I remember sitting in a class for pre-service teachers when the head of student teaching asked us this question: “What do teachers dream?” Each of us in the class threw out our best, most sparkly teacher dreams: “I want to touch young lives.” “I want to have a big impact, especially on marginalized populations.” “I want to share content I’m passionate about.” Our list was optimistic and focused on shaping the future. The professor listened patiently, nodded, smiled, and then said, “What I meant to ask was, what do teachers dream about?”
Ask any teacher, and you’ll find that teacher dreams are outlandish, uncomfortable, and even frightening! Mr. Coray finds himself teaching in an L-shaped room where he can only see the front half of the class but not the students in the part of the classroom that faces the corner. Teachers dream of obstacles that prevent them from attending class or keep them from being on time. They dream of unannounced observations when things are crazy in the classroom. They dream of teaching in their underwear. They dream of being expected to present stellar lessons in spite of the impossible. Leave out the underwear nightmare, and many teacher dreams have truth on some level, which may be why they are so memorable and so haunting. Mr. Coray does not have an L-shaped room, but many CTE teachers have situations where some students are working in a lab while others are working in a classroom. Covid, quarantines, and other health-related issues may have prevented us from being with our students when we wanted to be there. Sometimes we feel like we have to make the difficult choice between meeting our own health needs and being present in class every day for our students. Observations rarely occur during our best teaching moments. As the list of demands on our time grows, we do find ourselves doing the impossible. No wonder our minds play out our fears in our sleep!
Yet sometimes I think our minds are simply working on solutions. I had been waking up from teacher nightmares for a few days straight as I planned some new lessons I’ll implement in the fall. As part of a team effort with the other CCA teachers in my school to strengthen our CCA curriculum, I decided to take on a couple of areas I haven’t taught before. I want those areas to be just as hands-on, dynamic, and personalized as the rest of my curriculum, and I wasn’t sure what direction to take things.
One early morning my teacher dreams were especially intense. I was teaching 3rd grade, which just happens to be one grade I have not taught in real life. We were supposed to be leaving on a field trip. I was wondering if we were really going to be able to make it on the train all the way across the Canadian border and back as planned before the end of the school day, and I suddenly realized that I hadn’t packed myself a sack lunch as I should have. That meant going from room to room in the school asking if anyone had any bread or peanut butter I could borrow. All the while, a third-grade teacher from my former school, and one I greatly respect, was following me around and asking me questions that all started with, “Don’t you think you should. . . .” I knew that I had left my own third-grade class unattended, and I felt apprehensive about that. And I kept running into my principal from the junior high where I currently teach. He is one of the most supportive administrators I have ever had, and in my dream, I didn’t feel he was judging me, but I was conscious that he would be disappointed if he knew I had left my class alone.
Crazy as that dream was, when I awoke, I knew exactly how to personalize the unit I was working on and turn it into a project, mostly by pulling in ideas from projects I have already done with students in the past. Having a source to draw from gave me a starting place. I put together that unit, and I haven’t been bothered by teacher dreams for a couple of weeks.
No matter where you are on the path to personalized learning or project-based learning, there has to be a starting place somewhere, and maybe even more than one starting place. There’s no shame in being at a starting point, and it’s ok to go through that door slowly. I hope that when you come to a door that opens to opportunity, you don’t pass it by in favor of a more familiar path.
Last week I promised to give more ideas in answer to the question, “What would you say to teachers who feel that personalized learning is ‘just one more thing’?”
First, I think it’s important to validate teachers’ feelings of exhaustion. In the last two years, we have been asked to do more than ever—to be more creative, more resilient, more high-tech, more compassionate—really to do more of the impossible.
Second, I think it’s ok to recognize that some teachers are not ready. Let them come to the door on their own timeframe.
However, many teachers are ready to take on personalized, competency-based learning, project-based learning, or a combination of PCBL and PBL. How can we make these possibilities feasible without burning out talented teachers who are already doing their best?
This is an exciting problem to dream about. Here are just a few ideas:
At the district level we need people who are connected to effective PCBL and PBL that is happening in classrooms within the district. Some of the best professional development I have ever attended has been taking the opportunity to visit other classrooms with district leaders who knew where to see what I was hoping to implement and to observe. I may not adopt every practice or project I see, but I can take back what works for me and adapt it for my classroom. This means having the opportunity for paid substitutes and time away from the classroom for teacher observations.
When small groups of teachers move successfully and excitedly toward PCBL in a school, other teachers will follow. Administrators can look for those small groups who will take initial steps forward and can provide resources and support at the school level. This could include the offer of time to observe in classrooms where PCBL is the norm. It could also include other paid time for professional development. Or it could include access to books or workshops geared toward PCBL and/or PBL. Most of all, it could include paid time and the opportunity to collaborate.
Collaboration could be the biggest key to unlocking our PCBL future. In CTE, we teach 21st-century workplace skills—communication, collaboration, teamwork, etc. Yet teachers often work in isolation, each creating their own lessons or versions of lessons. This independent creation and re-creation of the wheel is part of what exhausts us. To be fair, even when we’re handed lessons out of a box, it takes hours and hours to become familiar enough with what we’ve been given to be able to present it to others in meaningful ways. But what if we didn’t have to re-create what has already been done? What if we had sources to pull from—sources that gave us strong starting places or even a head start? What if we could all rely on team members to help make our jobs easier rather than harder?
Building effective collaborative teams can be a challenge. I’ve seen this happen in our district, where we’re given time to collaborate and a content team to collaborate with, and every meeting is the same conversation as the last meeting, none of which has to do with PCBL. Yet I’ve worked with non-assigned, informal teams that have energized me and given me rocket-booster ideas for my projects. This year I ate lunch with English teachers, art teachers, and a special ed teacher. We all looked at issues from different angles, but because we shared students, we were able to help each other find useful solutions when needed.
After presenting about a foods project I do with my classes, the Spanish immersion teacher approached me to ask if I would be willing to extend the project so that shared students could learn relevant Spanish vocabulary within the framework of my project. How powerful is that? What if we could step out of our isolated boxes and figure out how to help each other succeed at the common goal of PCBL?
I love to create projects. Wrapping my brain around a project energizes me from first combing through the standards to figuring out assessments and grading to building activities in between. I know not everyone feels the way I do, but I am happy to brainstorm with anyone who wants to brainstorm. I would love to build, expand, and extend my own projects with cross-curricular activities happening in multiple classrooms. What if my efforts at teaching sustainability and helping students create “sustainability projects” were echoed in science classes? What if students wrote about their research and project results in their English classes? What if they had to perform grade-level math calculations to solve problems connected with their projects?
Organized, intentional collaboration could supercharge our PCBL efforts.