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What would you do differently now?

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Voice of the Educator

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Sixteen years into the 21st century and we are still talking about developing 21st century classrooms and students with 21st century skills. Does it matter that in the United States, the average teacher is 42.5 years old? It should, because that means that the average teacher in the US obtained most (if not all) of their post-high school education in the 20th century. Nearly one in three (and for the record, I am in this group) US teachers is over the age of 50.

So here are my questions: Just how much are 20th century teachers embracing the notion that things have changed that much in the 21st century? What do 20th century teachers need to be prepared to consider if they are going to successfully help students in their classrooms become 21st century prepared?

I considered this recently when writing about what I would do differently if I were a young, pre-service teacher just starting my career in 2016. I considered how much things have changed since my first year of teaching in 1994.  A mid-life career change landed me in my first teaching gig at age 40.  At the risk of sounding like that “get off my lawn” grandpa down the street, things just are not what they used to be in the classroom. I am nearing the end of my 18th year as an educator and I am four years away from being eligible for retirement, so it seemed an interesting thing to look in the rear view mirror with one eye on the road yet ahead.

Here’s a takeaway: When I started teaching in the mid-90s, I was an imitator of those around me. Now, my goal is to be an innovator, influencing those around me.

So, if I were starting over today…

  • I would become a better student of human nature. We have the opportunity to understand human development and behavior so much better today. A few years ago, as I was concluding my studies for a master of education degree at The University of Texas, Arlington, where the institution unwrapped a new graduate degree in Mind, Brain and Education designed to explore the neurobiological and psychological activity of learning. Whether it is nature or nurture that determines it, students are not the same as they were 20 years ago. Educators face students with emotional and psychological issues that threaten their ability to learn and the teacher’s ability to teach. These issues are not resolved with conventional understanding of classroom management and discipline. Understanding human behavior is becoming as necessary as understanding content.
  • I would integrate inquiry-based learning into my instructional design. Inquiry-based learning, simply put, is based on posing questions that lead students to become adept at process learning. The alternative (and more traditional) approach often feeds students information and requires them to become adept at only memorization and repeating expected answers. No matter the content area or grade level, there is a place for inquiry because from the time we are born, we are seekers using our senses to discover. We have to learn not to learn that way.
  • I would learn how to coach and facilitate learning experiences instead of teaching. My students do not need me in order to learn. They have the ability to learn anywhere, anytime and from anyone. I am privileged to get paid to facilitate that process and show them how. I help them establish connections and cultivate pathways that encourage their process.
  • I would emphasize learning and minimize grading. Our conventional classroom approach tends to teach students to focus on points and averages. Not all learning can be measured in a grade point average. I frequently pose this question to my students: “How much would you be willing to learn if I told you that you would not be graded on this material?” In the beginning, they laughed at me. They laugh less often today. Some of them are beginning to get it.
  • I would get comfortable with failure as a part of the learning process. When my students try and fail, they are encouraged to try again. Mistakes made while learning are not penalized. Almost all assessment is formative for me. I do not penalize for failure during the formative phase of learning. Summative outcomes are the result of struggle and improvement.
  • I would take control over my own professional development. There are so many ways that educators themselves can learn anywhere, anytime, and from anyone. I am absolutely not dependent on my district to help me become a better educator. My goal is to be better every day, and no one controls that better than I.

When I wrote my dissertation for my doctorate in the mid-80s, I did so on an IBM Selectric Typewriter, before there was a correcting tape inside. Now, when I publish this post, in a matter seconds educators on the other side of the world will read it. I am amazed at how much teaching has changed, but that change is bringing with it the most astonishing opportunities imaginable. Pre-service teachers who want to be amazing educators will have the chance to go where I cannot even dream, but they must learn to embrace the times, and so must my peers who make up almost one third of the American educational workforce.

If we must stand with one foot in the 20th century and the other in the 21st, let the former create in us a firm understanding of the mistakes we have made and the foundations we have laid. The latter, well, that is what will make us the most successful at what we do in helping equip our students for one of the most exciting eras of change that education and the world has seen.

Harrison McCoy is a business education instructor and campus technology liaison at Arlington Collegiate High School at Tarrant County College in Texas.

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