Last year was my third year of teaching in inner-city Indianapolis, and I had reached my breaking point. I was a Teach for America alumnus, Sontag Prize in Urban Education winner for excellence in teaching mathematics, a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow, and a two-time attendee of conferences by the Gates Foundation celebrating effective teachers and teaching. But this, my third year, was about to be my last in the classroom.
I adored my students and enjoyed teaching high school math. My students realized significant academic success, as measured by both district and state assessments. Additionally I was able to enjoy some personal success by developing close, personal relationships with my students both in the classroom and through extracurricular activities I sponsored. However, after some deep soul-searching, I came to the realization that, despite such success-affirming indicators, including glowing performance evaluations and a comfortable paycheck, at the end of the day I did not view teaching as a true profession. I despised feeling like, despite my best efforts, I was having little impact in my school beyond the four walls of my classroom.
As U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently stated, “The factory model of education is the wrong model for the 21st century. Today, our schools must prepare all students for college and careers—and do far more to personalize instruction and employ the smart use of technology.” Secretary Duncan’s comments spoke to my frustrations as a teacher. My greatest sources of frustration stemmed from my inability to be recognized and treated as a highly capable professional and the constraints of teaching within the same outdated school model of the last decades.
I had to make a change. So I did. I found a school that uses a blended-learning model, which has enabled me to view teaching as a true profession and career. Without the opportunity to teach in a blended-learning environment, I wouldn’t be in the classroom anymore.
Blended learning is not about replacing teachers with machines. Rather, it’s about leveraging technology to provide students and teachers with immediate feedback, holding each individual student accountable for his or her academic success, and personalizing coursework to best meet students exactly where they are. Dave Levin, one of the founders of the KIPP charter network, recently emphasized that blended learning relies upon skilled teachers. This point is absolutely critical: Without highly effective teachers and instruction, a blended-learning model cannot be successful or sustainable.
As enlightened and progressive educators, we must get away from the notion that the most important thing about our students is their grade level. Where I currently teach, we have 8th grade students taking 6th grade math, 7th grade history, and 9th grade English. Specific academic courses are assigned based upon each student’s instructional level. In fact, we do not have any two students taking the exact same course load. We also empower our students with the responsibility to choose their work at any given time, while constantly monitoring their individual data to ensure they are not solely working on one particular course while ignoring others.
Of course, school is also a place where social interaction is of the utmost importance. Our students do not just sit in front of computers all day. In addition to their digital coursework, our students have workshops based on their grade level, along with office hours, or one-on-ones with teachers. I am able to design projects, experiments, and real-world applications to bring the concepts that the students are learning through their digital curriculum to life. I am able to teach them how to think creatively. For example, I have found that it is much more meaningful to have my students develop a formula for cutting a piece of Laughing Cow cheese horizontally into equal pieces, or to take a leaky faucet and use math to calculate exactly how long it will take for that sink to fill up than to have them answer traditional questions from a textbook or worksheet. This is truly an exhilarating experience for a teacher. And, furthermore, I feel challenged by it.
I firmly believe that teaching in a blended-learning environment is a path to a sustainable career for teachers who are looking for a change of pace from a traditional school environment to one that values autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
I work amidst a small staff (14 adults, including just four teachers, all with three or more years’ experience) that was entirely hand selected. We collaborate at our daily staff meetings before school and work closely throughout the day to maximize the educational experiences for our kids. With an eye towards sustaining our high-commitment and high-expectations culture, our school leader implores us to be out of the building each day by 4:15 p.m. On Fridays, we release our students at 2:30 p.m. and the last hour of the day is devoted to professional development.
With a small, experienced, and professional staff, we make many decisions collectively. Last year, I enrolled in an educational leadership doctoral program because I felt that becoming an administrator was my only avenue to greater leadership opportunities and an income sufficient to support a family. But in my current school, I am able to take on many leadership roles and earn a higher salary while also staying in the classroom and ensuring that my students receive the best possible math education. This dynamic environment is enabling me to view teaching as a true vocation. I have since left the doctoral program, realizing administration is not my passion: Teaching students is my passion.
It’s clear that changes are needed in our country’s schools. Study after study has made it clear that the teacher is the most important in-school factor for student achievement. But we currently have an epidemic of teachers leaving the classroom just as they’re getting really effective at their jobs. By leveraging technology and personalizing instruction in classrooms led by highly skilled teachers, we can change the educational outcomes for hundreds of thousands of students across this country. But blended learning doesn’t only benefit students—it also provides opportunities for teachers like myself to feel, perhaps for the first time, like true professionals and instructional leaders. Sustainability and professionalism are key to keeping teachers like me in the classroom. The blended-learning model provides both.