Although I spent most of my teaching years in a regular elementary classroom, I was trained as a special education teacher. In my college classes I was taught to look at every student as an individual. In my student teaching experience and in my first year of teaching (in the Appalachian hills of Ohio) I had twelve students in a special education classroom and I never taught a whole class lesson. I feel lucky to have had this training which helped me in my future years of working with students.
When I moved to a regular elementary classroom (32 third grade students in the inner city of Los Angeles) difficult as it was, it was natural for me to teach in small groups and conference with individual students, it was what I knew. I was comfortable with allowing students to work on projects related to their own interests while I assisted a group or one or two students and I hoped it would teach the skills of third grade .
Even when I eventually moved to a suburban school district in Illinois with high expectations, (I don’t know why but) I didn’t worry about whether or not my students were learning what they needed to know to exit my grade level or to do well on the state assessment. For some reason I had confidence that the experience in my classroom would provide them with the necessary skills. Maybe I was naive, but I knew that my students were engaged and I believed that students that were happy in my classroom and explored their own interests (with my guidance of course) would learn.
Back in the mid 1990’s the school district that I was working in offered all elementary teachers a chance to have 10 computers, a scanner, several printers and a digital camera in their classroom. They called the classrooms, research classrooms. Out of 17 classroom teachers, only 3 of us raised our hands to have our classroom permanently rearranged to accommodate this equipment. I was so excited! I could not understand why everyone didn’t want this in their classroom. (did they know something I didn’t?) I overheard a teacher comment that this equipment might come with hidden agenda expectations. I was not concerned. I soon learned that the school district and my principal had only one expectation, that we used the equipment and integrated it’s use into our classroom. Not even knowing how to use most it with the support of an awesome tech teacher, Marc Garneau I learned along side my students.
I have been in and out of education for a long time and I know that I like change, I embrace it and although I never really had worries about the potential negative impact of it, I do understand the fears that some teachers have that are associated with letting go, allowing students to direct their own learning and providing a more innovative educational experience through the integration of technology. Teachers ask questions of themselves and of me; How do I know if my students will learn what they need to know? What is my new role as the teacher in a classroom where children direct their own learning? How will I have time to learn all of the new technology? Will I be able to grasp it? How will my students do on standardized assessments? Will my students perform well at the next grade? At the high school? When do I find the time to rethink how I teach? What will parents think?
So, how do I help teachers embrace and integrate blogs, wikis, skype, etc. and allow students to use these tools to direct their own learning and help eliminate the teachers’ fears? As George Couros said at the Educon conference in Philly this weekend, “We need to want our teachers to be great and we as principals become great through them”. I have the desire to encourage and support innovative teaching in my school and give teachers the tools and time to create a learning environment that engages students and allows inquiry and self directed learning. In Chad Sansing’s blog How Hard Is It To Get Out of The Way he asks the question, “Can we carve out the time from our busy testing lives to help kids demonstrate learning with immediate, positive impact?” I certainly didn’t claim to have all of the answers as a teacher, but what I did know was that my students needed to be involved and engaged and when I told them “Don’t let me get in the way of your learning”, I hope I didn’t.
As a principal, I obviously don’t have all of the answers. I want to encourage the teachers in my school to be the best they can be, to begin to let go of the old and at least be open to the new so they can engage their students and help prepare them for the future. I am open to suggestions of how best to do this and I welcome your comments.