Change is in the HOW

As part of the #YourEduStory Challenge, we are honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. by blogging about how we can make a difference in the world. What is the difference we wish to make?

I am taking a different approach with this. I think that we as a society tend to focus too exclusively on the leaders of movements while neglecting the foot soldiers and other contributors to a cause. We easily think of George Washington and Paul Revere while we forget about innumerable poor colonists who died horrible deaths due to smallpox and gangrene. We think about Abraham Lincoln, but neglect the 600,000 soldiers who died during the Civil War, on top of the millions who served and fought bravely.

In the case of Martin Luther King, Jr., we remember his inspiration and the difference he made, which is right and just. He is one of the greatest moral leaders this world has ever seen, and he willingly paid the ultimate price for a cause he believed in. But we must not forget others who turned his vision into a reality.

One such leader was Walker Wyatt.

In 1963, the Civil Rights movement had hit a standstill, and it appeared that the movement just might fail. The movement succeeded not just because of King’s lofty rhetoric, but also because of the nuts and bolts organization of Wyatt Walker. In 1963, King and Walker went to Birmingham, where events would eventually trigger the passage of historic pieces of Civil Rights legislation. Walker’s actions in Birmingham were absolutely critical to the success of the Birmingham Campaign and the Civil Rights movement as a whole. He knew exactly how to provoke the police into overreacting through his meticulous planning of marches, sit-ins, and boycotts. His actions provoked officials to use high-pressure hoses on the protestors and to arrest hundreds of peaceful citizens. These images were then shown on newscasts throughout the nation, thereby ensuring that the civil rights movement would inspire sympathies around the nation. Within a matter of months, Walker’s actions in Birmingham and in other cities would lead to the successful passage of Civil Rights laws.

To borrow a phrase from Simon Sinek, King provided the WHY of the Civil Rights movement, and Walker provided the HOW. Both roles are essential for successful movements to take place, but we sometimes forget about the people who make the vision become reality.

As teachers, we have the unique role of having to both articulate the WHY and design the HOW. We must clarify to students exactly why the material is relevant, the larger purpose of education, and we must do our best to inspire students to learn. That being said, we cannot rely on mere inspiration. If we spend all weekend thinking about the lofty ideals of education, we will not be prepared on Monday morning for the students sitting in our classrooms. In fact, I believe that many teachers burn out or fade away not because they have never been exposed to the WHY of education, but because there is not enough training and support in how to translate those ideals into concrete lessons that live out those visions. As a result, many teachers give up on the hope and turn then to the textbooks and the resource books.

Therefore, this year, I will not pledge to follow in King’s footsteps, in part because I can not hope to live up to such a great leader. Besides, I already know what values I place in education: engaging, inspiring, and empowering students. My effort this year will center on the nitty-gritty of turning those ideals into reality for students.

If I succeed–by the grace of God–I will have contributed something to the world.


No Resolutions!

As 2014 ended, I saw the word “resolution” appear in my Twitter timeline a million times. “I resolve to try new edtech tools.” “I resolve to blog more.” “I resolve to lose ten pounds.”

It then dawned on me that I did not have any resolutions for the year. What should I do? Blog more? Use more tech tools? Read more books? Turn off Chrome tabs when it is time to focus?

Theses are all good things, but I hesitate to make any resolutions because of an old saying: “We plan, and God laughs.” On January 1st, 2014, I was not yet on Twitter, I was not blogging, I had never been to any sort of a CUE conference, and I hadn’t even heard of an EdCamp. It was through serendipity that my eyes were opened to educational technology, an event that would permanently change my life.

So this year, I resolve to not make any resolutions, to be ready and awake to what is before me. I resolve to keep my preconceived notions of what I ought to do from giving me rich life experiences. I will not become so enamored with a goal that I miss the beautiful scenery that surrounds me.

In short, I resolve not to have any resolutions.

The Joy of Getting Away

I generally live, breathe, and think education 24 hours a day. When I am at home, I am usually on Twitter or reading education blog posts. I often bring home work and do it in my free time.

This past weekend, however, I did not.

My family and I got away to a cabin at Lake Tahoe, and education rarely crossed my brain. My six-year-old and I worked on a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle. For two days, this was the focus of our lives, and when we finished, we had a sense of achievement. It was very refreshing to do something difficult that had nothing whatsoever to do with work or education.

These times are fun, but it’s also essential for our work. Most practitioners of cognitive science argue that it is essential that we take time away from our work to achieve insights and epiphanies. If we never separate ourselves from our work, we risk losing those great innovative moments when breakthroughs occur. We also must take steps to ensure that we prevent burnout before it is too late.

To be sure, we can’t step away too much. If we never struggle with an issue, or we never think of education outside of work hours, we will fail to think creatively and bring new insights to the classroom. Nevertheless, it is important to take time now and then to get away from it all.

Besides, how chances will I get to solve a 500-piece puzzle with my six-year-old?

Finding God in my PLN

For a long time, I felt alone as a teacher. The profession is, by its very nature, very isolating. I have observed other teachers give five full lessons in the past ten years, and I work in a school with few other middle school teachers.

During recent years, I went through some darkness as I drifted away from my original call to be a passionate teacher. I felt like I was no longer called to be a teacher, and I thought that maybe I has chosen the wrong vocation. Out of this pain, I learned to turn to God. After reading Philip Yancey’s book on prayer, I learned how to pray authentically to God. I learned to turn to Him in complete honesty and tell him exactly what I was thinking or wondering about my life. I sometimes said, “God, did I make the wrong choice? Did I blow it? Dear God, I don’t know what to do with my life right now.” Many times, not knowing what to say, I tended to repeat (several dozen times a day), “Dear God, please help me.” Through this period of suffering, I developed a much stronger faith life than I would previously thought possible. I felt connected to God in ways that I had never experienced before. I learned that even if I were to suffer permanently through unresolved issues, God would always be with me.

Recently, however, there has been a major change in my life. I have been introduced to Twitter. I have used it as a means to find other teachers, chat with them, and follow them. It has connected me to hundreds of teachers, and I have formed a Professional Learning Network (PLN), where I talk informally to teachers all across the country. We are all committed to developing student passion and empowerment, and we all do whatever it takes for us to become better teachers.

This “network,” in many ways, has become more than just a “professional network.” I previously had a hard time making real and lasting friendships since I graduated from high school many years ago. I find that I don’t have much in common with many people, and I have drifted apart from my older friends. That has changed since I discovered Twitter. I find that I can share professional insecurities (How can I do a better job teaching vocabulary? How can I improve class discussions?) and receive support instead of judgment. I also find that I am often able to help others, by introducing them to new tools like Socrative or TodaysMeet. There are also many times when Twitter veers away from education into silliness. Sometimes discussions become strings of non sequitors or popular culture quotes (which I usually miss, to the comic benefit of everyone else). In other words, we are becoming not colleagues, but friends.

I am finding that I am not turning to God in the same way as I had before. I still pray several times a day, but not as despairingly as I had before. I believe that it is due to the fact that I am connected to something larger to myself and connected to people who believe in the same mission. As St. Paul writes, “You are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it.”(1 Cor 12:27) When we help and support each other in our mission, we are acting as the body of Christ. This is not to say that all members of my PLN are Catholic, Christian, or even believers of any religion. I know that many of them are not. Nevertheless, we all know that God sometimes does amazing things through atheists, and horrible crimes are sometimes committed by the most devout. Even though some might no longer believe, I believe that God’s love still works through them. They are very, very committed to helping the young men and women in their classroom and for their own children, thereby living out Jesus’ call to care for children. (Mt 19:14)

Because I am much happier and feel the love and support from my PLN, my utterance, “Dear God, please help me” has been transformed into “Thank you, thank you, thank you, God.”

Thank you, God, for my PLN.