people have concerns about students that have never occurred to me before - a big one is making sure everyone has done a "fair" amount of work for the credit they're given (for example, if kids are making up work because they've been sick or travelling with their parents). I just don't care that much, and it seems too difficult to quantify to me (particularly because the amount of effort that a particular task takes a particular student is HIGHLY variable).
Now, generally speaking it's important to talk to people with different priorities from your own. But when you're a new teacher, it's difficult to maintain your equilibrium and stay true to yourself, because you know that everyone around you has more experience than you, and you're doing a really, really complicated job that sucks up your weekend, so it gets difficult to think straight about big, foundational issues like "What do I care about? What's the purpose of my class? What do I want for my students? How do I know they're getting what I want them to get?"
There's a cliche about new teachers, that they come in idealistic, full of visions for how they're going to transform education, but once they're in the classroom they discover how crazy their fancy ideas were, and they hunker down to teach in the "real world".
I think it's true that teachers tend to become more "traditional" than they plan to be (I certainly have) but it's not because that's the right way, it's because when you start teaching you are clutching for whatever structures you can find, and no matter how true it is that smart phones are the most extraordinary research tools ever to be subsidized by parents, knowing that fact will NEVER help you maintain control of a classroom. And control of a classroom precedes everything else: you cannot cede authority unless you have it to begin with.
This brings me to why I'm feeling so good: I went to the Deeper Learning conference during Spring Break, and it reminded me of what I believe about education and affirmed that my beliefs have a theoretical basis and some empirical data backing them up. It reminded me that when my ideas conflict with "how it's normally done", it's entirely possible that my ideas are right.
I need this so much more as a teacher than I ever did in any other job. It's not easy to be true to yourself in this business, but events like Deeper Learning 2013 help.