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Imagine if teachers were able to renew their energy for teaching?

Photo: High Tech High Graduate School of Education

I can clearly remember the feeling of being burned out. I had been teaching in a traditional middle-school in San Diego, California.

I chose to become a teacher because I wanted to help my students fall in love with learning. Help them to use language to express their brilliant ideas and important lived experiences. I wanted to inspire, develop and nurture the teenagers who entered my classroom every day.

My actual role was delivering instruction. Testing. Trying to pull 13 year old’s through lessons day after day.

After five years, I was done.

My father, a practical man, convinced me to stay.

“Just until summer...” was my compromise.

In the months that followed, I was introduced to High Tech High by a colleague.

And I’ll never forget the first time I walked through the doors. It felt like my heart had come home.

Student work was everywhere. Beautifully curated like an art museum. I walked up to a small group of kids working together in a corner and asked what they were doing. They explained in detail their project about cancer and how they met cancer survivors last week. As I looked around the building, it was hard to find an adult, but that didn’t seem to matter. Kids were working with purpose.

Over the course of the next year, I remained a teacher at my school while taking night classes at the High Tech High Graduate School of Education. I fell in love with PBL, authentic learning and having kids work on things that mattered.

I found my passion for teaching again.

While the initial infatuation period with Project-Based Learning was strong for me, I was still working in a school where my colleagues and leadership team were more difficult to convince. The focus on testing and moving our school out of a Program Improvement status reminded a top priority.

But each Tuesday after school, I drove down the street to the High Tech High Graduate School of Education. Our cohort in the Teacher Leadership program was comprised of teachers from the High Tech High schools and a sprinkle of us working in traditional middle schools around San Diego. Many of them also were working in environments that were not supportive of PBL but somehow we found ourselves each week sitting in a round classroom, immersed in one of the most innovative schools in the world. It was in this space my infatuation with PBL developed into a deep love affair. While on the surface I understood PBL to be a transformative pedagogy, my obsession strengthened when the fundamentals of PBL were combined with being a leverage for equity, social justice, empowerment and personalization. I loved Tuesday evenings. I loved the community rallied around finding ways of changing education. I loved the new perspectives I was gaining about being a teacher. I loved being a student again.

My learnings were great in theory… but I knew to really understand PBL and it’s potential, I would need to practice it. Learn by doing. Mid-year, I went to my principal and asked if I could do a project with my students. It would require a big deviation from the other 8th grade English teachers. She declined the offer, citing worries about test scores and what my colleagues would think. I was disappointed, but not surprised.

A few months later, I approached her again. With state testing right around the corner, again she declined.

Finally, after the tests were completed, I asked her a final time.

“You may do one project, with one class. Don’t let anyone know.” My permission was granted.

The project was simple. As a class, we would make a A-Z book about nutrition. We would explore organic products, different types of food and publish a book on our findings. My student teacher made the perfect side-kick. We even took my 1st period class on a few field trips with her help to cover the next lesson.

While the project wasn’t revolutionary, I saw my kids differently. Students I struggled with all year to get engaged, be along with me… were involved. Tommy Fritas, now 25 years old, wrote to me last year about the project… how it was the first time he felt interested in school and what an impact that made on him. Over 10 years later, he still remembers.

As the school year closed, I knew I couldn’t let go of this love. If I wasn’t able to do PBL, really dive in and DO PBL at my school, I would need to leave. I applied for a teaching job at High Tech High and was offered a position at High Tech Middle for the fall.

My principal was supportive, she could see something had profoundly changed in me. I had changed. Walking back from her office to my bungalow, I started to get sad. Each trailer had the same gray paint, the same white blinds, the same signs on the door saying “No Gum” and “Cell Phones Away” taped to the window.

What would happen here? I wondered. My own windows littered with colorful student work, the trailer painted purple and blue… done on my summer vacation.

I made a promise that day. I would become a teacher at High Tech High, but only to learn everything I could about PBL. Then, I would take that learning and bring it to the kids who really need it.

My kids. The kids in traditional schools who deserve hands-on and meaningful learning experiences.

Once again, my passion was sparked.


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