Opinion

Why America's 'hacker generation' can thrive as teachers

Many teachers aren’t feeling much love this Teacher Appreciation Day. But I still believe it is possible to be a good teacher in America – and worth the effort to try. The shift toward data-driven instruction and innovation creates an environment where the 'hacker generation' can thrive.

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    Florida's Gov. Rick Scott speaks to students and teachers at Wynnebrook Elementary School in West Palm Beach, Fla., May 6 as part of a tour to promote the legislature's passage of a $1 billion increase in education spending. Op-ed contributor and science teacher Lindsay Wells says 'if we all encourage smart, idealistic youth to give teaching a try (and get properly trained), our country is bound to see more positive results.'
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Today marks Teacher Appreciation Day in the United States, but it’s fair to say many teachers – veterans and newcomers alike – aren’t feeling much appreciation lately.

Nearly half of all teachers leave the profession within the first five years. Recently, two veteran teachers – Gerald Conti in New York and Randy Turner in Missouri – have decided to call it quits with recent public resignations on Facebook and in the Huffington Post. Their high-profile statements speak to their frustration and disillusionment with teaching.

Both of their resignations contain numerous unfortunate truths about the challenges facing today’s public school teachers. I have been teaching high school science for five years and I, too, have experienced the stress and devaluation they describe so poignantly. Despite this, I still believe it is possible to be a good teacher in America – and worth the effort to try. What’s more, the shift toward data-driven instruction and innovation is creating an environment where the “hacker generation” can thrive.

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To understand why American public education is in such a state of turmoil, one need only consider how much the end goal of education has shifted since the late 1800s when our current system was put into place. We are no longer preparing just a tiny percentage of students for college and high-skill careers and expecting the rest to be ready for industrial, low-skill jobs.

Tony Wagner reports in his book, “The Global Achievement Gap,” that employers are dissatisfied with many recent graduates’ lack of critical thinking, communication, and teamwork skills, in addition to their inability to think in the kinds of creative and innovative ways the current economy requires. The initial design of American schools and teaching methods has largely become obsolete, and as a result, everyone is casting about for solutions.

This is exactly why I feel that I got into the profession just as it’s starting to get interesting. While negative attitudes toward teachers don’t make it easy for us to have our voices heard, it is critical for teachers to continue to elbow their way into the debate about how to redesign public education in this country. 

Ideally, the US education system’s top priority would be to foster wonder, creativity, inquisitiveness, and love of learning in every child. Teachers would be empowered to use curriculum that showed students the relevance and real-world applications of what they’re learning. Schools would recognize many ways of being intelligent, and would reward students for pooling their intellectual resources, and for thinking outside the box.

Standards (and assessments of students’ progress toward meeting them) would require that students engage in the practices of professionals in their discipline, rather than memorization of facts and ideas removed from any context. (An encouraging move in this direction is the Next Generation Science Standards.)

While this vision is still a way off, I am encouraged by the fact that many new teachers today are part of the hacker generation. We are comfortable tinkering with the rules of the game to produce a “win,” or simply to explore the limits of what’s possible. Teaching currently offers plenty of opportunities for this ethos to thrive.

For instance, the trend toward “data-driven” decision making seems like it would pressure educators into conformity. Yet it actually forces clear communication about the goals of education and encourages teachers to creatively "hack" the system to figure out the best way to achieve these goals.

I’ve met plenty of teachers (through the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation, and at all the schools where I’ve taught) who happily spend hours analyzing assessment data to find out where things might be going wrong with their practice. This allows us to spend less time trying to fix things that might not be broken and more time testing innovative methods. 

While there are many reasons to be optimistic, there may come a day when I, too, will feel overwhelmed by new demands and worn down by policy flip-flops. Should I find myself lacking the energy to insist on being treated as a professional, I will gracefully make my exit. But here are a few things I promise to do first – and encourage all retiring teachers to do before they go.

Digitize as much of your work as possible and give one copy to a new teacher. Pick what you think are your best lessons, activities, and tests and make a digital copy available. This would greatly reduce the stress on novice teachers that comes with reinventing the wheel.

Share methods you employed that allowed you to be more efficient. Tell new teachers about the short cuts you invented to grade students’ work faster, or the norms you set up so that students wouldn’t have to ask what they missed when they were absent. Consider convening a meeting between novice and veteran teachers at your school to discuss efficiency practices.

Share your list of professional contacts. Pass along the list of peers with whom you collaborated and the names of local experts in your subject area (parents, university professors) who have helped with projects or the extracurricular club you ran. The next generation of teachers loves having other people who can be resources and mentors for our students as they work on more authentic, real-world problems.

Tell your story about challenges you faced and overcame as a new teacher. Talk to beginning teachers about the difficulties you faced, especially in your first year, and how you dealt with them. It is always encouraging to know we are not alone.

Most important, share constructive thoughts and solutions. Telling young people that teaching is no longer a worthwhile, respected profession becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. On the other hand, if we all encourage smart, idealistic youth to give teaching a try (and get properly trained), our country is bound to see more positive results.

Lindsay Wells is a 2009 Knowles Science Teaching Fellow with The Knowles Science Teaching Foundation. She is collaborating with D-Lab at MIT to recruit more high school students into STEM with classroom experiences that matter.

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