being like-minded in education (translation: why I’ve become a New Tech fanboy)

Today, I was asked by an Illinois State Board of Education member about my pre-teaching experiences and about how relationships can be better built between future teachers and their cooperating teachers in the field.  (And that was the first question I got during a working lunch where a panel of teachers answered questions for ISBE members, the State Superintendent and other distinguished state leaders.  I guess for a moment I thought I was supposed to be the one in the room setting up rigorous experiences and questions…)  While a daunting question to tackle right after three periods of teaching, I certainly had some thoughts to share, but many of them were calculated over the course of a few years’ experience now in education.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the educators I am surrounded by nowadays.  After the success of the My Bloody Life project and debriefing a great day’s events with a wisened agent of educational change, New Tech Network‘s Theresa Shafer (@TheresaShafer), I have been turning over in my head her great synopsis of why I had such a great vibe from the day.  At one point, she simply asked, “Isn’t it great to be surrounded by people who are like-minded?”  Never was this feeling more true than when I read some follow-up student reflections that read:

I think New Tech is a great idea for all schools to have. With New Tech we are able to go beyond with research and resources. New Tech helps you to be more professional and also you get more business skills. We recently were able to Skype Alex Kotlowitz. This helped tremendously with my essay on gangs. New Tech helps get you known and have more experiences …I think that being able to do stuff like Skype and have presentations in front of other members in the community is amazing. Most average school do not have this connection so therefore it makes us different.

…or…

This was a lifetime experience to talk to a producer about a movie he made. This movie has so many points of view about gangs and gang activity. This is only possible in New Tech because the technology and resources makes this a good environment for professional work. Our project and his experience is related to the real world, to gangs, and how gang activity affects the people of the community and members of the gangs.

…or…

I [would] like to thank New Tech for letting us get the opportunity to talk to Mr.K, and I think we should start doing stuff like that more often.

Sure, so maybe I’ve become a bit of a “New Tech fanboy”, but couldn’t I say some of my students are, too?  There’s something rich and deep about feeling like you’ve subscribed to an ideal greater than just a sense of doing work.  And to see that your students have as well is the best icing on the cake you could ever taste.

When I rolled the the ISBE member’s question over in my head, I knew what a lot of people in that room knew.  What so many young educators or soon-to-be educators suffer from is a lack of experience in a learning setting divergent from of our own, past educational careers.  (Of course, I did.)  As future teachers entering into an undergraduate teacher training program, we knew we liked our high school experience, and then we expected that our days of being a good student could be replicated for our future pupils.  What we didn’t know about others’ educational experiences became what we needed to learn — our training became a journey of investigation/problem-solving that demanded us to explore on our own as we craft ourselves into the traditional teacher that many higher educational institutions prepare us to be.  Such an experience makes future teachers feel isolated because they must develop their own theories of education, outlooks on diversity, or, most basically, a vision for how they would want to build their own micro-communities.

When I began my answer to our distinguished guests, I was thinking of the lack of unity when I first arrived on my student teaching site.  I was walking into rooms where norms were already established; where relationships were already generated; where there was an expectation of  how much teaching emphasis should be on standardized testing; and where there was an expectation of what to teach, how fast, etc..  Yet each of these established factors were different down the hall between each room, department…things could vary greatly between buildings that are supposedly unified under the same district’s banner.  Does that happen?  Well, ask someone who works in a larger building.  All of these flashbacks certainly stalled me, because I’ve come a long way over the course of a few years.

But what came to mind as the feeling or experience that truly was a formative experience for me as an educator was NTAC, the New Tech Annual Conference that I attended before starting this year at a New Tech school.  That conference/training week became a marker for when I started to see that there were other educators who I could work with who believed in the power of collaboration; who embody the process of having inquiry-based conversations with students that lead to better decisions, norms or solutions; who generate better authenticity in order to to raise the stakes/rigor in learning; who imagine our future shaped by the tools that we empower our students to use, driven toward a shared purpose; and who glimpse at the future when they see  how students carry themselves in our schools.  All of which is in the power of the mind.

So, when I finally got around to tracing my cookie-crumbs back into the room (and not just searching all the depths of my professional head), my answer to the original question simply rested in the fact that we need to create closer-knit communities of teachers who are like-minded.  For me, that meant NTAC, where I learned to be a PBL instructor and learned to train students to take control of their educational destinies.  I think the greatest feather in the cap of our New Tech school is in the preservation of our common mindset on how to create new learning experiences, expand education beyond the classroom, or tackle student needs.  My “house” / New Tech school is comprised of about fourteen members, each of whom share a common mindset.  If we can replicate this in other schools, there’s no guessing as to what can be accomplished.

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