I graduated high school 25+ years ago. In between then and now I have earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. I am certified to teach two different subject areas. I am certified to be a principal. I have earned Google and Adobe certifications, raised two kids, been a pretty good husband to one wife, and have attended countless professional development sessions, conferences, presentations, workshops, and even taught a few. With all that experience and all that expertise, I do not understand what it’s like to attend seven classes per day in a modern high school. I haven’t the foggiest idea what it’s like to complete homework today, or take notes from a high school lecturer, take a test, or do a group project with other high school students. I can’t relate to today’s students beyond my own understanding of being a professional educator.
Teaching is a rare profession in that we hardly ever consume the product we create. I’m not saying we don’t learn. I’m a constant learner, as are my colleagues. They work hard to be the best teachers they can be, but they don’t sit in a high school classroom all day every day. We attend professional development sessions, workshops, conferences, all those things that make us the dedicated professionals we are, but just because we’re professionals doesn’t mean we are the beginning and end to understanding what we do.
When a doctor is getting healthcare he can learn about what he does, same thing goes for a lawyer. The salesmen I know love to be pitched by other salesmen. It ups their game, teaches them. When these professionals engage in their own profession as a client they are authentically involved in receiving the benefits they provide others. How could you not grow in a situation like that? They have a stake in the outcome of their engagement, it’s important to them.
As much stake as that doctor has in his own doctor visit, our entire community has stake in the outcome of our classes. There has to be a way for teachers to experience the classroom in authentic ways. Making that happen would require a change to the education system as a whole. I am not authorized to do that. So, if a teacher can’t be a student in their classroom how can we simulate the experience, or at least provide a way to enhance the current system to bring us closer to that authenticity?
In 2016 I, along with my colleague Kristen Spain, started a student intern program called the TechnoCats. Our goal was to provide student voice in the lesson planning process. We’ve all been to student panels where students share stories about their experiences or voice an opinion, but I couldn’t find a place where students were active participants in the lesson-planning process. The teachers are experts at pedagogy. They are experts in their content, but the TechnoCats were experts at being in their classes. That expertise is valuable, whether the students understand the technical aspects of the learning process or not.
There are real, earnest, attempts in education to innovate the lesson planning process. In some districts teachers meet with their above and below grade-level colleagues for vertical teaming meetings. Some districts use Professional Learning Communities as a way to improve lesson plans. My own district uses the Schlechty Design Qualities in twice-yearly Design Sessions to better engage students using the type of instruction and assessment that the students find most impactful. They are all great ways to improve and should be celebrated and encouraged.
At my school, the Design Sessions have been greatly improved by including our instructional technology interns, the TechnoCats. Over the last year and a half of student voice in our design sessions there has been a definite, measurable improvement in the lessons created and in the teachers’ confidence that the lessons will be impactful. While it’s great for teachers to reflect on their students via the Who’s Your Who portion of the design process, asking students direct questions about the design qualities they find most impactful is easier, more authentic, and more efficient. Questions lead to follow-ups, which lead to clarifications, which leads to more questions. Then the students ask questions, follow-ups, and clarifications and, before you know it, lesson design becomes a collaborative experience where everyone who has a stake in the outcome also has a voice in how it’s taught, how the learning is expressed, and how the learning is assessed. It’s equal parts focus group, think tank, community outreach, and collaborative learning project. It’s authentic.
Our students have a vested interest in what goes on in our classrooms. We should provide them, in whatever way possible, the opportunity to contribute beyond their compliance with rules and ability to take tests.