Teachable Moments: Connecting With Students In — and Out — of the Classroom

EdSurge Podcast

Teachable Moments: Connecting With Students In — and Out — of the Classroom

By Sydney Johnson     Mar 26, 2019

Teachable Moments: Connecting With Students In — and Out — of the Classroom

It’s often said that teaching and learning doesn’t always take place in the classroom—some of the most important lessons are learned on the playground, in the street, on the job or somewhere else.

The same is true for educators, whose teaching philosophies are often shaped by moments that happened when they weren't in front of the classroom. Sometimes these lessons come from being a parent or coach, traveling abroad or advancing into a new role. That was the case for four teachers featured on this week’s episode of Teachable Moments, a four-part series about why teachers teach. (You can find part one here.)

In this series we'll hear directly from educators who attended the EdSurge Fusion Conference last fall about important and challenging moments in their careers—and ultimately what brings them joy in teaching.

Listen below, or subscribe to the EdSurge On Air podcast on your favorite podcast app like iTunes or Spotify. Highlights from the conversation below have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

First we hear from Victor Tam, Principal at the Edwin and Anita Lee Newcomer School in San Francisco Unified School district. He looks back at a time when he felt regret as a parent because his son didn't get the right support, and how that fed into broader cultural patterns of believing a teacher over a student. It made him realize the impact, good or bad, that just one teacher can have.

Victor Tam: My story has to do with my oldest son, Elliot. From a young age, it was very clear that Elliot’s strength was in math. He was recruited for the math team, and he did really well. He went on to one of our top academic high schools. In his freshman year, he started off with very high grades, but every year it went progressively lower and lower, to the point where at the end of his senior year, we weren't sure whether he was going to graduate. He had lost all love of school, any love of learning and the only thing keeping him together were his friends.

He had a math teacher in his senior year who made him feel like he was nothing, that he couldn't do it, that he didn't belong. And it crushed him. I have to say a lot of the teachers in that high school didn't show a whole lot of care, a lot of empathy, any sign of love for students, nor teaching. It was really painful because I was an educator and an administrator within the system, and was powerless to do anything about it.

By the time Elliot graduated, he didn't even bother to apply for a four-year school. He just went straight into junior college. And there he thrived. He had teachers who knew him by name, who saw him, who cared about him, who laughed with him, who loved their subject and he excelled.

My story is really about care and how much of an impact we as teachers—or educators, or principals—have on students. If we don't care about them, if we don't love them, if we don't love what we're doing, we don't belong there.

The most surprising takeaway was how I fell into a cultural pattern of believing a teacher over a student, over my own child. And that was very painful to accept. Years later, I went up to Elliot and apologized. I said, “I'm so sorry that I didn't believe in you at a time when Mama and I should have had your back and should have been advocating for you.”

My wife and I failed him. And I think if I had one takeaway, it's that as a parent, as principals, as colleagues in a school, we'd better be looking out for our kids. And if we're serious about that, we have to call out people who don't belong in this career. It's a privilege and it's an honor to be a teacher and an educator, and it's very awful to our profession when we allow people who are substandard into it. If we're not advocating for quality, then we're not doing our jobs, not for our kids, not for each other, not for the system.

Next up is Sandra McConnell, a retired fifth-grade teacher, who had a career working in high technology before becoming a teacher. Her story is about what came after both of those experiences, and what she learned when she went way outside of her comfort zone but was still drawn to teaching.

Sandra McConnell: Leaving the classroom was a difficult decision for me. My husband died four-and-a-half years ago, and I returned to the classroom for one more year after that and it was really difficult. So I thought I would take a year off, and other opportunities presented themselves, including a variety of ways of teaching that do not involve classroom walls.

The first really exciting thing that I got to do was take a trip to Cambodia. A friend of mine had asked if I wanted to go on a volunteer trip. They said that there could be a variety of things to do from making wheelchairs, to building chicken coops, to digging wells, to teaching. When we got there, they were very excited to have a teacher to help the village children learn English. Learning English really is their ticket to economic security as they age and become part of the workforce.

Cambodia was amazing on so many levels. We were driven around in a tuk tuk by a man named Mr. Rut. And Mr. Rut did not speak English. We had a translator that we worked with and my goal when I met Mr. Rut was to have him be able to say “good morning” and “good afternoon” by the end of the week.

On the second day of classes, I noticed that Mr. Rut was sitting in the back of the classroom doing every assignment that the students were doing. Here was this grown adult in the back of the room doing all the assignments! He understood the value of learning English, because it had real, and direct, and immediate consequences for him, and his career and his family.

That was kind of my “ah-ha” moment. I realized I'm not just there to teach English to kids; my purpose is bigger than I ever knew it was. The beauty of that is I feel like I'm honoring my husband's memory because he absolutely believed that you had to live life full of joy and passion.

Next we hear from Lindsey Blass, a personalized learning environments program manager for San Francisco Unified School district. She got her start teaching elementary school, and recalls a time she turned to her students for help, and how they guided the way. That experience changed the direction of her career.

Lindsey Blass: I started teaching in elementary school, fourth grade. I was always getting complimented on my classroom management and the engagement in my classroom, but I was still feeling a disconnect with my students, because I didn't feel they were deeply engaged. I'd have to walk around and sort of tap their backs or look over at the table group and give them the eye to get things back on track.

I didn't really realize what true engagement looked like until several years later when I actually gained access to some technology in my classroom. I had to push myself through a struggle where I was no longer an expert on everything that I was using. I was the teacher who didn't even know how to use PowerPoint back in the day. I had access to these iPads and It had to go to my students and say, “how do we use these?”

One of the moments that always stands out to me is when we started blogging. This one student would come in before school and at lunch to work. But when we had our parent-teacher conference, her mom goes, “I just wish that she would like writing. She loves reading. I see her read at home.” So I turned to her and said, “You don't like writing, huh?” She goes, “No, I don't like writing.” And said, “Do you like blogging?” She said, “I love blogging.” And I say, “I hate to tell you, honey, but blogging is writing.” She started laughing, and her mom started laughing. She showed her mom her blog, and her mom was just floored.

That was around the time that my eyes started to really open to what student engagement was. The surprising part was that I never saw myself as that techie teacher or that techie person. And within a year I became so passionate about it. When I learned so much from my students, and from all the professional development that I went to, that no one could see me as anything but a techie, because then I started spreading that passion to other classrooms, to other teachers. I started going to conferences and presenting on it.

Now my entire job focuses on spreading technology across San Francisco Unified. I never would have expected to lead this work within our department of technology. If I can somehow go from not being able to make a PowerPoint, to leading technology integration in the largest urban district in the bay area, I think that we have a lot of potential for what we can do in our classrooms.

Finally we turn to Michael DiMaggio, a vice president for Knowledge Works. Previously, he was a high school teacher in Lakewood, Calif., and a baseball coach. He reflects on how a careless action on his part deeply affected a student on his baseball team.

Michael DiMaggio: I was coaching the freshman baseball team and I was fortunate to have a really good team at the time. We were undefeated going into spring break. So I told one of the players, “Hey, over spring break, let's get together. I'd like to spend some extra time with you, work out, go to the batting cages, work on the fundamentals.” He had a challenging home life, and so this was something that I know was important to him.

So we get back from spring break, and I totally spaced it. I had completely forgotten. And he's just being sullen, defiant, insubordinate. I had never experienced that with him. So after practice ends I say, “Zach, what's going on?” He goes, “Coach, what happened over spring break?” And I said, “Oh God, I completely forgot. I'm sorry.” And he looks at me, and he says, “Coach, I expect that from my dad. I never expected that from you.”

Even now I'm just speechless. I apologized and said “I'm really sorry, and it won't happen again.” And I understood at that moment that what we say to kids is important because words matter. And trust is very fragile, especially to young people, and especially to young people who may have had some experiences where they just don't trust people. I was a positive male role figure for him, and I violated that trust I had built.

I was surprised that he was so upset about that. I was surprised that I didn't recognize how important this was to him. And I was surprised that a casual remark could be taken so seriously. We need to be continuously mindful of what we say to kids, because even when we don't think they're listening, they often are. And we need to be very intentional about what we say and do what we say. Because I believe that often we don't think they're paying attention, and they are.

This series was made possible thanks to a partnership with Listenwise, an award-winning listening program that brings the most compelling podcasts and NPR stories to middle and high school classrooms.

Music in this episode is by Joakim Karud and Chris Zabriskie.

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