Everyone who knows me knows that the reason I am a teacher is because of my attachment to fictional characters, especially fictional depictions of teachers. I watched and read The Little House on the Prairie series growing up, same with Anne of Green Gables. Their influence and what I told my high school counselor was why I have wanted to be a teacher all my life.
When I was a child as young as 12, I had so much fun imagining my time as a teacher. Standing up on top of my desk like Mr. Keating in Dead Poet’s Society or comforting a grieving child like in Because of Mr. Terupt. In all these different accounts, the teacher stands in the front of the room and inspires the students almost instantaneously. He or she opens up a book, perhaps, and there the students stare – soaking up every word.
It wasn’t long before I realized the students of my dreams were not the students sitting in my classrooms. I had to do a lot of work for little appreciation from the students, often much more work than they did in the class. That’s not unusual in American classrooms at least. Teachers have been trained to believe that they have to work more than 60 hours a week to grade papers and prepare entertaining lesson plans, often staying up until late at night and waking up earlier than anyone should, all to be prepared for students who really don’t want to be there. It leads to frustrated, burnt out teachers who eventually give up and put on a movie.
Where I will be working this fall is very different than what I ever imagined when I pictured myself teaching. Shelby County Schools outside of Louisville is a community focused on helping students develop their on passions and interests with self-paced learning. The traditional “sit and get” form of teaching, where students sit in rows soaking up the knowledge of the teacher and then spitting it back out on a test, really does not work in the modern age. Shelby County is piloting programs where teachers give students the ability to learn at their own pace.
In self-paced learning, teachers and students simply become partners in learning, agreeing upon a set of standards to work towards during the year. Students monitor their progress to meet those standards and teachers provide support to help the students be successful. They have choice in what topics they learn about while still producing the same types of projects, essays, and assessments that students in traditional classrooms do. This is the future of education: self-paced, project-based learning.
The difference from traditional teaching, of course, is that by providing students the ability to monitor their own learning, choose their topics, and hold them accountable to their own learning, students become the “masters of their own destiny.” By trusting them enough to make decisions about when they have learned something, we are putting a lot into their hands and making them more responsible, while also teaching them it’s okay not to understand something right away – what’s called failing forward (also growth mindset).
Remember the last time you went down a rabbit hole with a new topic you just had to know about? It probably didn’t have anything to do with your job, and it certainly wasn’t something someone else told you to study. For me it was the lives and specifically mourning customs of the Edwardians (Downton Abbey age). What would school be like if that was the everyday experience for our students? How many students would run to school in the morning, excited to learn, and come home exhausted because of all the learning they did that day? This is self-paced, passion-driven learning.
The future of education is in self-paced learning where we begin trusting kids more with their own passions and interests. We are teaching positive attitudes, collaboration, creativity, and responsibility now more than ever before. Am I little sad I’ll never be the sage on the stage like Mr. Keating? Maybe. Will I teach the best way I know how so my students can succeed? Absolutely – and that means self-paced learning.
Check back often for updates on what my students are doing, how my classroom is being run, and more!