Monday, January 9, 2017

Reflecting on five years of learning

I was asked to reflect on my professional growth since I started teaching, considering risks I took and the leaders that mentored me in the journey.  I see a few key actions that pushed me to where I am now:

  • building and refining project-based (PBL) Stats
  • coaching our FIRST robotics team
  • connecting to the MTBoS (online community of math teachers with an annual F2F conference)
  • co-teaching and co-designing an effective remediation Algebra course
  • pushing for Grand Challenge Design and its co-taught second round

All of these actions became growth opportunities because of the combination of challenge and incredible mentorship that came from the people around me in each.

As an intern teacher back in 2011-12, my formal mentors (and now co-workers), Rob and Troy, gave me an incredible degree of freedom to try new things.  They modeled a process of trying something and carefully analyzing the data to assess its effectiveness.  Their lack of experience with project-based learning didn't keep them from letting me try to implement it, but they stayed engaged with me as coaches by asking tough questions and pushing me to reflect on what was working.  After developing a first iteration of a PBL Stats class as an intern, Rob handed off the course that he had been teaching for years to let me continue to iterate the curriculum once I was hired on.  A few years later, when my schedule crowded out Stats, both he and Troy continued to develop and refine from what I built, despite it being outside of their comfort zones.

During my first "real" year teaching, a student pushed me to start a FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) team.  Thanks to good timing with funding becoming available, we started our team a year early -- two days after the new season's kickoff.  This nearly killed me, as it requires spending every second of January-March focused on learning a game, buying up parts, keeping a bunch of kids and families organized and engaged, and...building a robot.  We didn't fare so well in our first two seasons, but our team learned a ton and built up a base of students, mentors, and sponsors.  Four years after starting the team, we now have two of our own rooms in the Community Education (now district admin) building with 3D printers, a CNC router, tons of tools, and a warehouse of electronics and mechanical parts.  We expanded the program down to kindergarten and helped to grow the district to having ~7% of enrolled students on a robotics team.  The key to all of this was the network of mentors that we built up: they officially mentor the students, but unofficially have been my teachers and supporters.  Many are parents with years of industry and life experience who speak their truth, though even our younger mentors continue to teach me tech and amaze me with their commitment.

One of the easiest, but highest-reward actions as a teacher has been plugging into a community of other math teachers.  At my school, I have my PLC team that is amazing.  Part of our team always attends and presents at the Minnesota Council of Math Teachers (MCTM) conference each spring, plugging me into the larger community.  The most powerful connection has been plugging into the national/global community known as the Math-Twitter-BlogoSphere (MTBoS) -- if you tweet at other math teachers, write a blog, and/or comment on other blogs, you are plugging in.  The self-organized community developed a ton of resources that I now pull from and has many of the best teacher-leaders I have ever met providing free professional development and direct support for other math teachers.  I am not a frequent blogger or tweeter, but when I hit a wall or am in a new development push, I always turn here first.  Though I respected the ideas and resources of the community, I really bought in after attending my first Twitter Math Camp 3 years ago.  My first one required a 10-hour drive to Oklahoma to spend 4 days in non-stop conversation with some incredibly kind, supportive, and innovative people who happened to also teach math.  After going to dinner or having long chats with so many of these teachers, I am that much more interested in what they have to say in their reflections.

Hands-down, my most challenging experience as a teacher is my Algebra class.  It is a co-taught special education inclusion class that is designed to move all students up to grade-level math by the end of 9th grade.  The behaviors of any 9th grade class were enough to crush me my first year teaching, but this group and some of the uniquely challenging behaviors were insanely hard for me and my co-teacher, another young teacher, to manage.  We had frequent chats with our principal, Steve, as well as our math and SpEd PLC, as they all did their best to coach us through a variety of situations.  In order to make things work, we tried everything and found a few approaches that worked well, at least for a while, and built up strong relationships with our class.  This year, though I am with a different team, I feel MUCH more confident in my ability to co-teach, to keep order in a classroom, and to teach conceptual thinking about math to a group that has had nothing but procedure thrown at them for a long time.

My most exciting professional adventure came with the start of Grand Challenge Design.  The course sparked from an email thread about the idea of a STEM-focused school in Byron, and within a couple weeks, was turned into a course proposal that the awesome leaders in our district and school supported.  Conveniently, I was just starting Jen Hegna's Innovative Instructional Leadership Certificate program, and I latched the new course plan to the majority of my coursework.  This reading, discussion, and general structure pushed me to plan much further ahead than I usually did, so much so that the idea of the class simulation was born out of work.  Jen's feedback, as well as the conversations with other cohort members, pushed GCD far beyond what it ever would have been, and I continue to learn from the students, and class mentors that push me and teach me new technology skills every day.  The simulation, in turn, opened the door to multi-disciplinary coursework to purposefully take place within the GCD structure.  Again, supportive leadership shaped and approved next year's offering, a 3.0 credit block of technology (elective), social studies, and English credit, co-taught by a three-teacher team.  That experience, assuming enough students register for it, will bring full circle the full course development, robotics program, and co-teaching that led me to this point.  I can't wait to take what I am doing and learning this year and get pushed by two more teachers that are with me daily.

Looking back, my rate of learning has been crazy-fast, and yet it is amazing how much I still do not have figured out.  Being a good teacher is incredibly hard, but I love the journey.


  1. I love hearing about the experiences you have had during your teaching career, it's amazing to me to see that you were "just" an intern teacher only 5 years ago. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall when you were teaching that 9th grade Algebra class. I truly believe that those challenging classes we teach make are the ones that truly make us better teachers. They keep us on our toes, but like you said, they help us really fine-tune our class management skills. And there is nothing better than co-teaching. I'm thankful I get to keep being a part of your journey for a while longer. And I am really looking forward to my current 8th grader being in that 3-teacher team class of yours, she's already excited about it, and so am I!

  2. Andy, I am always amazed to hear your ideas, however, hearing your journey is even more mind boggling to me. Starting out you did some amazing work by jumping right in to revamp a course, not knowing if it was going to stay or not. Your dedication and motivation towards our line of work is one that is truly admirable.