What It Is I Do

I recently signed my contract to be a Spanish teacher next year.  That’s my official title when people ask me: Spanish teacher.  In simplified terms, that’s what I am.  But what is it that I do?  I just finished my 9th year of teaching and I’ve been doing some thinking about that.  These are the two most popular responses I used to give (and I’m guessing fellow teachers would to):

A: I teach Spanish to my students.

B:  I help students learn Spanish.

And I think I finally realized that these statements are not interchangeable or at all the same.  And somewhere along the line of figuring that out, I got closer to understand what it is I do and want to do.

Statement A

Within this viewpoint, the teacher is the one actively doing something: the teaching.  It’s a teacher centered statement, meaning that my job is based around the things that I do.  I do the instructing, the creating of assessments, the giving out of information.  I give “the learning” to my students.  I do it.  They are there to get it.  And that’s a fine construct, one that higher education and traditional educational settings are set-up for and encourage.

Statement B

Whereas in Statement A the teacher is in the limelight, Statement B shadows the teacher into a supporting “helping” role.  The people actively doing something here are the students.  They are doing and are responsible for the learning part.  They have to do that.  The teacher is there to help and make that happen.  The students are the stars of the classroom and the teacher is there as a coach, as back-up, to provide a path but not to just give information.

Neither of these perspectives is right or problematic and a successful teacher probably needs a mixture of the two, but moving forward, I’d like to say that I’m more Statement B than the other.  It’s a completely personal perspective, built upon your own educational philosophy. (click here for my philosophy).

Continue reading “What It Is I Do”

A Change of Focus for Second Semester

I just finished 1st semester and had the opportunity to take a breath and really think about these numbers I gave my students that somehow magically turns into a grade.  In high school especially, students and parents are concerned with letter grades and how to maintain a good grade.  By extenstion, I as a teacher become concerned about point values of different assignments and activities and the awarding of points based on these things.  Every grading period I feel like I’m playing a numbers game; that my class content all boils down to a percentage of a point total.  And it frustrates me because I didn’t become a teacher to give out numbers, percentages or letters.

Bottom line: I want to give my students knowledge and opportunities to learn, practice and master concepts and skills.  That needs to be my focus and not a gradebook.  There is a lot of buzz about standards based learning, which I think goes hand in hand with that feeling: assess students on his or her ability to master a standard or objective and don’t define things by arbitrary point values.  That’s a system change of great magnitude that requires a lot of philosophical shift and I’m not going to jump into that territory alone or at this time.  I think I can solve my frustrations in smaller, smarter changes in how I approach the set-up of my class.

Weighted Categories

I like weighted grades – – they give me the opportunity to say from the beginning of the semester that certain things are more important than (or equally important to) other things.  A few years ago, I went back to a points system and I just felt like things were messy and left too many “loopholes” that felt beyond my control.  This semester I will go back to a weighted graded scale with three categories.  I looked at what I’m teaching and asked myself some essential questions:  What do I want my students to master?  How will I know that they have been successful this semester?  What are my major areas of focus?  My three categories are: Culture, Collaboration and Comprehension.

2nd Semester GradingCulture is important in Spanish, but it isn’t a focal point.  Spanish is primarily a language class and culture most of the time will run independent from that.  Communication is an area I would like to closely assess my students, chart progress and see growth in.  Communication includes fluency in speaking and writing.  In order to do these things, a student also needs to show comprehension of concepts learned in class.  Comprehension will include all vocabulary quizzes, grammar topic quizzes and tests and any listening and reading comprehension activities.  Comprehension of concepts is very important in learning Spanish – – but comprehension without communication skills isn’t terribly useful so I find that both categories are of equal weight.


I’m willing to admit that this is a bit of gamble, but I’m easing off of assigned homework assignments.  I always felt that I assigned homework as an opportunity to give students practice with the skills and concepts we learned in class.  Then, after practicing for a time, we would take a quiz or test and do some kind of performance or product assessment in which I could see the application of what they learned.  That’s how I felt about homework.  But for students, homework is an assigned piece of the puzzle.  They do it because I assigned it and that’s primarily where the story ended.  Should you get points for practice?  If you practice something incorrectly, should be penalized in the grade book?

I explained this to the students today and the basketball analogy worked really well for them.  We don’t think that Kobe Bryant is a great basketball player because he does really well in practice.  He shows that he is a great player by what he’s able to do in a game.  I want to see and focus on what my students are able to do when they apply what we’ve learned on a test or project.  That’s what I care about: seeing how they can use what we’ve learned.  But Kobe does practice, and that is part of what makes him great.  I want to support student practice and give them opportunities to practice by doing “homework” type activities but don’t necessarily want to hold them to a grade with homework.  What I told the students today is to think of “homework” as optional.  I will have homework activities and practice things available, give a suggested date of completion but I will (for the most part) not be chasing down whether or not they completing it.  If they practice, they will be ready for the game.  If they practice, I will be able to give them feedback and suggestions for improvement.  While on the surface it appears that I am taking all accountability and responsibility away for the students, I’m actually giving them more.  They have to make the active choice to participate in their own learning by choosing to do “homework” because it will help their learning and not for any other external reason like a point or percentage.


And what about the Allen Iversons?

And what about those who do not take the initiative and choose not to practice?  They will not be forgotten.  When Dwight Howard only goes 6 for 15 from the free thrown line in a game, his coach doesn’t just let it go and assume that next time Dwight will just have to do better.  (At least I don’t think . . . with the season the Lakers are having, it’s possible, but stick with me)  This is when the coach steps in and says, “Dwight, you haven’t been showing up for practice.  You need to come in early tomorrow and work on your free throws.  I have some tips for you and you need to work on this”.  I told the students today that if ever they gave me cause for concern, they would find me intervening and requiring them to do practice “homework” activities.  They can’t opt of learning just because they are lazy and don’t want to put in the effort.  I will hold them to my standards and do whatever is necessary to make sure they get to a successful level.

And what about those Allen Iverson’s that are still great in the game even though they have a bad attitude about practice and don’t show up for it?  Well, my focus is on what they know and how they can show me they know it.  If they can demonstrate that understanding without having to do a select number of “homework” activities . . . I don’t care.  I want to take them from Point A to Point B.  Some will get there faster.  Some will need intervention and assistance.  They will all need my support and that’s the power of being a teacher.  But it doesn’t matter to me which route they take to get there as long as they each take the route that suits them best.

Education is a personal experience, not a numeric experience.  And that will be my focus this upcoming semester.  (Wish me luck!)

Approaching Education like Zappos.com

About this post: In April of 2012, I attended a workshop/session at Iowa 1:1 Institute in Des Moines, IA led by John Nash, Associate Professor of Educational Leadership Studies at the University of Kentucky.  The session was titled “How to Include Students as Co-Designers in your 1:1 Planning”.  As an introduction into why we need to consider students in the design and implementation of new policies and procedures, Nash drew a brief comparison between education and Zappos.com.  It was a seedling that I’ve been thinking about for the past few months (while doing some online shopping) and this is where my educational philosophy has ended up.

Have you ever ordered anything from Zappos.com?  It’s your standard online retail store, specializing in shoes.  Nothing glitzy or radically innovative on the surface.  And yet is stands as the model I think about when approaching my classroom and education in the future.

Customer Service

Zappos does the same thing that many other online (and physical) retailers do.  Where they separate themselves is in their customer service.  So why should education follow these footsteps?  Education is a service and teachers are in the service industry.  We don’t make anything; we don’t build anything.  Rather than focus on the things, we should focus on people we serve: our customers.

This can snowball into a larger debate: “Who is the customer?” in terms of education.  Parents? Community? Students? I feel like my profession doesn’t exist without my students.  I serve no purpose if I serve no students.  Students in our classrooms and in our schools are our customers, and too often education only refers to and insinuates their needs and desires.  (read more in a post by John Nash on Service Design and Education)  Zappos has become successful because of their commitment to their customers, addressing needs, considering feedback and creating an overall environment centered around the consumer experience.  Can educators duplicate that commitment?

Free Shipping

One things Zappos does to entice its customers is to offer free shipping, everyday and with no strings attached.  They make their product very easy to get.  It’s not that paying for shipping is that much of an obstacle if I really wanted a pair of shoes, but the fact that the company is willing to offer me that little extra in order to make their products more accessible does not go unnoticed.  Do educators send a message to the students that we think learning should be easily accessible?  Sometimes it feels like the system is setup so that students, parents and teachers are more concerned about the end product (the grade, the test, the score) than the process (the learning).  Those ends results are inevitable: there will be shoes at Zappos, there will be tests in education.  But focusing on those end details don’t necessarily create a recipe for success.  Schools and businesses have to find a way to connect to their consumer and think about the best way to deliver their service in an easy and pleasing fashion.


I go to Zappos to find shoes.  That’s not really innovative and can be done at most online retail shops.  One thing Zappos does real well is providing its customer with many different search options.  I can search shoes by size, by color, by brand, by occasion, by heel height, by material, by season, by accents – – you get the picture.  The end results is a customized shopping experience, built around options that I choose.  The searching options allow me to focus in specifically on what I want rather than searching through the exact same standard search pages that every other consumer does.  Do our students have the ability to customize their own learning experience or do we have them cycle through the same educational experience as every student?  Educational psychologists have done extensive research on personalized learning theories, most notably Thomas Dewey and Howard Gardner. Students learn better when they are personally invested in the material and the process.  Customization, options and differentiation is the way to do this.  Allow students to reach the end objectives through their own chosen path.  Zappos doesn’t care if I find the Franco Sarto Track book by searching through 100 pages, creating a customized search or  by searching customer reviews – – they just want me to get from point A to point B.  Each educational objective is a similar learning journey: start here and by the end, be here.  Let students play a role in the customization of their educational experience by giving them options and supporting that journey.

Return Policy and Follow-Up

Zappos is relentless in their follow-up to every purchase.  They want to know if the product and the experience was satisfactory.  And they truly care about that feedback.  I had to return a pair of shoes once because it was the wrong size.  They apologized, the return shipping was free and they sent me a new size immediately – – before I could pack up the old shoes and send them back.  It wasn’t about who’s fault it was – – there was no fault, just an unsuccessful purchase.  But they reached out, inquired about the purchase and immediately set out to improve my shoe buying experience.  Do educators seek out feedback from students about their overall educational experience, including policy, procedures, etc.?  This echoes a lot of what John Nash talked about in his workshop about including students in rolling out a 1:1 program.  We do these things in education ‘for the students’, yet many times never consult a student on the design and implementation of different programs.  Most professional development is designed to make us better educators ‘for our students’, but how often are students involved in professional development?

The extension of asking for feedback is following up and acknowledging that feedback.  How do we respond to student feedback?  Every shopping experience at Zappos might not work for everyone, just like each educational approach might not work for every student.  Zappos believes that if it doesn’t work for you, return it and they will do what they can to “get it right”.  Educators should make a similar commitment to “getting it right” for the students; gathering feedback and modifying the experience until the outcome is satisfactory for everyone.

Personal Interests

Last fall I bought a nice pair of black ankle boots through Zappos.  Yesterday I logged on and Zappos generated some suggestions for me based on my previous shopping experience.  They also have geographical information on me and suggested some shoes based upon the winter months in Iowa.  Maybe they know too much information about me.  Maybe it’s like an invasion of privacy.  I like to think of it more like they keep in mind my personal interests and use that information to make my next experience one I’m more likely to be interested in.  Do we know our students well enough to be able to create learning experiences that incorporate their personal interests?  I’ve never read a word of Twilight or Harry Potter, but I understand that many of my students not only have but are unnecessarily fanatic about them.  So every once and awhile I reference them and other pop culture phenomena in our activities.  This takes a cookie-cutter activity and makes is a more personal one that they students are more likely to connect to.  Being aware of student personal interests can also help out in the customization options I mentioned earlier.

Connecting with the customer and setting out to enhance their experience has a tendency to get a lot of eye rolls and criticism from the educational community because it’s too fluffy sounding.  We can’t allow students to dictate the future of education – – we have to live in the real world where there are mandates and standards, a common core and decades of educational research that shouldn’t be replaced in order to just put smiles on a 14 year old’s face.  And I couldn’t agree with that point more . . .

Quarterly Projections and Objectives

Let’s not make any mistake about it:  Zappos is in the business to sell shoes.  They have a bottom line, sales goals, quarterly reports, stakeholders, quotas and everything like that.  All those fluffy things they do to enhance the consumer experience are great, but in the end if they don’t sell X amount of shoes in a month, it really doesn’t matter.  Schools are much the same way.  No Child Left Behind or not, public schools will always answer to some state or federal standards.  Test scores matter.  Graduation rates matter.  In my own classroom, I have standards and objectives to reach in every unit.  The goal is to get there, to meet those objectives.  What pathway do I take to get there?  Zappos chose to reach those objectives by dedicating themselves to customer service.  By adopting that philosophy, I can reach my objectives while creating a positive learning experience for my students.  It’s not a choice between the two: meet educational objectives or make my students happy.  It’s symbiotic; each part enhancing the success of the other.

Not “Schools Run Like a Business”

Just Google “Schools Run Like a Business” and the literature from pundits will overwhelm you.  I don’t feel like this philosophical approach to education is promoting schools run like businesses.  Schools are not the place for a “no shirts, no shoes, no service” type of mentality.  Certainly poverty and funding play a huge role in educational success, and I’m not suggesting that poor performing schools go the way of WonderBread, leaving us with only profitable institutions.  It’s more about the mindset of successful business leaders and the philosophy behind building a successful business.  Guy Kawasaki, a venture capitalist tied to Apple’s success, cites these 10 steps for a successful leader in business: Be likable, be trustworthy, perfect your service, tell a great story, overcome resistance, make your enchantment enduring, be a great presenter, use technology, enchant up and enchant down (read full article here).  Which of those principles could not be applied to a successful educator?


Guy Kawasaki and Apple have been quite successful over the past decade or so.  So has Zappos.com.  Unfortunately you’ll find enough people that believe that the educational system doesn’t experience that same amount of success.  I don’t think that things are categorically bad or broken right now, but I do think that schools can gain momentum if we approached education like Zappos.

“When you have two coffee shops right next to each other, and each sells the exact same coffee at the exact same price, service design is what makes you walk into one and not the other”  (31 Volts Service Design, 2008, cited in Stickdorn & Schneider, 2010, p. 33).

Why do students walk into our schools everyday?  Geography isn’t a good enough reason for me – – however unrelenting that reason is.  What experience do we offer students that other institutions don’t?  How can we be different?

For more on John Nash, please check out: http://reformbydesign.posterous.com and follow him on Twitter @jnash