It’s Time to Disrupt Education
My father, who was a math teacher for 32 years, always said, “Don’t be a teacher.” I never understood why he said it. Until now.
I have been an educator for 18 years—doing my best to innovate within the traditional system. For me, innovation isn’t about improving grades, higher test scores, and getting more kids to college. Rather, innovation is approaching problems with a value-based mindset, failing forward, and personalizing learning. Being an innovative teacher in a traditional system isn't easy. So why do I do it?
BEGINNINGS OF DISRUPTION
I was expected to go to college after high school, and I was privileged enough to have my education paid for by my grandfather. He didn’t go to college himself, and throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s, he successfully owned and managed 25 Harvey’s dime stores in northern Indiana. As a result of his success, he was able to fund my secondary education.
Despite his nontraditional path, he believed college was the path I should take to obtain a quality education. My grandfather felt his road to success was tough, having to learn everything on his own, and that going to a university would accelerate my path to success in life and work alike.
Having so much respect for my grandfather, I took his advice and began preparing to apply to college when I was 16 years old. I listened to my counselors and followed the honors path. I took all the courses college admissions offices were looking for. But, then I took the SAT.
All of my preparation was for not when I ended up with a very low score on the standardized exam. As a result, I didn't get into any of my first-choice universities. However, a tennis coach from a small liberal arts college contacted me and asked if I would be interested in playing tennis in college. There would be a small scholarship involved. So, I said yes.
Once I got to college, I learned there was also an open spot on the college’s radio station, and from then on, I was hooked on radio broadcasting. The following year, I was accepted into one of the universities that had originally turned me down because of my low SAT score. I transferred and declared a Communications Broadcast Journalism major.
This was my first big “disrupt education” moment. Why did they accept me this time and not before? What was different about me now? My mind settled on one of two possibilities as to why this happened: 1. The school saw my tuition was being paid up front without any loans. My grandfather always said “cash is king.” 2. My SAT score wouldn’t be averaged into the admissions stats because I was now considered a transfer.
This is where I started to figure out how this education game was really played. Maybe, it was less about education and more about money and marketable stats.
Once my senior year came around, I started an internship at a radio station in rural Indiana. The internship showed me the day-to-day work of being on radio, and I hated it. Why was this the first moment I was able to make this discovery? Why didn’t any of my courses prepare me for this reality? Why did I just pay for that “education”? I had no idea what to do after graduation, so I ended up at bartending school and worked as a bar manager for a year. Then, I started a business in video production with a partner and friend from college. We found a niche market in producing videos for private schools and smaller companies. Around that same time, I met Suzanne, a teacher who would later become my wife.
The elementary school where Suzanne taught wanted to do daily video announcements. They had the equipment and needed someone to work with their students to help with production. She thought I would be a good person to help out, so I did. I worked with third, fourth, and fifth graders to plan, write, videotape, and edit the announcements. Within a month, several teachers told me that some of the struggling students who were working with me were improving in math and reading. These same students were telling their teachers that the video announcement club was helping them feel more successful in all subjects. Somehow, the guy with an unused Communications Broadcast Journalism degree, bartending experience, and a new video production business was succeeding at teaching and encouraging students without an ounce of formal education that would suggest such success.
This was my second big “disrupt education” moment. Why were schools not providing more real-world ways to teach young people traditional subjects—or, any subject for that matter? I was hooked on answering that question. I returned to school to attain a teaching certificate in Business Education. It was perfect. I was going to teach business and go against my father’s advice. As soon as my teaching career began, I worked in spite of the traditional system. I saw the impact I could have working with students on those video announcements, and I wanted to continue that kind of work. I wanted to innovate.
DISRUPT THE SYSTEM
Being an innovative teacher in a traditional system isn't easy. When I see students struggling, I see myself in them. It hurts. This personal connection drives me to change the system.
Most students who dislike school are the ones who are holding on to the last creative cell in their growing bodies. They dislike school because they don’t feel free. Neither do I. Many days as a teacher, I feel trapped. I feel trapped by forms. I feel trapped by test scores. I feel trapped by outdated curriculum. I feel trapped by the bell schedule. I feel trapped inside a building that is disconnected with the outside world.
When students get burned out, I get burned out. I feel their pain. I’m tired of dragging them through mundane curriculum. I am tired of peeling them away from the devices they're completely addicted to, rather than meeting them there and showing how those devices could open up new opportunities for them. At least I only have to teach four or five classes a day. They have to survive seven or eight.
Ask any high school student what they don’t like about school, and you’ll likely hear: “We do the same thing year after year.” “School isn’t about what I want to learn; it’s what they want me to learn.” “I learn more about myself and my interests during the summer.” “School subjects are not the subjects of real life.”
Students ask why the teachers don’t see their passions. They ask why we do things the way we do. They ask why we do things the outside world doesn’t. Every time I hear a student say to me “I can’t wait to graduate,” I translate it to “I can’t wait to start learning real things.” Most of these students know they have no idea what will hit them when they walk outside this protective bubble. They've been spoon fed their entire lives, and all of a sudden they’ll be entering a world where they have to feed themselves. That is a hard pill to swallow for me.
As a result, I’ve had my third “disrupt education” moment. Paul Sloane, author and corporate public speaker on innovation says, “The innovative leader has to be an arsonist and a firefighter.” I like to think of myself as someone who can guide the disengaged students through their four years of high school like a fireman helping free someone from a burning building. Yet, the students that have completely disengaged from the classroom environment have been so conditioned to act like robots, they're often too far gone when they arrive in my classroom. Students have been asked to wait for the teacher to learn for so long that they forget how to discover things themselves. They've become afraid to fail. They aspire to a grade, not learning. When you look beyond the traditional metrics and truly see the results of education, you see the terrible things we are doing to our youth.
DISRUPT OR BURN
Why do I stay in the system? I have hope. In the chaos of all these challenges, I get to create and fail, recreate and fail, partner with my students to experiment and find different ways to educate them. I challenge them to shift from a permission mindset into a value-based one. I have a passion for creating change for students. I want them to acknowledge the hard truths of education, so they too can work to change outdated systems. I want to help them reach the goals they aspire to. I want to show them there is more than one way to define and achieve success. I aspire to prepare young people for the real world. In the classroom, I have the opportunity to do that. When students have a strong understanding of the traditional system, they let the grades go and feel free to learn. Amazing things happen. That is what I live for within the system. That is why I am still there.
I believe in the next generation. I believe they can change the world for the better. I believe they're more driven than any system will allow them to be. I believe because I have seen it. I have seen students who were once miserable in school come out as lifelong learners. I have had hundreds of students reach out to me after graduating high school and tell me they appreciate my “realness” in the classroom. The most successful students I know don’t buy into the system and play the grade game. They understand that questioning the system will allow them to discover the world outside the school building. The most successful students don’t ask for permission first. They're not afraid to fail despite a system that rejects failure. The outdated traditional education system doesn’t see the value in ALL of our students. But, I do, and I know there are other educators across the country who see it, too.
All of this is why I stay in the system—to disrupt education and ensure no one is left alone in that burning building. And, if I and other disruptors are unable to distinguish the fire in our lifetime, we’re confident that the generations replacing us will finish the job.