My teacher . . . the computer?
The last of the folding chairs on the portable stage and across the athletic field were packed and loaded. Orchid petals from leis lay scattered on the grass. The cheers, hugs, and essential celebratory photos were done. The parking lot was nearly empty, as only a few families and faculty members lingered on campus to savor the celebration. Occasional echoes of laughter drifted down the hall as I was about to close my classroom, having survived another graduation ceremony and another school year. S entered, still in his cap and gown, still with that familiar smile on his face. For S, the journey to today’s podium had been circuitous and tough. During his seven years at our school, S endured his mother’s ongoing struggle with drug addiction, his father’s arrest and subsequent prison sentence, and the constant uncertainty about where he would spend the night.
“I was hoping to catch you before leaving,” S said. “I often wondered whether I’d make it to today, if I’d actually be a high school graduate. But, for some reason, which I still don’t fully understand, you never doubted me. Never questioned my potential. And, I didn’t always make it easy for you to believe in me. Thank you.”
As we talked, S reflected on our class discussions where he was constantly challenged to consider new ideas and varying perspectives. He mentioned the documentary he produced with a fellow student and the class debate that followed, examining the rapid rise of foreclosures in his neighborhood. He had never before thought about the local impact of state and national economic policies and the legislative influence of special interest groups. He laughed as he recalled the multiple drafts he wrote for me and the one-on-one conferences, finally recognizing that writing is a process rarely perfected with a single draft. He thanked me for offering after-school tutoring, which provided more than just a second shot at the subject matter. It provided a safe, quiet place to study before returning to an unpredictable, and often dangerous, neighborhood. And, he thanked me for my encouragement during his lowest moments.
A week later, I participated in a conversation with a diverse group of stakeholders – education software executives, representatives of on-line schools, and policy makers – about new models for schools and teaching in the 21st Century. At one point in the discussion, an executive at a software company painted a picture of what he envisions to be the most efficient and effective classroom for the near future: sixty plus students in a room, each with a computer, and one teacher able to monitor individual progress and implement personalized learning through software technology. There were nods and affirmations from most of the other participants. As usual with many of the conferences taking place today that analyze the state of our nation’s education system, there were few practicing teachers in the room. I don’t mean people who may have taught only a short time before moving on, or people who crunch education data and test results from afar, or people who think they know teaching because their mother or aunt was once a teacher. I mean folks who are actually teaching in a K-12 classroom, day in and day out. So, I took the opportunity to share my graduation encounter with S.
New York Times columnist David Brooks’ recent book Social Animal draws on research in the fields of social psychology and human development. It emphasizes what teachers already know about building learning environments that lend themselves to educational excellence: strong and meaningful connections with teachers matter. Teachers are in the best position to create environments and personal connections that are rich with opportunities to take calculated risks, collaborate, and foster a love of learning. However, such connections with each student become increasingly difficult as classroom size increases.
“One of [a successful student's] key skills in school is his ability to bond with teachers. We’ve spent a generation trying to reorganize schools to make them better, but the truth is that people learn from the people they love.”
A paradigm shift in education is necessary as we closely examine the school structures and assessments in light of 21st century demands and economic realities. Technology, incorporated thoughtfully and purposefully, provides expanded opportunities for teachers to create personalized, engaging, and authentic learning experiences for students. Today’s schools are still strongly rooted in an industrial model that needs to be revisited and revised. However, computers and technology cannot replace the ability of skillful teachers to develop a young student’s ability to think critically, be innovative, and believe in the potential that he or she possess. A computer will never be able to provide a safe environment for a child seeking stability and support.
Our school has classrooms full of students like S, students who face incredible challenges and confront tremendous obstacles. On many days, only a knowledgeable and sensitive teacher who really cares about the individual can truly motivate students like S to make it to campus. It is programs like our Advisory, where one teacher works with a group of 25-30 students their entire career on campus, that cannot be replicated or replaced by even the best computer software.
As we envision schools for the 21st Century, technology will undoubtedly play an important and integral role. But, it will be the 21st Century teacher in the classroom – providing guidance, a passion for learning, an understanding of what is necessary to move a student to the next level of inquiry and excellence, and an unwavering belief in each student’s potential – that will continue to make the ultimate difference.