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An Open Apology; To The Students Of My Early Years

After nearly a quarter century as an educator in a large, public high school, I suspected, but was unprepared, for the coming of this day. By complete happenstance, I became re-connected with several of my former students during a Twitter chat. It was a proud moment to know some of my favorite students remained engaged in educational pursuits. While the exchanges were pleasant and interesting, the communication caused me to think back to my early years of teaching and coaching. 

Knowing what I know now, I owe a sincere apology to the students and athletes of my first decade of teaching and coaching. I wasn't excellent, not even close. I wasn't very good at all. I'm sorry.

Way back in 1990, Mr. Freeman hired me to teach social studies at Palatine High School. He was the social studies department chair, a master historian, and the epitome of the "sage on the stage" teacher. Dave, a large man, filled the boards with "burnin' chalk" (history notes), carried a staff like Moses, and had complete compliance in his classroom. He was my first mentor and teaching model. He is also a terrific person, and a terrific role model for students and teachers alike. That said, my admiration for his classroom control clouded my perception of who I should be as an educator. I was trying to walk in his shoes instead of trying to break in my own.

Here is a partial list of reasons for extending an apology to many of my former students.

  • I worked to get complete compliance from my students. That was wrong.
  • I delivered content from the front of the room to rows of students. That was wrong.
  • I gave homework in an attempt to teach responsibility and diligence. That was wrong.
  • I gave zeros to students who failed to complete homework assignments. That was wrong.
  • I gave academic consequences to students needing behavioral modifications. That was wrong.
  • I gave praise without constructive feedback. That was wrong.
  • I did not involve my students' parents into the learning processes. That was wrong.
  • I used PowerPoint instead of chalk and thinking I was being innovative. That was wrong.
  • I gave objective tests that focused on content while disregarding learning skills. That was wrong.
  • I attributed student failure to their lack of attention and motivation. That was wrong.
  • I equated good coaching to blowing a whistle and barking out commands. That was wrong.

Fast forward to 2000, and I am feeling pretty good about my execution in classroom. I have completed my first Master's degree and I am ready for a new challenge. After some deliberation and some coaxing from my academic advisor, I decide to apply for National Board Certification. This endeavor proved to be very challenging because, when done right, it forces the educator to reflect upon their practice while tearing down, and then reconstructing, their pedagogy. The primary focus becomes the significance and impact of pedagogical practice on student learning.

I became part of a cohort led by our mentor, Penny Potter. We collaborated on analyzing and applying standards, critiqued each other's video lessons, and encouraged deep thinking and reflection on our teaching practices. Through nine months of peaks and valleys, tough conversations, and improved self-awareness, we became a small community of practice, all of us trying to improve our teaching craft for the betterment of our students. As a result of our connecting, reflecting, and analyzing, we started down a path of recreating ourselves as learners and educators.

Here is a partial list highlighting how learning became better for us.

  • We started using portfolios to authentically assess our learning. This was better.
  • We offered personal choices in the demonstration of our learning. This was better. 
  • We adopted growth mindsets to embrace challenges without fear of failure. This was better.
  • We researched school and community issues and viewed them as opportunities for authentic problem solving. This was better.
  • We practiced reflection though daily writing and discussions. This was better.
  • We moved the furniture, and we moved from place to place to encourage conversation and new thinking. This was better.
  • We focused on mastery of learning skills and information literacy. This was better.
  • We connected with other classrooms, and other schools to build networks of learning. This was better.
  • We did not focus on grades, nor did we have assigned homework. This was better.
  • We cared about each other, and what we could accomplish with our learning. This was better.
  • We became a team of learners with each of us having a role in supporting interdependence. This was better.

Was the next decade perfect? No, far from it. But our perceptions of school and learning changed for the better. As a teacher, I was working smarter while the students worked harder. I have recently renewed my National Board Certification. I am proud of this achievement even though I no longer teach G343 Psychology in room 275. My current classroom looks drastically different, no walls, no chalk, and no desks. It's more about access to information, social connections, and self-determination of learning. I now work primarily with adults in a quest to make schools more innovative and supportive of personalized learning.

My apology message to the students of my first decade is sincere, but so is my message to current educators. A learner's mindset, social networks, and reflective practice can save years of trial and error teaching, and maybe even avoid some of the guilt that comes from the recognition that things, "knowing what I know now", could have been better for the students. A personal learning network, and a desire to grow, based upon my 25 years of professional teaching experience, are essential components of being an effective learner in the 21st century. Teachers, if we don't modify our thinking and practices to mirror the connected world that we live in, then I expect that we will end up apologizing for not having met our students learning needs. Up next, why our concepts of classroom and instruction need to change.

Related Reading

We Have to do Things Differently - TeacherTech, Alice Keeler

(1) photo credit: rogiro via photopin cc

(2) photo credit: Dystopos via photopin cc


Unknown said…
Well written and thought-provoking, your "apology" sums up the true impact of the National Board process. I was also drawn back to our discussions as I recalled some of the hills and valleys of our discussions, and the need to reflective deeply in order to analyze our teaching skills. I was happy to hear that you had also gone through the recertification process: validation of your own lifelong self-learning process that you impart to your students.
Thank you for triggering my memories, and sharing your journey.
Thank you Penny - after nearly fifteen years, it's good to reconnect with you. I am confident that you are still learning, growing, and contributing to education, even during your retirement years. Nothing has impacted my professional practice nor personal perspective like going through the national board process. You were at the very front of this, and for that, I am indebted to you. Thanks again & take care, Bob

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