Challenges Remain

It was 1994 and my second year of teaching in a district in suburban Pittsburgh. While most of my teaching schedule included gifted classes and college preparatory physics courses, I was also scheduled to teach two sections of a science class that offered students their “last chance for graduation.” At least that’s how my principal at the time described the class. All graduating students needed to earn a certain number of science credits and this class served those students who hadn’t been able to earn those credits yet. I had taught the class the previous year and found it to be an interesting mix of all sorts of students. Sure, some of the students had difficulty getting motivated and others struggled to learn in more traditional classroom settings, but I had navigated my first year and learned how to make it work. With a year of teaching under my belt, I felt like I was prepared for the new academic year and to work with a new group of students. I didn’t know at the time how one student would test that belief.

Dan (not his real name) strolled into my third period class looking like a middle-aged man who was part of a biker gang. While he was only 17, he easily looked like he could be 40. He had a thick beard, wore a black leather vest and had tattoos covering both of his arms. While lots of people have tattoos today, in 1994, very few people had them. Even now, the types of tattoos that Dan sported back then are rarely seen. On one arm, Dan had a tattoo of a demonic-looking clown holding a severed head. On another arm, he had several that showcased violence and destruction. I have to admit that I was instantly intimidated by Dan. And that intimidation proved to be warranted.

To say that Dan challenged me as a teacher would be an understatement. He questioned my instructional choices and tested my classroom policies. He disrupted class discussions and regularly turned well-planned lessons into fits of chaos.  Each morning, I’d study the absentee reports and hope that Dan’s name would appear on the list so I could have a day of respite from his misbehavior. For the better part of the first few months of that academic year, Dan lived rent free in my brain. Every professional moment was spent worrying about the chaos that Dan would unleash in my class.

But then, things changed. I stopped Dan one day on his way out of class and asked how we could work together to make things a little more positive. I explained that he couldn’t graduate without my class and I couldn’t create a good classroom environment without his cooperation. We were stuck together, whether we liked it or not. And we needed to better trust and respect each other.

Over the next few months, things got better. The classroom disruptions disappeared and his challenges became less frequent. Dan began to let his guard down and I came to better understand him as a student and as a person. He came from a poorer section of the district and was being raised by a single dad. His tattoos and clothing were his way of letting his wealthier peers know that he wasn’t one of them. He was an outsider and he wore his biker gang attire like a coat of armor. It protected him and hid him at the same time. He didn’t see much point with school or even with graduating, but that single conversation changed our relationship and our classroom interactions. I’m happy to report that Dan graduated at the end of the year. I was even invited to his graduation party.

Sadly, it doesn’t always work out that way. Every teacher has worked with challenging students. Every educator has had a student doubt their ability or question their decisions. But I’ve found that most students will respond like Dan when given the chance. For the rest? I guess I’m still working on that.

The Elephant in the Room

There’s a parable that’s been shared in Buddhist, Hindu and Jain texts that goes something like this:

“A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: “We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable.” So, they sought it out, and when they found it they groped about it. The first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said, “This being is like a thick snake.” For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, the elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk. The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said the elephant, “is a wall.” Another who felt its tail, described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, stating the elephant is that which is hard, smooth and like a spear.” – Wikipedia

While the story is about perceptions and perspectives, it’s also a lesson about how each of our viewpoints may be limited in scope, even through our best intentions. While we may see something one way, another person may it very differently. Based on our limited perspectives and the information we have, our descriptions may be accurate. But truth can be a complicated animal.

I was reminded of the elephant story recently. I was attending a presentation led by an administrator from another institution. In the presentation, the speaker discussed the pressing challenges facing education today. While he spoke broadly about K-12 education, he also outlined the significant issues facing colleges and universities in the coming years. He talked about how higher education as an industry needed to be aware of “consumers’ return on investment” and be conscious of the experiences of “the end user.” He discussed making sure that our “credentialing” reflected “workplace-ready skills” and that institutions of higher education needed to provide the “highest quality for the lowest cost.”

I have to admit my initial reactions to this speaker’s take on education was mostly one of disdain. Not that I didn’t agree with his perspectives or anything. It was just so foreign to how I viewed this awesome, communal enterprise of teaching and learning. While I tend to focus more on the interactions and transformations that happen through our educational efforts, this administrator was viewing education as a business transaction. From his point of view, education was an industry where a consumer purchases a product. And while I tend to focus on concepts like building learning communities or fostering critical thinking, he was talking about education strictly as a commercial venture. To him, higher education is a transactional experience, like a person buying a toaster. And our job as educators was to make the best and most affordable toaster we can.

I realize that I may be overly cynical with his perspective. Administrators deal with the day-to-day financial aspects of our institutions and have to see things from a much more comprehensive point of view. While educators are working with students in their classes, administrators are charged with sustaining the long-term economic viability of our institutions. And while our work may be different, they are interconnected. Like the elephant’s tail is connected to its body which is connected to its head, the magical stuff that happens inside the classroom is inextricably connected to the work being done by administrators who focus on the economics of our institutions. Returning to the elephant parable, it’s like I’m the blind man feeling the head of the elephant while they’re the ones holding on to a much different part. And though our perceptions may be very different, they’re both accurate.

I’m just glad that I’m holding on to the part I am. Some of the other parts stink.

Practice Gratitude

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but things are still pretty stressful. Sure, some of us are beginning to see a light at the end of the tunnel as friends and family members are getting vaccinated. But the day-to-day anxiety and stress still exists. While everyone is being hit hard with this pandemic, I think our teacher friends are being especially challenged. The teaching profession is predominantly guided by an “ethos of care” and that ethos is being tested daily. Teachers are working in new settings that seem to be constantly evolving. Their students and colleagues are getting ill. Their family members need attention. And they’re dedicating long hours trying to prepare lessons that simultaneously engage “the Roomers and the Zoomers.” It’s a stressful time, to say the least.

And I can see the impacts of the stress with my teacher friends. I see their posts on social media. I read the texts they send me and the Instagram photos they’ve posted. Like a boxer who has survived ten brutal rounds of a twelve-round fight, they may be standing but they’re on the ropes. They’re exhausted and they’re struggling to stay on their feet. And I’m sure a few are considering throwing in the towel.

And that’s where YOU come in. I know last week I invited you to write a blog post detailing what you’ve learned from the pandemic, but this week, I’m going to urge you to do something even more important: Practice gratitude. Think about all of those amazing teachers who have influenced you and helped you become the person you are today. Maybe you remember that fourth grade teacher who helped you practice your multiplication tables or that high school English teacher who gave such detailed feedback that you blossomed as a writer. Or maybe you remember that coach who spent hours throwing pitch after pitch so you could master your swing. Or maybe you’re thinking about the Biology teacher who helped you with that science fair project or the social studies teacher who fostered your love of history. Whoever you remember, now is the time to let them know. Practice gratitude. Say thanks. Let them know the impact they made in your life.

You don’t need to send a long email or a hand-written note or anything. Sending a simple email where you say “Thank you” will go a long way. Just to be clear. I’m not naive enough to believe that a single email will wipe away all of stress and anxiety from eleven months of teaching during a pandemic. But returning to my boxer metaphor, that “Thank you!” may act like a shot of adrenaline to get them through the next round or two.

Here’s one of the toughest parts about the “ethos of care” aspect of the teaching profession. Care is not a tangible entity. We can’t capture care in a bottle or detect it with any scientific instrument. So, while teachers are tapping into their deepest reserves of care to help their students (and others) through this pandemic, the impacts of care may be felt but they are not easily observed, even by the teachers offering it. And that’s why practicing gratitude is so important right now. It lets teachers know the impact of their work. Gratitude can make the invisible visible. It uncovers what is felt but cannot be seen. Gratitude can reify care.

The trick with gratitude is that it benefits the one offering gratitude as much as the one receiving it. So, while your words may be helping a favorite teacher get through a difficult time, you’ll also reap the benefits. At least that’s what the research from the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley says. So, even if you’re having a tough time navigating the pandemic yourself, practicing gratitude may help you, too.

To steal a line that Ross Gay offers in his poem “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude,” I want you to “Bellow forth.” Express your gratitude unabashedly. Send that email. Offer your thanks.

It won’t change the world. But it may make a teacher’s day.

An Invitation: What the Pandemic has Taught You

As we approach the one year anniversary of the educational disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve been thinking a lot about the last year and the lessons this crisis has taught me. The pandemic has taught me about the power of relationships, the importance of family, the need for connection, and… well, I could go on. But beyond the personal lessons I’ve learned from the pandemic, I’ve been thinking about what it has taught me about teaching and learning. As I’ve mentioned before, this academic year marks my 29th year of teaching and I would argue that I’ve learned a lot about this profession in the last year as I navigated these unprecedented times. As I’ve pondered these lessons, a single question has become a regular motif of puzzlement resonating through my brain for the last month or so. It has joined me on walks. It has taken showers with me. It has kept me company as I stare at the ceiling at 3 AM.

“What has the pandemic taught you about teaching and learning?”

And originally, I was prepared to use this space to answer the question. But I’m not going to do that. At least not today. Instead, I thought I’d offer it to all of you. If you’re reading this blog, you probably work in education in some way. You might be a college professor or a kindergarten teacher. You may be a college administrator or a high school principal. Maybe you’re someone who I’ve had the privilege of working with as a student or someone I’ve been grateful to have as a teacher. Regardless of your role, this pandemic has been rough on all of us. It has profoundly impacted our work and changed us in the process. So, let’s embrace it and reflect on it.

So, here’s my invitation. I invite you to answer the question and email it to me. I’ll share the responses on this space starting in mid-March to coincide with the anniversary of the pandemic disruption. My posts usually top out around 500 – 1000 words, so that’s the only direction I’ll provide. Otherwise, the posts can be as personal as you like. In my eleven years of blogging here, I’ve never had a “guest author” before, so this new territory for me. But I trust you, my educational friends.

If you’d like to participate, email your response to me at oliver.dreon@millersville.edu and use the subject line “What I Learned” so I know your email is not some crazy spy bot or anything.

Submissions are due by February 28, 2021.

Thanks for considering this. And thank you for the work you do.

The Coin of the Realm

I’ve been working in the Educational Technology field for the last fifteen years or so. To me, the EdTech field is a pretty broad umbrella, encompassing online learning, classroom technologies, emergent areas of innovation and all sorts of cool devices. As someone who used to teach a subject (high school physics) that didn’t change substantively in 200 years, it’s wild to work in a field that is constantly undergoing change and development.

While the EdTech field is constantly changing, the primary voices and leaders also seems to change. Figures who seemed to play a critical role a decade ago now have been replaced by new voices with new ideas. As I’ve navigated the field, however, I’ve noticed some interesting (and concerning) aspects of these leading voices. Often they’re gifted writers and presenters who can inspire people to try new things. I won’t list specific people or anything, but if you’ve attended an EdTech conference and been inspired by the presenter, chances are, I’m talking about him or her. Or if you know some cool acronym or catchy term that some EdTech leader developed, I’m probably talking about that person, too.

To be clear, I’m not against the fact that these leaders inspire educators to try new things. As teachers, we should constantly examine our practices and look for new ways to reach our students and help them learn. My concern doesn’t come from the inspirations that these EdTech leaders offer, but the evidence (or lack of evidence) that they provide in support of their innovations. If you work in the EdTech field, go to your bookshelf and pull down one of the books written by those inspiring leaders. Check out the references and citations they provide. I know there are a number of these popular EdTech books that don’t offer a single citation or reference in support of the innovation they’re promoting. That’s the same for some well-known technology integration frameworks and some new pedagogical approaches. They’re promoting these new technologies and innovations without any solid supporting evidence. To me, that’s troubling.

When I point this out to some of my EdTech colleagues, their response is typically “But it makes sense.” While this may be true, whether an instructional technique or educational technology “makes sense” or not shouldn’t influence our decision making. Instead of looking for explanations and innovations that fit our worldview, we should look for evidence to inform our choices. I recognize that may be tough for some innovations since the technology typically outpaces the research by several years. That shouldn’t deter us from trying to make evidence-based instructional decisions, however. It should be our charge as educators and it should be the practice that we model to our students.

As educators, we argue for the importance for critical thinking skills and push our students to make evidence-based arguments. Evidence should be the coin of the realm in education, not just for our students but us as well. And that means challenging EdTech leaders to do a better job of providing it for the innovations they promote. To me, that just makes sense.