My biggest fear as a teacher…

By AJ Juliani, 7 comments

It would happen every year. It seemed, without fail, that every August I’d have the same restless night of sleep. Tossing and turning, I’d often have to move to the couch as not to keep my wife up all night long. This was odd for me. I’m a deep sleeper. I usually fall asleep quickly, right when my head hit the pillow. But on these August nights it was different. I couldn’t get comfortable.

The thing is, I would tell myself I’m not worried. I’d lie and say in my head, I’m not nervous, I’m not anxious, everything is fine. 

But, if you’ve ever been a teacher, you probably know the feeling. Every August I was preparing to have a new set of students in front of me. Fresh faces, personalities, backgrounds, hopes, dreams, and struggles.

It wasn’t the thought of teaching that had me up all night. I love teaching. Love my job, my colleagues, my school. Instead, it was one fear that kept nagging at me, silently in the background of my consciousness.

It was subtle but very real, and very present. It actually never went away during the school year. Yet, the only time it kept me up at night was during these August nights.

You’d think after years of teaching it would get easier. Quite the opposite. It grew. Sometimes, I’d wonder as I lay awake, why do I care so much about this? Why do I let it get to me?

The fear wasn’t all the work that goes into teaching. It wasn’t the papers I’d have to grade, the lessons I’d have to prepare, the IEP’s I’d have to work on, or the meetings I’d have to attend.

I was not afraid of jumping into a new curriculum, rolling out a 1-to-1 technology initiative, handling a new administration, or changes to the schedule.

I didn’t bat an eye when it came to coaching two sports, running a large student after school club, or hosting events at our high school.

No, it was none of these things that kept me awake. I loved the craziness and busyness and constant pressures of being “on” in the classroom. It made me feel alive and fueled me with energy throughout the school year.

In the midst of all that goes into being a teacher, there was one thing that I was afraid of…

My biggest fear as a teacher was whether or not my students would care.

The Fear Was Real

You see, to me, it was the only thing that really mattered. The school could be burning down around me, but if my classroom was filled with students who were engaged, motivated, and cared about what we were learning and doing…I would be fine.

The problem was that often, this was not the case. There were lessons that bombed. Projects that failed. Units that were slow and boring. Content that was not that interesting.

I’d work tirelessly, like so many teachers, to build lessons and units that would engage my students. Yet, despite all my work (and lots of collaborating with colleagues) it wouldn’t always help.

I wanted my students to be motivated to learn, and engaged in the process, but I was lost for answers.

So, during those August nights I wrestled with the reality that I would get in front of a group of kids and not have any answers on how to engage them and get them to care.

It was mid-way through 2008-2009 school year when I stumbled on an answer to this fear that was surprisingly simple.

Turning Fear Into Action

I had a student ask me, in the middle of class, to do something different with a project that I had spent hours creating and putting together for my students.

At first, I balked at the question. This project is great I thought, they are going to love it, changing it now would ruin all the work I had done to create this learning experience.

But, my students convinced me that day to do something I’d never done before. I gave them the reigns on their learning. I allowed them to create a project that mattered to them. 

I made time for them to look at a problem, ask a lot of questions, understand what the issues were, navigate ideas, create potential solutions, highlight what worked, and then put their creation out into the world.

Throughout “Project: Global Inform” (as they had named it), my students were engaged, committed, and motivated to learn and make because they were part of the process.

It had always been about ME:

  • ME choosing what they would learn
  • ME creating the project
  • ME giving out the guidelines
  • ME telling them what would be successful

And although I was doing all of these things so my students would be engaged and care about what we were learning, it was the wrong approach.

I, like so many teachers, wanted my students to do creative and innovative work. I saw their eyes light up when they were doing this kind of work, but still struggled with how to structure learning experiences that empowered students with the choice and opportunity to make, create, design, build, tinker, and play…all while learning.

Structuring Creative and Innovative Work

We all want our kids to be creative. We want our classrooms to foster innovation. Yet, when it comes down to it, structuring this type of learning can be difficult. I spent years trying to figure out how to do this as a teacher and failed many times.

  • During our 20% Projects I failed to structure the choice and give my students guidance around evaluating sources, project management, and giving a live presentation.
  • During “Project: Global Inform’s” first run I failed when working with students to create an action plan that would help guide them through the process of creating an awareness campaign.
  • During our “CSI” project I dropped the ball in the sharing phase. Not taking the work we were doing and helping students put it out into the world.
  • During the “Flat Classroom Project” we rushed through the beginning stages of learning and inquiry and spent too much time creating videos for a final presentation without quality information and insight.

In each of these situations, I was missing a structure that could help my students (and myself) in the creative process.

I had finally found a cure to that ever-present fear of whether or not my students would care, but in order to give my students the opportunity to do creative work that mattered to them, I would need a way to manage all of the choice and inquiry that they now had in our classroom. 

First Fear: Whether or not my students would be engaged and care in my classroom.

First Solution: Students cared when they were empowered with choice to do creative work.

Now, I had a new fear: I wouldn’t be able to manage the choice my students had in class, and thus would fail them in guiding their creative work and process.

It was just as real as fear #1.

It also wasn’t just me that had this fear. I talked to hundreds of teachers around the world who were starting 20% Time and Genius Hour projects, giving students choice and teaching through inquiry. I talked to teachers creating projects with their students like Project: Global Inform. Time and time again we had the same conversations.

How do we structure these projects? How do we manage the choice being given? How do we help students in their creative struggles?

In my own personal search for answers, I came across a number of books, articles, and videos that shared Design Thinking. 

Then, in a stroke of timing, I asked my good friend John Spencer what he thought about Design Thinking, and our conversation sparked a second eureka moment. 

In the next three posts of this series on “Design Thinking in the Classroom” I’ll share how we’ve used design thinking in our classrooms to help structure, manage, and empower creative and innovative work. It’s why we created the LAUNCH Cycle and wrote our new book on design thinking. We believe it is a powerful framework for creativity in the classroom.

The LAUNCH Cycle by John Spencer and A.J. Juliani

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