I promised I would blog my response to a question in a week to share all of the things that I didn’t get to say when I had the privilege of speaking to Todd Conaway’s learning community. First, let me tell you that I am a huge fan of learning communities, and it broke my heart when the 2008 recession forced cuts to this professional development model. It’s one of the best forms of teacher support that is tough to substantiate funding for, but it works. Kudos to that mighty UW-B group for carving out the time to write, talk, listen, and learn together. Endless gratitude for all of the wonderful things you shared about my talk in your blog post.
So why is this post happening three weeks later? Well, life, as they say, comes at you quick. My washing machine broke, my job changed, and the puppy we have been waiting months for came into our lives. And I lost a sweet cousin to suicide. I tell you all of this not to make an excuse, but to share why I needed a bit more time to gather up my thoughts.
A promise is a promise, so let me start by sharing the context to the question I want to follow-up on.
As part of my rambling-somewhat-coherent story about how writing has helped me as a teacher, I told the story of my first teaching experience where we were given a notebook–an actual three-ring binder–full of assignments and lesson plans. That new teacher binder became the foundation of courses I would teach for over a decade and the basis for my pedagogy as a teacher, administrator, and All The Things I do now. As a graduate student, I was incredibly lucky to have two advisors who mentored a cohort of 20 TAs into their first experience teaching. I was hired as an adjunct twice solely because of the stellar reputation of my program and the many talented people who preceded me in the Washington job market.
I was an “adult-returning student” in this cohort of 20, one of the few who had attended community colleges, and I had a very nontraditional path in higher education by my own choice. I walked into my first classroom as a brand new teacher ten days after 9/11. To say I had little in common with my students was understatement. I felt older than I looked, I was a bit lost in my personal life, so I took the job very seriously, and I felt like I was finally doing what I always dreamed of becoming. I followed everything in that new teacher binder like a script. Like a map to a place I’ve always wanted to go.
Four years later, I was asked by the scheduler of a community college’s English department if I wanted to teach an online section. The woman who had been teaching was taking her family to England for the year, and he said, “I need this class on our schedule. Nobody else wants to do it.” I jumped at a guaranteed contract, and a few days later I got an email inviting me into a Blackboard course where I had a copy of this woman’s curriculum. Long before I understood forking a course or copying courses in an LMS, I had a new online teacher binder, if you will. Her announcements, her assignments, course outline, gradebook, everything, and then I was advised to put my own handouts in this online course.
I was certified as an “online teacher” but the course was more about training me to use the functionality of the LMS than it was about pedagogy. The day my students were loaded into my course shell, I entered into a modality I had never imagined when I thought about being a teacher. More importantly, I had never been an online student.
I was probably in fourth grade when I first thought that I wanted to become a teacher, and teaching on the internet would have been in the realm of science fiction. I’ll tell you how old I am without telling you my age. Ready?
Prior to dreaming about being a teacher, I wanted to be Sheila E.
Quick digression: In an undergraduate “Women In Literature” course, I was asked to write about my first recognition of a feminist act, and I cited Prince putting the spotlight on Sheila E. in a video for “I Would Die 4 U.”
He could have had any drummer in the world, and he chose a woman. It fucking blew my little girl mind! My teacher wrote three exclamation points in the margins and later shared that I was the only person to cite a musician and a man at that. I remember the class getting very quiet, and I’m sure I started sweating when she read from my essay. She used quotes from my paper as a “teachable moment” to discuss gender and sexuality, and the question of who is a feminist and why. She later shared with me that she saw Prince five times at various clubs in her youth (so bitchin’) and asked if it was okay if she used my essay as an example for future students. The essay was typed on paper (I’m old), so I don’t have a copy of what I wrote, but it planted a seed in me that you could use the work of students to teach other students. I was so elated and proud of myself that a teacher liked my writing. Rest in peace, Prince, and thank you for showing me that chick drummers can, and still do, rock just as hard dudes.
Okay, where was I?
Binders full of assignments (not women, ha! Sorry for that Romney joke during my preso, UWB, friends).
As a new community college teacher with a binder full of paper handouts and lesson plans, I inherited the same thing as a community college teacher only now it was all digital in an LMS at a time where there were very few examples of what it looked like to teach online (for me). It was also the dial-up era, and courses were designed with folders within folders within folders. A labyrinth lengthy process to do anything, really. Long live the folks who work(ed) in IT and tech support who helped students and teachers make that leap from in-the-classroom teaching and learning to being online. You are the unsung heroes of education.
None of us knew what we were doing, and I’m sure my students, my poor students, suffered as I learned on-the-job. I’ve written about this extensively on this blog as free therapy. Thank you, readers.
My experience during that era sent me to exhausting levels of empathy, despair, and anxiety during the Covid-pivot-to-online teaching in 2020. I’ll write about that another time, but I had a front row seat to what those teachers and students experienced. At scale, as we say. If somebody were to pay for me to go grad school and I was ten years younger with the drive to be in grad school, I would study what changed pedagogically for teachers who already taught online and those who did not before the pandemic. I’d look at how the zoom-ification of everything in our lives influenced online pedagogies. How that forced experience helped, hindered, or stalled the development of different synchronous and asynchronous modalities that institutions are now offering.
There’s your research question if you need one.
Also, while I’m making shit up: If I have one wish for the universe, it’s for a follow-up of all the students featured in Learning Online: The Student Experience by George Veletsianos. In short, I believe people did the best that they could during the pandemic quarantines, but it has shifted the focus on comparing synchronous and asynchronous in ways that worry me.
Veletsianos puts it best: “…comparisons between face-to-face and online course are ultimately unhelpful and that any course is on as good as its design and its ability to meet he need of it students. In other words, ‘which one is better?’ is the wrong question to ask (p.24).
I say all of this to emphasize that there really isn’t a playbook for what we are doing, and there hasn’t been from the start. You can cite all the data you want and all of the studies you can read, but I believe we still do not know what we do not know. I only trust people who are asking more questions than providing answers.
I do know, however, that what we witness as students with our own teachers is the foundation for what we become as a teacher. What other form of employment provides 16-22 years of observing your future job? Around the time that I realized it was more likely that I could become a teacher than a drummer in a funk band, I started to pay attention to what my teachers did. And I took notes and dreamt of what I would and would not do.
The great tragedy of the Covid-pivot is that all of the teachers who either resisted or ignored online teaching, got thrown into a modality where they had never been students.
To put it another way, it’s really difficult to teach in a modality that you have not experienced as a student. It feels like walking in somebody else’s shoes. Dancing to music you do not like. If the new teacher binder was a map for me as a new teacher, then the inherited online class felt like shoes that took a while to break in. I’m torturing a metaphor here, so let me try to explain some more.
I now work in a setting where there are often several faculty members who set up the 21st century version of “the new teacher binder” by creating a “course shell” or a “master course” or whatever you might call it. For example, I have helped two teachers create a course that is then shared with over 70 adjuncts. If that makes your brain and heart hurt, then hear me out. Those adjuncts are then given the opportunity to change and personalize whatever they want once the main course is copied. And yet most of them do not. They use everything as-is, and the dozen or so I’ve worked with over the years are grateful because they have multiple jobs or full-time jobs in their profession.
Having this new teacher binder is a welcomed system of support for them. One teacher described that having this course allows her to share more of her experience with her students and focus on them as people. Adjuncts, as many of you know, are not paid for course prep, office hours, or any “clock hours” outside of the class.
So this brings me to the question I came here to answer! What I would say to new teachers who are facing teaching for the first time and they are forced to use a curriculum? What if what you are being to asked to teach feels like walking in somebody else’s shoes?
Here’s the thing. Here’s what I would say.
It probably feels wrong because you know you can do something better. Or perhaps it’s going wrong because the curriculum is nothing like what you experienced as a student. Or maybe you just don’t like anything in the new teacher binder.
Know this, new teacher, it’s a good skill to have because someday you might mentor a new colleague or share your work with another new teacher. And this experience, as painful as it might feel, is serving the future you. Every time you have to teach with something from that new teacher binder, take notes of what you would change, what you would do differently, and try to connect with another person who is doing the same thing. Commiserate. Celebrate. And write about it. Always write about it. Even just a few sentences. Keep a paper journal if that helps. Use a note app on your phone. Whatever feels right to you. Know that all of your former selves one day—including who you are right now– will help new teachers, your colleagues, and your future students.
The notes that I took during my first year of teaching in a classroom and teaching online became the foundation for my teaching philosophy statements, too many presentations to count, and a lot of the material for the work I do now. Eventually, you might be in a position to change the content of a new teacher binder in your future department and you’re going to want a record of why you felt that way and what you want to do differently.
Also, I would say that you can insert creativity and little bits of yourself in the delivery of that material like my adjunct example above. Sometimes the obsession we have personalizing the content, takes up the valuable time that we could have with human beings. Any teacher using a “master course shell” can still personalize the content in announcements, in the way that they respond to students’ work, and in the examples they use to explain something that students may not grasp from the course content.
And know this, new teacher, it’s a really hard job, but you will never stop learning. The student in you will never be bored.
That’s what I would have said had we not run out of time, UW-B learning community, and thank you every so much for your kind reflections. You are a special group, and I am honored you spent some of your precious time with me.
And Todd asked me why it’s important to write about teaching, and I’ve thought about that question a lot. I think it’s important to hear the voices of the people doing the work. The qualitative messiness of teaching is often drowned out by the ease of collecting quantitative data. That’s a story for another day.
I’ll leave you with a quote from an influential writer in my life who always privileges the human beings over the content and/or the tech, a teacher’s teacher, reader’s writer, and a wonderful storyteller Audrey Watters.
She summed it up best in her book Teaching Machines: The History of Personalized Learning why I think it’s important to write as a teacher, why I think it’s important to write:
“If you were to only read the histories of education and education technology as told by the technologies and technology booster, you’d end up, no doubt, wth a story much the like the one Sal Kahn offers in his video—a story in which there is no mention of racial segregation or desegregation or re-segregation, no mention of protests over wars or civil rights, no mention of legislation or court rulings. The satellite Sputnik is granted more agency in shaping twentieth-century education than students or teachers” (p.17).