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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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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.

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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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