By Teachers, For Teachers
Describe your experience as 2008 Teacher of the Year.
It’s been crazy really, life-changing upheaval, but in a good way for the most part. It’s been challenging; it’s been fun; it’s been, at times, boring; kind of the whole gamut.
But it’s exciting to feel like I have a voice in education and in the larger policy world to some extend, and to have folks really want to know what I think and to know that they’re listening. That’s an unusual feeling for a middle school teacher. It’s kind of scary, actually to think God, people are paying attention. I better say something good.
On the whole, it’s been a unique and incredible experience. I’m not trying to recommend it to everybody, but it’s been really good.
What do you miss most about the classroom?
It was weird this year, starting school and not having school. Thinking that all my colleagues were there and my former students were heading back to school and I wasn’t there.
Mostly I just miss that daily relationship with middle school kids. There’s just a certain energy they have that I really thrive on. It doesn’t exactly get me out of bed in the morning, because I’m not a morning person at all, but once I get to school and kids start coming in, there’s an energy you don’t get as much with adults. I really miss that. It wears me out obviously and I collapse in my bed at night after I’m done, but there’s just that fresh, curious, creative, random energy they have….
I also miss that fresh, creative aspect of what I do because every day is a different show, a different performance and I get to see the performances of my students’ everyday. It doesn’t have that same spark of creativity that I’m used to.
How has it been to travel all the time?
It’s wearing on me. There’s only so much that free cranberry juice on a plane can do for you. It gets kind of old. The obvious part is being away from my family, I’ve got my wife, 9-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son. Being away from them is tough. It gets lonely.
I get to meet new people all the time wherever I go and a lot of them are interesting, fascinating people, but on the other hand, I don’t get to develop the relationships like I would in my normal classroom. I’m teaching still, which is my goal and my job, but it’s a very different kind of classroom. Usually it’s a few hundred people, a little larger class size. I come in, meet a few people, and get a little bit of feedback afterward. I miss having that continuity throughout the year of relationships.
When you return to school, how will this experience change the way you teach?
I’ve only been teaching for seven years and I’m the first to admit that I do not have it all figured out. People always say “oh, wow, you’re the best teacher in America.” No, no, no. I had some interesting things to say, apparently, that folks liked and a pretty face for the magazine (just kidding).
The reality is that I’ve got a long way to go. I’ve been picking up a lot of ideas and just the amount of reflection I’ve done on my teaching practice, on what I do and what I think is important has changed me quite a bit….
[Even the Oregon Teacher of the Year application] ended up being an amazing process of self-reflection of what I do and why I do it and how I teach. It was extremely valuable. Even if the rest of all this craziness wouldn’t have happened, if I had just sent the application and hadn’t made it any further in the competition, it would have been a good process anyway. I would have come back to the classroom a different person and a different teacher. It was cool. I came back that August really excited about the year and trying some new things again and innovating in different way. Obviously, now that I’ve been able to meet so many amazing educators and folks with interesting ideas, it’s almost too much. I don’t know what I’m going to do next September when I get back to school….This year has been a huge amount of growth. I have all these ideas that I wish I could try out tomorrow.
What is your favorite lesson to teach?
There are so many different crazy things that we do, from incorporating theater and the arts and music into scientific concepts and all the things that kids come up with… I can’t pinpoint just one.
The human brain craves new experiences and novelty. Think about how we, as biological creatures, get used to something and don’t see or sense it anymore. Think about smells. We lived next to a dairy for awhile. At first, it was like “oh my gosh,” but within a few weeks we didn’t notice the smell at all…My goal is not to have my classroom be like that dairy, where the kids just come in and not notice anything. They should come in and go “What’s that smell? What are we doing today?” – metaphorically speaking, of course.
Are there any connections between teaching and your previous work experience in the forestry industry?
Part of it, to speak metaphorically again, is that education has started to become a bit like forestry in a sense. The forest was a wood factory. If you’re just focusing on getting wood in, you have a harder time managing for sustainability, wild life, water, and all these other values that we think a forest should be. The same things happen in schools.
I got into education and realized that the primary driving goal seems to be test scores. There are a lot of unintended consequences. When you focus on a really narrow range of curriculum and test on those, reading and writing and math basically, everything else starts to fall by the wayside. Over the last several years under No Child Left Behind, that single focus has eroded the passion for a lot of teachers and a lot of students. Part of what I hope to do, in the classroom and on the national level, is bring that awareness that we need to formally value a lot more than left-brain skills of analysis and math and reading and writing. There’s a much bigger, broader picture that we need to be focusing on.
What was your best moment as a teacher?
[After an interactive lesson on gravity], a student of mine stood up from her chair at the end of the day and said: “Ya know, that was some of the most interesting stuff I’ve ever learned.” She had never expressed a whole lot of interest in science, it wasn’t her favorite class, and it wasn’t a topic she was all that thrilled about, but for her to say that, that’s what I want to hear.
To be honest, I don’t really care if she got it and understood it or had the right answer. The fact that she was inspired by that and was excited about learning, that little kernel sums up why I teach.
Sum up your teaching philosophy in one sentence.
There’s a quote that says it best: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” – Antoine de Saint Exupery
We really need to inspire our students to create, to want to create and want to learn.