The Core of the Apple: The Foundation of Personalized Learning

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My first job in education was that of a middle school teacher. I followed a non-traditional path to becoming a teacher. Out of college, I worked as a software developer for a consulting firm based out of Chicago. I had the pleasure of working in Silicon Valley before it had officially been given that title. I also was able to work on a very large software project for one the largest and most widely known global companies. It won’t name the company, but I can tell you it was McFun!

When I left the world of software development, I was yearning for something impactful. That led me to give a whirl at substitute teaching. To make a long (and boring) story not so long (but likely still boring), I fell in love on my first day of subbing and even more so on the second day. At the end of the second day, I was offered a middle school teaching job.

I was to teach Spanish. Because I only had 80 students at the time, which was not a full load, I also had to teach Math and Language Arts. A normal load of students across six periods was between 120-140, depending on the subject area.

While I had a B.S. in Computer Science, I did not have any teacher training, nor did I have a clue what I was doing. (Some may argue that still holds true to this day.)

Even without any formal training, there was something that I knew, even on that first day of subbing. I knew that if I put the students interests and needs at the forefront, that I could at least teach them SOMETHING. It may not have been what was outlined in the curriculum guides, but they were going to learn something, by golly!

Then as I attempted to navigate the sparse training, the curriculum guides, and seek guidance from my seasoned peers, I started to increase my ability to teach them because I combined my basic instinct of keeping the students at the center with some actual knowledge of content, delivery, and informal assessment.

I also began to notice something else as I heard it and saw it from my peers, and also began to experience it myself: teachers were not supported very well. In many cases, like my own, teachers were struggling to meet the needs of their students. Resources, training, feedback, and encouragement were in high demand. Teachers did not have information and the resources required to be fully successful. In many cases, this was a major distraction and it resulted in teachers focusing on many other things other than the students they were supposed to be teaching.

Three years later, which was my last year at this same school, I had 247 students in my Spanish classes. I taught all 7 periods of the day. My average class size was 37 and I had two periods during my day that had 45 students. The principal actually opened a wall between two classrooms so that I could double my classroom space due to the enrollment numbers. I tripled the number of students enrolled in Spanish. It wasn’t because I was the most skilled teacher in the school, because I was far from it. I believe it was because I recognized that each of them was a unique individual and treated them as such…and that made a HUGE difference.

Three years later, I was the principal of a non-traditional high school in Georgia. I was working in a district that was struggling to graduate students. The superintendent knew something had to be done because only about 50% of freshman were graduating in four years. The superintendent was wise because he knew that the traditional school setting was NOT working for many students for a variety of reasons.

The 2 most important considerations in education

He asked if I would be willing to start a brand new school from scratch that would be designed around the students who for one reason or another, simply were not successful in the traditional setting. I told him that I would love to do so. I gave him two conditions. The first was that I wanted to be able to hire the best teachers from the district. At the time what I meant by the best teachers, were the ones that I felt would know how to put students at the center of their work. I told him I wanted to be able visit them, see them in action, interview them, and see if they could work on a team that was committed to students and could relate to them.

I sketched out the very rough drawing shown here to be clear about what I was saying. I wanted our focus to be on the students. In order to do that, we had to put lots of energy, training and resources into our teachers. And EVERYTHING ELSE had to support either students or teachers.

When I met with the prospective teachers for this new school, I showed them the sketch that was going to be our guiding light, the core value, of what we were going to do. I wanted them to see it and be able to speak to it.

The second condition I had for the superintendent was that I wanted students to be able to work at their own pace, on their own schedule and not have to abide by arbitrary state seat time regulations. This would require him seeking waivers from the state.

He agreed to all of it.

In less than four months, we were able to hire a staff, write new curriculum, find other successful materials and tools that our teachers could use to ensure that each student could find a path to success.

We graduated 117 students the first year. I was then hired in that district to start another new school and to be an assistant to the superintendent during the second year, but we were able to help over 430 students graduate that year. The program was recognized by the National School Boards Association and the American School Board Journal.

The next year, at the age of 35, I was hired to be a superintendent of schools. I ended up working in three districts as a superintendent. I am proud to say, that while I was not perfect, I was able to keep the same focus of my work as a district leader that I had when I was a first year student. Again, I may not have had the strongest skill set, but I knew if we kept the students and teachers at the center of our work, we would find success. And we did. We were not perfect, but we met the needs of many students. Unfortunately, there were still some students we left behind.

Fast forward to my work today. I am no longer a teacher, principal, or a superintendent. However, my work still involves putting students and teachers at the center of creating and enhancing successful schools. The ideas that I had as a starting teacher and then as a principal starting a brand new school in Georgia, still are at the core of my work. It still involves great teachers, the best instructional tools and it still involves personalizing timing, content, and pacing.

Online and blended learning enables many students to achieve success that they would not have been able to do so in a traditional school setting. It enables high levels of personalization, through timing, content, pacing, and modalities. It helps us meet many students at eye level. It helps many students who are in a traditional setting to stay on track. It provides tools, data, creativity, flexibility, communication, engagement, productivity, and so much more to the teachers who work online with students.

Every single student, just like every single one of us, has a pathway, or even pathways that work best. Whether it is in a K-12 school or in a work environment, we each reach success our own way. In education, our job is not to make students fit onto whatever educational conveyor belt we put before them and hope they don’t fall off. Our job is find ways to meet them where they are, give them the opportunities to achieve, learn, and grow in the ways that are best suited to them.

The core of the proverbial educational apple is our students and we must surround them with teachers who are passionate and who have been resourced to help each one of them achieve success.

I am so honored to work in a field and for a company that has that same belief. The Connections Education mission statement reads, “The mission of Connections Education is to help each student maximize his or her potential and meet the highest performance standards through a uniquely individualized learning program.”

I am blessed that I get to wake up and do work that I love and that I know is positively impacting children, teachers and families.

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