The First Five Years: Lessons Learned from Five Years of Teaching

I’m closing in on the end of my fifth year teaching.  It’s crazy, but in a matter of days, I’ll be able to say I’ve been doing this job for five whole years.  That’s half a decade — almost 20 percent of my life on this little blue planet.  And if you were to ask me, just five short years ago, when I was accepting my first job, if I’d be sitting here, in San Francisco, helping build a network of micro-schools from the ground up, I’d tell you you were crazy.

But perhaps this is what makes life exciting — the fact that none of us actually know where we’re going to end up.  It’s a little unnerving, sure, but I can tell you firsthand that the past five years of unpredictability have taught me more than just how to teach kids; instead, this job has taken me from being an overgrown adolescent to being a real person, a human being, and a man.

I’m excited to share just a few of my lessons with you, but take them for what they are — my lessons. Yours may very well be different.

IMG_34721) Don’t be afraid to say “no.”

The world is filled with “yes” men.  And I suppose that, in a sense, the world needs “yes” men.  We can’t all be disagreeing all the time, but when it comes to teaching, there really are very few absolutes.

At the same time, I’ve gone through phases where I’ve said yes, and done so far too many times.  By constantly saying yes, you welcome in way more than you’re ready to bargain for, and suddenly, you find yourself in a place you never anticipated on getting to.

I’ve found it’s best to be agreeable, but remember that it’s okay to disagree, and that it’s okay to have a dissenting opinion. It’s these dissenting opinions that disrupt the norm and innovate.

2) At the same time, recognize that progress needs a purpose.

“Progress for the sake of progress isn’t really progress at all,” said Dolores Umbridge, infamous interim headmaster at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.  While her methods didn’t quite work out for Hogwarts, it doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a grain of truth within this mantra.

Bottom line — there are tons of education “fads” out there.  Just like in any other industry, people are looking for the next best thing, and oftentimes, something radically different looks and may even feel like the next best thing.  It’s important to remember that, just because it has a fancy name, and just because it says it’s research-based and progressive, doesn’t mean it will work.  In fact, the strongest teachers I know build the basics first and use those to rule out truly progressive initiatives from the vanity initiatives.

IMG_39123) Find the line between humility and arrogance.

This is a tough one.  It’s likely that, by the end of the first year, you will feel beaten into the ground.  But by the end of that year, you will also feel the energy and inspiration to start anew.  Slowly but surely, many new teachers make the easy mistake of turning their humility into arrogance.  They suddenly begin to think they’ve figured it out, that they know it all; but it won’t take long for this idealism to end and for their wax wings to melt, sending them straight down to the ground.

There’s always something new to learn, and you’ll never know everything.  So be ready for a lifetime of reinventing, replanning, and innovating.  It’s more fun that way anyway.

4) Listen to your students.

They know themselves better than you do, and they’ll find tons of little ways to tell you, even if it’s not with their words.

5) Share.  Share. Share.

One of my students’ parents came up to me the other day after I shared a song at our school’s variety show. I played the piano, sang my song, and walked off the stage, happy with my performance, and happy to have shared a piece of myself with my students.

“My daughter told me,” this parent began,”that when I listened to you sing, to close my eyes — because you sounded like a different person on the inside.”

This never occurred to me, but I had felt like a different person — on the inside that is.  When I sing, and when I share personal and emotional pieces of myself, it opens me up to my students in a way that helps them truly see me.  In a profession where relationships are paramount in making progress and nurturing students to meet their full potential, I cannot think of a stronger lesson I’ve learned.

Looking into Next Year

Authentic relationships are built on trust; trust is built on truth; and truth can only come through vulnerability and sharing of ourselves.  I’ll admit, hearing my student’s insights on the seemingly grand difference between me as a teacher and me as a singer made me feel both proud and sad.  I view my job as a very emotional one, and it occurred to me that, perhaps, under the stress of a new job, a new city, and a radically new setting with all new people, that maybe I hadn’t been my full, true, and authentic self this year.  Perhaps I was too caught up in the to-dos and have-dones to stop, share, and invest in more bonding time with my students.

But the silver lining — and yes, I’ll leave you with a “bonus” sixth lesson — is that we always get to do it over.  We always get to do it better the next year, and so do the kids.  The nature of learning and the life of the classroom is cyclical.  We make mistakes, we make progress, we regress a little bit, and then we make a few more steps forward.

While I reflect on my mistakes and successes this year as the year begins to wind down into fall, I can’t help but feel excited to be an even better version of myself next year, to do it all over again, and continue learning alongside the kids… right where I should be.

The Second System Effect: Why Privatizing School Might Save Education

“Add little to little, and there will be a big pile,” said Ovid, ancient Roman poet and creator of Metamorphoses.

IMG_4147It’s incredible — not only how simple ideas like this withstand the test of time — but more so that we still haven’t learned from these ancient lessons.  This idea of “adding little to little,” while rather matter-of-fact when taken literally, becomes an almost harsh, startling, and sarcastic metaphor when taken more generally, referring to the mere idea that sometimes less is more, and that adding complexity to something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be better.

Fast forward over 2,000 years to present time, when we find ourselves in an era of technology, constant adaptation, and enormous systems built on the power of iteration.  Ironically enough, one of the biggest systems today — the education system — is subject to this startling lesson, quite possibly more so than any other system.

For in education, we seem to continuously be adding little to little, and we’ve ended up with a big pile… of something.

Second System Effect

This phenomenon, where we add little to little and end up with a whole big pile of nothing, is better known as the second system effect.  And here’s how it works:  You have a great idea, and you begin to develop it.  You invest your money, your time, and not to mention, your heart and soul into your new idea.  With some luck, it catches on, and suddenly, something that was just a figment of your imagination is now reality.

Such is the case with any great idea: throughout the first stage of idea development, you notice shortcomings and areas for improvement.  In many cases, these improvements end up manifesting themselves as embellishments, despite the fact that they are supposed to make the original idea better. More often than not, however, these embellishments do little improving and only add to the complexity of the original idea.  Suddenly, what was your original idea, your original product, or the simple system you originally imagined becomes overgrown and no longer manageable.  The complexity of the system becomes unsustainable, its new embellishments becoming too much for the shaky foundation to hold.

A_Nation_at_RiskA Nation at Risk

In the mid 1980s, America realized we had a problem: we were no longer living up to our international counterparts educationally, and something had to be done about it.  The Reagan Administration published “A Nation at Risk,” fear swept the country, and as good fearful citizens do, we let the fear consume us.  While I’m sure some thoughtful reflection came out of our sub-par test scores, thirty years later, it seems that maybe — just maybe — we got it all wrong.

The resulting decades have saturated us with standardized testing, rigid accountability measures, and small tweaks and amendments to an already broken set of policies, leaving us to wonder, how will yet another reauthorization of an already ineffective policy really do us any good?   Or are these changes to the ESEA merely an empty attempt to build upon something that already is far past broken? Better yet, is this just another “second” or maybe even a “third” system, doomed to fail, no matter what we do?

In my opinion, the solution isn’t amendment; it might not even be innovation.  Instead, we need to reinvent — to rebuild from the ground up.

Privatization and the Micro-School Movement

Sure, it’s easy for me to sit here, sipping my coffee, pontificating over the problems with our current education system.  And what do I suggest we do about it, you ask?  Well, I never thought I’d say this, but privatizing education might be the only way.  I’m not necessarily saying it has to be this way forever, but maybe — just maybe — a “micro” boost from the private sector could help us out.  And before you judge, oh, fellow public school teacher, just hear me out… just for a second.

Right now, the education system is absolutely enormous.  And, like any big system, when something becomes so unwieldy, systems have no choice but to place objective accountability measures on teachers, students, and administrators.  These objective measures remove the humanism that permeates our jobs; it creates a drought of personal connection and student-centered learning, all in an effort to live up to these unrealistic standards.

As a result, we have succumbed to one view of the education system, and this view is at the macro-level.  We see students and staff as simply cogs in the wheel, helping us to work towards some abstract sort of goal — to beat out those other countries on their three-digit test score.  But teaching, learning, and growing happen on a micro-level, before they even have the potential to make it to the macro-level.

Reflections on Micro-Teaching

Speaking as a teacher in a micro-school system, I get the benefits of a big system, meanwhile capitalizing on the delicate and intimate growth that comes with interpersonal communication and interaction.  My actions aren’t dictated by the
wants and needs from a few on high; instead, our central headquarters is there to assist me with user research, data collection, and organization, so that I may respond to data, make decisions, and ultimately better the learning environment I’ve created through collaborative decision-making.  Truth be told, this will never happen in the public sector — at least not any time soon.

Screen Shot 2015-05-20 at 7.58.36 AMAnd this is because the private sector has advantages that the public sector doesn’t.  Public education has become so overgrown and bureaucratic that so many have lost themselves in the system.  I know I almost did.  They’ve lost sight of what we’re actually trying to do in our classrooms: to nurture, to inspire, and to help kids find themselves in the context of a big, big world.  We can’t do that with a macro-level view, and we will never achieve that with top-down directives coming from those so far removed from the classroom.  From the top down, children and teachers simply look like dots on a map; however, from the bottom up, those tiny dots can look up and see a broad and expansive sky, reminiscent of all the possibilities that come from a student-centered, teacher-led, and user-driven classroom.

Of course, we want education for all, and permanently privatizing education isn’t going to get us there.  But the public education system, as it stands, is riddled with inequity, robbing many of the opportunities that it promises.  It needs a major overhaul, and we won’t be able to manifest this ideal of education for all until we’ve rebuilt the current system from scratch.

Perhaps temporary privatization, led by the micro-school movement, is all the push we need to restructure the public sector and get it back on its feet.  We all need a mentor, we all need to start small, and we all need someone crazy enough to try something new, absorb the collateral damage, and pave the way for a new way of thinking.  In my humble opinion, the micro-school movement is all the small, crazy mentor we need.

Let’s just give it a little time.

Lessons from Downward Dog: What Yoga Can Teach Us About Learning

I started doing yoga again recently, partially in an effort to get back in shape, but also to give myself some “me” time. By the end of the school year, I tend to get into a pattern where I’ve put all of my effort into my classroom and my students, so much that I haven’t taken care of me. I find myself on the edge of burnout, like the embers of a summer campfire slowly growing cold. And in order to help myself get reignited, I find yoga to be most helpful.

But what was most interesting to me about yoga this week was not the fact that it helped me to feel revitalized and refreshed in these last three weeks of school. It was, instead, the fact that I realized how much yoga can actually teach us about learning — and about ourselves.  

“Notice how it feels different now,” the instructor said at the end of class, “than it did in the beginning of class.”

He was referring to our “downward dog” position, a repetitive pose that occurs many, many times throughout the course of a session.   It consists of your hands out in front of you, your legs in the back, and your tailbone pushing upward to the sky, forming an upside-down V-shape.  And by the end of class, after having done the position many times, I did notice the difference.  My body was looser, my hips more aligned, my legs stretching in ways they weren’t when I started the class.

Of course, this is entirely intentional, and of course, by the end of class, this is what we’d expect to happen.  However, it was not the change in my body that interested me.  Instead, it’s how the change in my body occurred that interested me the most.


There’s a practice out there called “looping,” and this practice can easily be defined as providing repetitive practice on similar skills to make gains towards “mastery.”  For instance, if an educator is trying to help a child gain proficiency in multi-digit addition, he or she might continue to provide them similar problems, so that they gain more opportunities to analyze their mistakes and continue building towards mastery.

In some cases, I’ve seen this be very successful.  Providing students with repetitive practice promotes short, actionable feedback loops that they can act upon in a very short amount of time.  On the other hand, this can be exhausting, decontextualized, and train students into a way of thinking that is linear and uni-directional.

And this has been one of the conundrums I’ve struggled with over the past few years and still struggle with in my current classroom.  If I see a child is struggling with a skill, and I see they need more practice, do I give them repetitive problems over and over, do I give them a break, or do I come back at the same skill from a different angle?

downward dogLessons from Downward Dog

What interested me the most about last week’s yoga class was that, by the end of class, I didn’t improve my downward dog through “looping.”  Sure, I came back to downward dog many, many times, but I didn’t sit there, and continuously go from resting to downward dog, from resting to downward dog, making small changes and becoming over-analytical of my practice for sixty minutes.  Instead, the process of improving my downward dog looked quite different.

I began in downward dog, and then went through a variety of positions — positions that exercised the same muscles, just in different ways.  Eventually, I’d make my way back to downward dog, incrementally increasing my proficiency in the pose each time I came back to it.  By the end of class, I was able to reflect on my practice and my progress, seeing a marked change in my flexibility, my core strength, and my positioning.

And I couldn’t help but see so many parallels to the classroom.

Instead of repetitive, rote practice — a practice of which I, myself, am guilty — I wonder now how might we better support proficiency in a variety of skills by allowing students focused practice, meanwhile giving them the opportunity to exercise the same muscles in different ways, still always, and intentionally, spiraling back to those same muscles?

It seems to me that, if we took this more cyclical approach to teaching and learning, that we might support what we’re really going for — flexibility, adaptability, and a contextualized approach to seemingly decontextualized skills.  But what strikes me even more is this: What if we viewed all skills as complementary and no skill as entirely orthogonal?  What if, when we’re teaching — and when our children are learning — we viewed all learning experiences as ways to flex, contract, and relax muscles that peripherally strengthen all of our learning muscles?

If we took this view, might we develop more flexible learners?  Might we develop more adaptable kids?  Better yet, might we develop more focused, centered, and present learning experiences in our classrooms?

yoga-167062_640Connections to the Classroom

I’ve always been utterly surprised by the benefits yoga has brought to my body and to my mind.  Within a matter of days, my body feels tighter, my positions begin to become more fluid, and my confidence begins to grow.  And it’s not because someone is pushing me along; rather, it’s because I’m pushing myself.  I think, as teachers, we can take a couple of lessons from this practice, especially in an era that has glorified mastery learning.

We can see that learning is cyclical, that learning is peripheral, and that learning is entirely in the hands of the students who choose to come to the “mat” each and every day. We can see that it’s a vulnerable practice, one that doesn’t take a teacher who controls every variable in the classroom, but instead, a nurturing coach that helps to guide children through intentional movements, allowing them to find their own strength along the way.

But most of all, we can see that learning is about the process: it requires starting out cold, stretching yourself, flexing your muscles, and coming back to where you started. It requires reflection and taking a risk, all in an effort to notice the small victories along the way, and then, of course… to try again.

Rocking the Boat: 3 Tips for Disruptive Innovation

As an instructional technology coach, I’m the number one advocate of divergent thinkers in a school environment.  Technology integration is the easiest entry into twenty-first century teaching, but it can also be one of the scariest things teachers attempt.  What keeps me from being invited into classrooms always seems to come down to one thing: fear.

In a school environment, fear is like a virus.  It can enter inconspicuously and spread, causing even those teachers who were confident in their practice to question themselves.  Those teachers who once enjoyed the freedom of autonomy in their classrooms are stopped in their tracks, unable to move forward.  The notion of risk-taking becomes preposterous, which inevitably leads to stagnant practice.

But where does this fear come from?  It’s a question that’s constantly on my mind, because identifying the root of the problem is the key to solving it.  My suspicion is that in schools, fear emanates from a multitude of sources.  It could develop in a culture, co-constructed by administration and staff members who encourage compliance over thoughtfulness.  It could build up as a result of a lack of trust and communication between staff and administration.  It could emerge from years of isolation without support or professional development.  More often than not, though, it comes from the silencing of divergent thinking and the dismantling of disruptive innovation.

The Importance of Disruptive Innovation

Divergent thinking is essential if we want to innovate in schools. This type of thinking amongst our students is what we can nurture to grow students who love learning and continue to strive to understand the world around them.  The same can be said about teachers.  But as adults, we fear divergent thinking perhaps even more.  “Rocking the boat,” as they say, can cause tempers to flare, damaging relationships that are more difficult to repair in the adult world.  So, the presence of a divergent thought, or the introduction of disruption to the system can create contagious fear.

So what do we do about it?  As a coach, I’m faced with this problem every day, but there are ways to help yourself — and your staff — overcome these fears.

Delicately Nurture and Encourage Divergent Thinking

It’s my job to nurture those divergent thinkers who are ready to push forward past the fear, and rejuvenate their practice to best meet the needs of the kids in the seats today.  And in order to do this, we have to take the ego out of teaching.  Teachers don’t get a lot of regular, constructive feedback, and the buzz about education in the media is rarely positive.  As a result, teachers are forced to rely on themselves to determine whether or not they’re doing a good job.  Once you’ve convinced yourself that things are running smoothly, it’s more difficult to be open to the idea that you could improve something you feel you’ve mastered.  And that’s where my job comes in.  The process is delicate, but with a little time, many can be nurtured outside their comfort zone.

Identify the Fear

But it’s also my job to help people recognize the fear that may be holding them back from being their best teacher selves.  All too often, I hear, “why do we need to change something that works well for us?”  To a coach, this is a dead giveaway that fear is drivingKaty loves being a tech coach!that discussion.  Continuing what has worked in the past is a way to maintain control, to avoid risk, and to reside in a comfort zone.  My best course of action in this situation is to reframe the suggestion in a way that brings it back to the students.  Fear can keep us from engaging in divergent thinking because we don’t like change, but it should never keep us from doing what is best for kids.

Have a Little Empathy

If I push too hard, too fast, I’ll lose the trust I’ve worked so hard to build.  But the challenge remains that every day, kids stream through the school doors and into our care, and I feel the same weight of the responsibility to educate kids in a way that truly meets their needs that other teachers feel.  As a result, the craft of coaching  requires a balance of critical feedback and empathy for the people that give their all every single day in classrooms.

Lessons Learned

Disruptive innovation is not an easy feat.  Any time you’re in a position where you have to support and encourage the disparate view amongst a resistant majority, you’re bound to encounter defensiveness and frustration.  Remember that fear drives that irritation, and that it doesn’t have to last.

I’m going to stay the course, work equally hard for both the people that challenge fear and those that live in it.  Because, eventually, that thinking that seems divergent now will catch on and grow, and I want to be there when it does.


Katy (@KatytheCoach) is an instructional technology coach in the suburbs of Chicago. She pioneered a 1:1 iPad program in her 5th grade classroom, setting her on an edtech journey. Now, she strives to help teachers improve their effectiveness through the integration of tech tools in the classroom.  Find Katy on LinkedIn!

Becoming a Prosumer: Helping Kids Personalize Their Own Learning

At this point, it’s almost a cliché: creation over consumption, as many educators say.  We want our students to be doing much more creating than they are consuming, and it makes perfect sense.  In many educators’ eyes, creating requires making something out of nothing; it requires creativity, imagination, and innovation.  But what we often forget is that it’s virtually impossible to create something out of nothing.  We all must start somewhere, and that somewhere is with consumption.

Should we really value creation over consumption?

I know, this sounds a bit counterintuitive, a little like the pendulum swinging back to the other end of the of spectrum, but I might argue that by valuing creation over consumption, we’ve neglected the idea that our lives are filled with consumables — consumables that are valuable, consumables that spark our creativity, and consumables that lay the foundation for imagining new things.  After all, the idea of “innovation,” isn’t necessarily creating something brand new; it’s taking what already exists, mixing it together, and doing something new with it.

Take for instance, my humanities lesson yesterday.  It’s all a part of a scope and sequence around studying poetry.  It’s different, though, in the sense that I’ve laid it in the context of American history, and I’ve coupled many of these poetic provocations with multimedia, including video, image, and song.  To begin our study of Westward Expansion yesterday, I placed four provocations around the room:

(1) A picture of “American Progress;”


(2) A quote from “Manifest Destiny” by John L. O’Sullivan;

photo 1 (11)

(3) The lyrics to “This Land is Your Land,” accompanied by a map of the Louisiana Purchase;

photo 2 (10)

(4) and the lyrics to the Peter, Paul, and Mary song, “One Tin Soldier.

WWEStudents bustled around the room, writing down questions like “Why would anyone kill someone for gold?” and making inferences like “I think the woman in the picture is showing the settlers how to go West!”, all the while creating their own concept maps that showed what they discovered from the four provocations.  It wasn’t long before my walls and boards were covered with a barrage of post-it notes, colors, and images, showing that my students had, in fact, consumed a great deal of the content.  But this kind of consumption was different.  It wasn’t simple intake and regurgitation; it was a nuanced version of consumption, and this is called prosumption.

What is prosumption?

Prosumption, by definition, is an economic concept that focuses on both consumption and creation, emphasizing neither one more than the other. Instead, a prosumer’s attitude on the classroom focuses on helping students strike a balance between consuming and creating material, so that they are not only learning how to take in the world around them, but so that they are also learning how to interpret it.

As a result of these four simple provocations, a clear process, and some time to work on their own, each of my students personalized their own experience beautifully.  They all ended up with different numbers of post-it notes, a variety of artifacts for documentation, and the concept maps that mapped their own, unique, individual thinking.

photo (30)Lessons of Student-Driven Curriculum

I’ve been doing lessons like this for the longest time, but it wasn’t until recently that I could actually pinpoint why they were working so well.  While provocation, student-driven curriculum, and multiple paths to learning are underpinnings to the success of lessons like these, I’ve realized that the true power lies in the reciprocal nature of prosumption — of both creating and consuming material — because at the center of this synchronous spiral lies innovation, unique thought, and connection.

And in order for our kids to synthesize, problem-solve, and learn to interpret the world around them, they can’t always create their own rules, and they can’t always simply do whatever inspires them.  Sometimes, it’s necessary for them to start with what’s already there — to start by consuming — and to allow the provocation to pave the way for innovation and inspiration.

It Takes a Village: AltSchool Raises $100M to Continue Reimagining Education

They say it takes a village to raise a child, but they never talk about how it takes a village simply to educate one, too.

IMG_3026I’ll be brief today, as the depth of my gratitude and reflection can hardly be captured in words.  My school, AltSchool, has recently announced our new round of funding.  We’re proud to announce that we’ve raised $100 million dollars in funding, and while it certainly speaks to the dedication and passion that a rather small group of people has committed over the past year, I think it says much, much more than that.

It shows that reimagining education takes the collective; it takes a group of people coming together towards a common vision — to help kids feel heard and seen through a personalized education.

I am so honored to be a part of this group of disruptive innovators, problem-seekers, and visionaries. 

Check out some of our features in Forbes, TechCrunch, the New York Times, Wired, and USA Today — and spread the good word!

Teaching with a Whole Heart

While it’s kind of hard sometimes, I truly believe in the inherent good in people.  This is a hard idea to come to terms with, though, partially because there is so much that seems to be cruel about the world, but also because it’s easier to place blame, in an effort to heal our own wounds.

I watched Brene Brown’s vulnerability talk again last night, something I like to frequent when feeling a bit lost in my own head — when lost in my own emotions.  She speaks of the whole-hearted: those who are capable of digging deep, planting their feet, and opening themselves up wide to be seen by the whole world.  She speaks of their courage in the face of fear, their pride, and their ability to love without the guarantee of it being returned.

This complex fear is something that unites us all; it’s part of being human, and it’s part of being alive, according to Brown.  She mentions, specifically, that the whole-hearted live with this capacity to be vulnerable, not only because it’s what it means to be alive.

autismBut also because that’s how they know they’re alive.

I’ve been struggling with this a great deal lately.  Shame has crept in over the past month or so, triggering some of my insecurities, causing anxiety to bubble through my veins, and creating a mindful dissonance in my brain.  I’m reminded just how hard it is to let yourself be seen, to live in a whole-hearted way, to embrace fear, and to approach the world with a proud vulnerability.  And if it’s hard for me, I imagine it must be hard for our little ones, too.

Just as I believe with people, in general, I believe in the inherent good in kids.  Humans are complex beings, and our inner struggles, vulnerabilities, and lack of courage manifests itself in so many ways, probably in more ways than we could ever think to record.  There are few trends, few patterns, other than the fact that all of us share the capacity and the need for love, understanding, and acceptance.  I think, at the heart of what we do, needs to lie an unconditional love and understanding, not only for the children who enter our classrooms, but for what it means to be human.

Because through understanding, through love, and through empathy, we can teach just about anything.