Evolution of Teaching, #BetterTogether

How did I get to where I am now? Funny you ask. I had to submit something just like like that for my CSULB Masters of Ed. and Administration program. Here is that statement.

My educational philosophy started forming around the time I started high school. I attended St. John Bosco in Bellflower, and it was at that time that I started to see the different teaching styles present in the faculty. I had never experienced such a wide range of teacher styles before, having come from a K-8 private school with only one class per grade level. There was no difference from one class to the next because the same teacher taught it all. Moving into high school, I had seven teachers a day, most with a distinct teaching style. It was a marvel, and it really made me want to come to school and be able to learn so many different ways.

There was the English teacher who expected much from his students, and had a lecturing style that I have tried to emulate myself. He drew all these images on the chalkboards, seemingly disconnected and with no context; it was a little overwhelming walking in the first time. But then he would lecture, about a book, about a chapter, about a poem, and he would connected all of these hand-drawn images together like a symphony, connecting them, explaining them, and making them come to life as the lesson went on. I can still remember the Ulysses lecture and the images he used. It was then I saw that it was not enough to know the curriculum; you had to make it come alive. In my own classroom, I have found myself using this strategy of dressing the stage and then using a lecture or lesson to tell the story. It is a great way to build anticipation and excitement into a lesson.

I had a health teacher who taught by fear. We were physically and mentally afraid to do anything that displeased the man. He was a former professional football player who taught as he coached; he expected nothing but complete and utter respect and obedience. We were to read the chapter, answer the questions, and turn it in. He would look it over (glance at it really) and stamp it and give it back. Minimal lecture, minimal talking, and complete obedience demanded, or he would go off on a tirade and yell. No one felt safe in that class and no one remembered much of the content after either. I am happy to say that not once have I resorted to yelling, punishment or threats in my classroom. I learned quickly that if students go in fear of you, they cannot learn from you.

Then there was the Salesian Brother who taught religion. He did not have the interactive board with diagrams of the English teacher, nor the fearful obedience of the health teacher. He was just a good man who knew how to talk to squirmy teenage boys in a way that got though their barriers and made them interested in what he was saying. He was part good-pal, part life coach, and part spiritual leader. He was an imposing figure (much more so than the health teacher was), standing at 6’6” and about 320lbs but none of his students were afraid of him. He would do things like hide test answers in the writing on his whiteboard, or make all the test answers “C”, have a daily quiz where you could get extra credit points, and he used an LED scrolling marquee in his room for announcements. He loved computers and tech, and the possibilities it represented. I guess my love for technology was born in that classroom, and the fun and memories built in that class stay with me to this day. Even the little things like the LED scrolling marquee. When I attend conference now, I have an LED name badge I love to use and get many compliments on. I learned that content is important, but feeling safe and welcomed, feeling like a community is essential before the learning can begin.

Throughout high school, the wide range of styles and philosophies on learning fascinated me, and led me to become a teacher myself. I had plenty of examples of teaching styles, and had first-hand experiences of what styles worked for me and what worked for others. Mostly, I think it was the underlying care for students and a willingness to help them succeed that shone through as important. The little lessons and anecdotes got through. It was caring for and about all students, as hard as that might be at times, and finding that connection to help them become their greatest self. As soon as I declared a major, I knew what I wanted to be and do.

Going to CSULB for my undergrad was a great experience as well because I joined the Learning Alliance, an on-campus service group designed to get students involved in learning and into PLCs, although that is a term coined more recently. This first PLC helped me stay motivated and on-track with studies, even when life threw wrenches into my plans. I became a father my junior year, and without the support and guidance of the Learning Alliance and my PLC, I do not know if I would have graduated. My peers drove me to be better and reach for my potential as much as my teachers and guidance counselor. The power of us working together and supporting each other had a lasting effect on my personal educational and learning philosophy.

I was also privileged enough to help co-teach the University 100 class in the Learning Alliance program. It was a revelation! As a junior, I prepared lessons, taught, graded and lectured for a group of 25 freshmen. I was able to try out some of the teaching styles I experienced, both in high school and at university. I was able to construct meaning from textbooks in my educational classes. I got immediate results from students about styles and feedback from peers to my methods and demeanor.

After earning my degree in English Education with an emphasis in Creative Writing, I embarked on my first teaching job for the Bassett Unified School District. Bassett is a small community in La Puente, CA. It has a high English learner population (about 70%) and a high poverty rate (about 90%). It was the opposite of both where I grew up and where I went to school. I had not taught anything like these kids before. I enrolled in my credential program through the University of La Verne at this time. Teaching during the day and learning how to teach at night was tough. Tougher because of the circumstances surrounding my students, and tougher still because as a new teacher I was given the lowest of the low classes. My tenth graders were reading at between a third and fifth grade level. I was learning strategies at night and implementing them in the morning.

Once again, my PLC saved me. I had a great mentor teacher that would debrief with me weekly or daily if I needed it. I got pointers and lesson plans from her, I got theory and strategies in class, and somehow I tried to meld the two during the day. It was nothing but determination and grit that got me through that first year, and with the experience under my belt, I took a summer to review the year and get myself ready for the next. It was my PLC, the teachers at my school, the teachers in my credential program, the teachers from my high school, that pushed me and motivated me to become better at my craft and provide a solid foundation and love of learning to the students that came though my door. I began to live the philosophy that we are better together.

As I accrued years under my belt, I became more confident and the lessons came easier. I honed my teaching style, being a mish-mash of all the teachers I really loved to learn from, and tried to reach all my students on at least some level. For about five years, I was content in perfecting the craft and being the best I could for my students. I became more outspoken on matters of curriculum, equity, accessibility, and leadership. I wanted to help beyond my classroom; to extend my reach to more than just the students in my class. I volunteered for committees, I took on projects, I coached swim. I wanted the successes I was seeing within my classroom to grow. Leadership attracted me, and I saw myself being finally affecting students beyond my four walls. My first venture into leadership was union leadership. I was a building representative, then negotiations team member, then union vice president. I fought for the mundane things like no furloughs, higher pay, and better working conditions, all the usual suspects in the union’s influence. I was happy being a leader, but I was not having the impact on the campus or the students as I used to.

At my site, I was on the leadership team, and when we agreed to apply for a Smaller Learning Communities grant from the department of Education, I spearheaded the program. The grant’s goal was to create these smaller learning communities on our campus to increase student engagement, student achievement and student/teacher rapport and relationships. The premise was if you could engage students in a smaller community-style setting within the larger setting of the school, you could establish relationships and build the student capacity for in-class and out-of-class performance. After the SLC grant concluded, I worked on the advisory program at my site. This was a period where teachers and students could connect. A homeroom-style period with some tutoring time, some faculty outreach time, and some community building time. It was in the same philosophical vein as SLC, that building connections between students and teachers, that this community and advocacy building would make us better as a class, and as a community of learners. It was by building the personal relationships we could hook and re-engage students in school. Without consciously knowing it until much later, I was recreating the atmosphere that helped me succeed. The support system and relationship building present in the Smaller Learning Communities and Advisory programs mirrored the PLCs that helped me get through high school and college. My participation in this program also showed me how I could use my leadership skills and teaching experience to have a greater impact on my campus than I ever could in my classroom.

More leadership opportunities came, from webmaster and master schedule at the high school to Technology committee, MOVE network, and union leadership/advocacy. The technology committees started to dominate more and more of my time, and being site lead for gradebook, testing, and attendance programs earned notice at the district level. Currently I am a Technology Integration Specialist. My job has two main objectives: 1. to make sure all students have access to a technology enhanced, dynamic, 21st-century education, and 2. make sure teachers feel supported as we make this transition from workbook and testing heavy teaching philosophy to technology enhanced and product-driven student learning environment. I demo lessons for students and teachers, and support teachers as they try to innovate and transform their own teaching and learning. It is upon this wider stage that I hope to spread the “Better Together” philosophy, reaching ever higher and expanding my PLC.

Now is the time to take these learnings to the next level. I want to be able to bring the “Better Together” PLC philosophy to my district in an Administrative role. I have seen so many pools of brilliance in my district, teachers doing really amazing and innovative lessons, integrating technology in new and exciting ways, and increasing rigor, achievement, and engagement. I want to be in a position to help spread these good practices, to watch pools turn into lakes, lakes into oceans, until our district shines. I want to be able to make the policy decisions that help move us forward. I want to coach teachers, and highlight success. I want to empower our teachers to reach out and learn from each other. We should be a community of teachers striving toward the same goal, reaching for our success and ready to assist and enhance lessons and learnings around us. It will take innovative leadership, engaging all stakeholders, and having a passion and a belief that we already have to tools and personnel we need to get “Better Together.”

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