By Jonah Ibson
I have never experienced anything more terrifying and anxiety-provoking than being a first-year teacher. All day and (not infrequently) deep into the night, my mind was bombarded with a barrage of questions. How can I teach my reluctant middle-school readers to discover how it feels to empathize with a fictional character? How can I help some students find the confidence to speak up while helping others find the self-control to stop blurting out? What is the right mixture of kindness and firmness needed to keep all students engaged, safe and focused? And, the most dreaded first-year teacher question of all: What am I going to do in class tomorrow?
Several years and a couple of schools later, I started to feel like I actually had a handle on the craft of teaching. When I arrived at Harwood to teach ninth-grade English five years ago, I was confident that I could handle a new challenge. Teachers are a highly self-critical lot, so I still had a ton of questions, but the questions had changed, shifting away from “What am I doing?” to “How can I do this better?” Then, in 2013, Act 77 was passed, mandating Flexible Pathways to Graduation and Personalization in Vermont public schools. The Class of 2020 was on the horizon and, suddenly, secondary education needed to look a lot different than it ever had before. And that’s when things got real.
The entire Harwood community is more fortunate than most of us realize to have had Amy Rex as our principal during the critical years she was with us. Recognizing the enormous amount of transformational work we needed to do as a school, Amy created a team of teachers and students to collaborate with the administration to begin the process of redefining how we teach students at Harwood. This collaborative team gives genuine student voice to decision making, and during the first meeting of this newly formed team, Amy asked us to journal about leadership and what it means to us. In retrospect, I now see that her greatest strengths as a leader were a clear vision for the future of our school and an ability to communicate this vision to teachers. Amy helped us collectively ask, “How can we do this better?”
And now here we are. The Class of 2020 is in their 10th-grade year of high school and our proficiency-based system of teaching, learning and assessment is a reality. I am 15 years deep into my teaching career, and I am working harder than I ever have before. But don’t mistake this for a plea for sympathy. While teaching feels like more of a challenge than ever, it also feels more rewarding.
So, what’s changed? If your perception is that the biggest change at Harwood is the grading system, you might just be missing the forest for the trees. The greatest shifts are occurring in classrooms all over our school in which teachers are clearly communicating the skills students need to master, providing practice and targeted feedback, and helping every student to maximize their learning. Being committed to learning and to the idea of personalization (which is more than just the educational buzzword of the day) requires a lot more thoughtful planning and careful execution. We are providing students multiple ways in which to take in new information and ideas, multiple ways to practice new skills, and multiple ways to demonstrate the knowledge and skills they gain. We are designing formative assessments to figure out the range of understandings in our classrooms and designing differentiated follow-up activities based on the results. We are bringing home meaningful student work many nights a week and providing thoughtful, timely feedback to help move our students from where they are to where they need and want to be. I believe that we are working harder and smarter, and it is all in the service of helping our students grow into the problem-solving, critical-thinking, creative citizens we need them to be.
It’s exciting to work in a school that invests in innovative ideas; it’s exciting to work with teachers willing to work hard to open new pathways for students. On one end of the building, students can walk into an engineering teacher’s room and find it morphed into a makerspace with students using 3-D printers, soldering equipment and other tools to create, invent, tinker and explore. Down the hall and up a flight of stairs, students can walk into an art classroom and choose an old book to deconstruct and recreate into a sculpture that overflows from its original confines. On the other end of the building, a student can stroll into a humanities classroom, find their seat around a large table, take out their closely read and annotated text and dive into a democratic, student-led discussion. And to help combat the stress that the demands of school and extracurricular activities can lead to, students can sign up for a yoga class and find the library transformed into a space for mindful exercise. At Harwood, teachers are working collectively to provide a holistic education for students. This is a demanding and dynamic time to be a teacher.
This job feels more rewarding to me than at any other point in my career because we are getting better at bringing our focus and attention to equity and learning. I know exactly what I want each of my students to learn in my classes. I know they are all capable of learning, and I know that just about all of my efforts are in the service of this goal. We’re at a time in the history of education when our craft is being redefined, and in a richer, more meaningful way, we are all rediscovering the challenge of being first-year teachers. At times, this comes with that familiar sense of terror and anxiety. But it’s invigorating to know that we are doing things better, actively making important changes to improve teaching and learning for all students.
Ibson is a ninth-grade humanities teacher and leadership team member at Harwood and lives in Waitsfield.