Last week, I shared the introduction to my sabbatical proposal. I thought it was a nice description of who I am and why I approach my job the way I do. This part of the proposal summarizes a dilemma I’ve had throughout my career. No matter what job you have, you may relate to the struggle of being constrained by how your employer does things.
Today, I want to share the next section, which is about my teaching journey. I have changed the name of my college because I want to decrease the chance that someone from my school would happen upon it. Enjoy!
My Teaching Journey: Striving for Meaningful Change
While preparing to be a high school English teacher, I wrote a paper on why we should no longer use letter grades for assessment in education. I had read Alfie Kohn’s Punished By Rewards and argued that letter grades were more harmful than helpful. The goal in teaching was to inspire intrinsic motivation and one solution was to let go of the achievement descriptors that reduced student performance to a single letter—a letter that meant so many things to so many people that it ended up meaningless. The thought exercise of writing the paper was meaningful to me and I would have loved to apply my knowledge, but when I was offered a job as an English instructor at my college years later, I gladly used the system provided to me, a system that used letter grades. I was so excited to get a job and be able to work with real, live students that I would gladly work within the system.
So illustrates what I consider to be one of my biggest struggles as a teacher—wanting so badly to put my beliefs and values into practice but needing to follow the rules of the institution by which I am employed. I have also grown to recognize that those systems have benefitted me in ways throughout the years. For example, I gladly rely on institutional systems when in a tight spot, such as when a student challenges a grade and I need someone to back me up. My supervisors, while using the practices put in place by the institution, have always supported me in a variety of challenging student situations. My appreciation of the institutional support, though, has never fulfilled me in a way that reaching for my dream has.
Over the 18 years I have been employed full-time at my college, I have worked within the systems provided by the institution—at times pushing its boundaries–while creating practices that I believe best facilitate student learning in my classes. I have worked tirelessly to try new things, to see what would work. I started by asking students to plan classes with me, and I have used OnCourse principles (OnCourse is a skills program for students) to build small groups in class to create community. I have implemented a reading/writing workshop model in my classes to maximize student choice in learning. Most recently, I have taught students basic Compassionate Communication skills so we could work together to create practices that guide our behavior in class to create a peaceful, productive classroom environment. The strategies I have used have all been successful to varying degrees.
Each semester, though, I still struggle with student absences and motivation. I still strive to help students find what is most important to them in their learning. I work to let go of my desire to control all aspects of the classroom so that students can take responsibility for their learning. I continue to see the seemingly insurmountable societal and procedural challenges the institution at which I am employed faces while steeped in traditional policies and practices.
While I have been working on continually improving my courses, I have participated in a variety of professional development and service opportunities at my college. I have often followed others in this process. I followed a colleague into learning about Compassionate Communication over 10 years ago. I have been part of DECT (Developmental Education Coordinating Team) and on AQIP (Academic Quality Improvement Program) projects working on developmental education and paired course initiatives. I have led committees at times, but have not taken something I had worked on outside to my college and said, “Hey. Look at this. Here’s the way I want to go.” I now have an idea to help create meaningful change for myself and others in our classes and I would like to become a leader at my college to support change the college wants to make.
My desire for societal and educational change have led me to encounter a local school run by like-minded educators. Over my college’s spring break 2020, I spent a day observing an independent, progressive K-8 school located in town. This new (since 2017) small (3 teachers, 45 students) institution puts into practice so much of what I believe will create a peaceful, productive learning environment, which, if widespread, will create a peaceful, productive world.
The independent elementary school uses principles I have learned through Compassionate Communication and puts them into action. The focus is on creating community and developing learners with strong social/emotional and problem solving skills. Their desires are much in line with what we want for our students at my college
Further, while working with the independent elementary school, I discovered a system that supports and works through and with the values I hold: Project-Based Learning. In short, PBL is a system by which students engage in inquiry and develop their own projects where by they are solving a problem, posing a challenge or developing a tool that is ultimately shared in a public forum. It is much like what we currently do in our composition classes at my college only the audiences are real and the project is student-driven. In short, the project does real work in the world.
Project-Based Learning is not only a system I want to use in my courses, it is something I believe will contribute to all students at my college. It is a strategy that can continue to bring the system out of the factory-based model education in the US has historically based in to a more creative, more student-driven model that will better serve the college community in the 21st century. Depending on the degree to which the college is interested in it, we can change our students’ experiences in and out of the academic classroom, to Continuing Education, and possibly to employment (how we work daily) at the college.
In short, I want to continue my journey to becoming the most effective teacher I can be to engage and encourage students to strive to meet their goals while doing what I can to contribute to my program and beyond that, my college.
Finally, here is the most direct statement about what I want to do for my sabbatical:
I am applying for a one semester, full-time sabbatical during the spring 2022 semester so I can devote my time to continuing my study of Compassionate Communication and learning about Project-Based Learning, revising my composition courses using this framework and creating supports for the college’s instructors (in any discipline) who wish to do the same. I will create web-based materials for instructors to pull into their Canvas shells and develop a system by which to use PBL to support paired courses. Finally, I plan on developing a service-learning project in which one of my classes works with students in the independent elementary school in a shared endeavor.
It will be quite some time before I hear whether or not I am granted the sabbatical. For today, though, I am happy I submitted the proposal.
Peace Out (and In),