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Teaching on a High-Stakes Island

Written by Haley Ruman

As the Professional Development Manager at Creative Learning Systems, I spend much of my time training and supporting teachers so they can successfully facilitate learning in our learning spaces, called SmartLabs. When SmartLab Facilitators are first trained, they spend four days learning about the philosophy, the approach, and all of the resources in the SmartLab. 

The depth and breadth of the content I cover is extensive and can be overwhelming. I always joke with the teachers that training feels like you’re drinking from a fire hydrant. 

After all, during this process, I help teachers approach their role differently. I push them to release their role of being the holder of knowledge and embrace the role of being a facilitator who may or may not know all of the answers.

I know. That can feel scary. When we move out of our comfort zones and change the way we’ve always taught, it’s uncomfortable. When our students feel this way, we tell them that this is when they grow the most. But for a teacher, the risk feels so much greater.

I remember feeling that discomfort at a conference I attended a few years ago. The presenters discussed the workshop model for teaching writing. We’d all used that model for teaching reading but had never taught writing like this. Where was the explicit grammar and spelling instruction? 

You could sense the uneasiness from teachers all over the auditorium.

At the perfect moment, one presenter talked about the pressure teachers feel to succeed. “Teaching is like being on a high-stakes island,” she said. “Even when you’re part of a grade-level team, you’re usually the only adult in your classroom. You’re the one who parents bring their concerns to—you’re the one accountable for your students’ growth.”

As a teacher, it’s more comforting to make small changes, like using a new app or having a student lead morning meeting. You can simply dip your toes into the water’s edge, then jump back to the safety of the sandy beach if danger nears. 

Big changes, like redefining your role in the learning process or shifting from brick-and-mortar learning to distance learning, require more courage. 

Lean on Your Community

But, you’re not alone. All over the country, teachers are diving into distance learning for the first time. Teachers are learning new ways to communicate with students, to solve problems, to assess learning. 

Lean on the nationwide community of teachers facing the same challenges you are. Seek them out, not only for suggestions, but also to share your own experiences of what’s working and what’s not.

Together, we can leave behind that high-stakes island by connecting with others and gaining reassurance from those interactions.

Try Something New

Right now, education is changing out of necessity. All the tactics and instructional models we, as educators, have used for years aren’t working as designed. So now, we’re all looking for practices that will inspire and re-engage our students to have a love of learning. 

Perhaps now is the time to take advantage of the shifting tides and transform the learning culture in your classroom. 

Maybe your dream is to make your classroom more connected to real-world experiences. Or you want to position your students as the Lead Learners and allow them to personalize their education. Perhaps you want to leverage your students’ social nature and embed collaboration into every aspect of the learning process.

Whatever your pedagogical dreams, it’s time to turn them into a reality. These steps may help:

  1. Think about your classroom as a whole.
    1. What do you want your students to accomplish?
    2. What skills do you want them to develop?
    3. How would you describe the culture? Of learning? Of learners? Of human beings?
  2. Synthesize your ideas into the most important aspects of your ideal learning environment.
  3. Determine the approaches that will help you get there. This may be personalized learning, inquiry-based learning, or more emphasis on social-emotional learning.
  4. Develop a plan to implement it.
    1. What do these approaches look like in practice?
    2. How can you utilize new structures or routines to support these approaches?
    3. What resources—physical materials, professional development, or support from school-based specialists—will you need to get started and sustain this change over time?
  5. Begin preparing.

Starting something new can be scary but, remember what we tell our students, this is when you’ll grow the most. Make a plan. Lean on your community. And make your dreams a reality. My colleagues and I can’t wait to see you on your next teaching adventure—whether it’s in the digital or physical space.

Haley Ruman
Haley Ruman
Sr. Educational Training Specialist

Haley Ruman is a Sr. Educational Training Specialist at Creative Learning Systems. She holds a Bachelor's of Science in Childhood and Early Adolescent Education and a Master's of Education in learning and technology. Her passion for innovative teaching practices and high-quality tech integration led her to Creative Learning Systems where she works with educators across the country to implement student-led, project-based learning.


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