Thank You to the Skeptical Teachers!

May 7, 2015

Drew Schrader

It is worth noting from the onset that I am so fortunate to get to work with and be inspired by many amazing teachers. So many of my most treasured thought partners and teacher-colleagues are those who, despite the challenges, are regularly inspired and energized to do this work. I can think of so many teachers I’ve worked with who, as our training gets rolling, note things like “This is how I’ve been trying to teach my whole career!” This reaction resonates with me personally and I always benefit from working and learning with these teachers.

But for teacher appreciation week, I want to specifically thank a different sort of teacher. I’ve also had the privilege of working with many teachers who are candidly more than a little skeptical about the work NTN does and specifically project based learning as a core instructional strategy. There are no shortage of valid reasons for teachers to come to the table with a healthy dose of skepticism about what might feel like the new “flavor of the month” initiative including their own experiences as teachers and learners, personal expertise, and doubts about larger school or district motivations or follow-through.

I’m thinking about teachers like Josh – a middle school teacher I have had the great privilege to work with over the past few years with one of our midwest schools. Josh was a memorable member of their team at their teacher residency where he and his team visited an existing school to learn about the model together.  He was thoughtful, vocal, a bit cynical, and at times, candidly skeptical.  I actually always appreciate having voices like Josh’s at events like teacher residency in part because they raise all the good topics and give us a chance to address, rather than to ignore, any elephants in the room as a group.  I also appreciate tough questioning and skepticism because it forces me to continually rethink and re-articulate my own beliefs and reasons for why and how we do the work we do.

But I appreciate Josh for much more than serving as a useful foil to surface and hone ideas and arguments. In working closely with him during their school’s first 2 years, and a following his work from a bit further off this last year, I have been truly impressed and inspired by his efforts and the growth I’ve seen in his practice. What I appreciate most about this is that I realize just how difficult doing authentic, student-centered PBL is – even in the best of circumstances. Doing it now, at times when local, state, and national politics around education are less than nurturing to say the least, is all the more impressive.

And in reflecting on teachers like Josh, what I realize I have most inspired by was a willingness to take a risk on something they may or may not fully believe in at the start. It is in vogue to talk about the virtues of risk taking and “failing forward” for real growth and improvement. Part of the unspoken part of that rhetoric, however, is the assurance that the risk is worthwhile and some certainty that the fall is indeed “forward.” Attempting to learn a new instructional approach like PBL is a risk, but it is a different sort of risk for the healthy skeptic than for the eager adopter.  I appreciate and thank Josh, and all the Joshes out there who have had the courage to take a risk despite doubt in the approach, their school, their students, or even themselves.