Do School Better Season 1

The “Teacher-in-Training” – Alison’s Entry

By June 13, 2016 No Comments

Episode 21 – Doris Korda and Alison Tanker


Doris: You just went through your first semester as a teacher in training. There were two things that were completely and totally new to you, one, teaching, and the other, this program, which is a very different kind of program. Talk about what that was like. That must have been kind of weird.

Alison: It was quite a transition. I remember being open to what we were about to dive into and putting a lot of trust in both you and Tim, because I felt like, “I have no idea what any of this is about, and I just trust that they feel like there’s a space for me and that I fit in this crazy world.” I remember when I came on board, it was the summer prior to the school year.

Doris: Right before the workshops.

Alison: That’s right, right before the workshops.

Doris: Even talking about that would be interesting.

Alison: Sure, yeah.

Doris: About your first impression.

Alison: Prepping that, I remember you were wrapping up the Spring semester with the students, and you were trying to prepare the workshops, and I was saying, “Hey, I want to be helpful. What can I do? How can I help you out?” You said, “Oh, we’ve been trying to put this toolkit together, if you can try your hand at that.” And I tried, and I brought all of my own background and whatnot into that, and found out, actually, it wasn’t quite useful. Because here I’m not at all involved in this program . . .

Doris: Yeah, it was silly of me to think you could be helpful, actually. Right?

Alison: Sure. I remember feeling like I got a lot of deep insight initially from reading through the different elements of that and trying to piece them together, what the inner workings of this might have looked like.

Well, then we went to the workshops. We first went out to the East Coast, and I was sitting there listening and learning, and initially I remember trying to feel more helpful. I kept feeling like, “Well, I want to be helpful. I want to insert myself.” I kept trying to figure out my place on the team and all of that.

I remember both you and Tim just kept pushing me back and saying, “Hold on. Just wait, just absorb, and take it all in, and observe right now. That’s what’s the most important thing, learn.”

We went out to California. I remember we were there for those workshops, and I was really inspired by all the other educators also who came out and the different schools they represented and the different programs they were interested in developing, whether it was for their science courses or humanities or entrepreneurship.

It was eye-opening for me to see how applicable this was and how scalable, really, this model is that you developed. So I was buying in more and more on those early days.

But I remember we came back from the workshops, and you looked at me, and you said, “Honestly, your only job right now is to learn. That is your job at this point, is to learn as much as you can about what we’re doing here and what it means to be a teacher.”

I felt like I could breathe then. I was like, “Okay, I don’t have to prove myself in a lot of ways.” Because I think I came off of the work I was doing with my business prior to this where, here I’d been trying to sell, to a number of high schools and colleges, different entrepreneurial workshops, and had to continually position myself as a relative expert in that space, in order to be heard or even brought in. You opened the door and said, “Hey, we know you don’t know about what it means to teach inside of . . .”

Doris: Right, that’s not why you’re on board. You’re not on board because you’re an expert, yeah, exactly.

Alison: Right, so then we were prepping for the actual Fall semester, and we were out in the community, were working to get the entrepreneurs lined up for the real business problems that happen in the course.

So here I was tagging along, being your shadow, to understand what it’s like when you’re out talking to these entrepreneurs and really vetting them to decide, using your decision filter, you know, “This is a good fit.”

Doris: Yeah, which of the problems we’re going to use, yeah.

Alison: In those early days, I remember saying, “You know, Doris, there’s actually some real patterns and systems to what you’re doing. As you go out and sit down and have a routine with each of these entrepreneurs, it’s clear to me that you’ve really developed a number of systems and have a lot to share that I can certainly learn from and work to replicate, going forward.”

I remember we were typing those out and figuring out all the different elements included, but from there, when we were ramping up for the class, I remember feeling like, “Gosh, I need to prepare for all these things. I’m sure I need to read a bunch of things, and I need to do a bunch of research and be ahead of the students, because they’re about to walk in, and I have no idea what I’m going to teach them.”

Doris: There was one conversation we had where you wanted to take . . . now that you’d sat and listened to these businesses and their problems, you wanted to solve them yourself.

Alison: Right, I was like, “Okay . . .”

Doris: “Should I call them first?”

Alison: Right, “Here’s the path I would move through. These are the . . .” Yeah. That I was still really operating in my head space of what I understood school to be, right? I was still trying to get over that barrier of “Well, teachers are in the front of the room, and clearly . . .”

Doris: You have to solve those math problems yourself first before you can teach them.

Alison: Right, before you can teach them. As much of a believer in experiential learning and my own experiences that I’ve had, in experiential entrepreneurship education specifically, I still didn’t quite understand how we were going to do it inside the classroom. Because they were getting three credits for this class, they were . . .

Doris: Well, it’s completely different than anything, yeah.

Alison: It was. It’s an academic course.

Doris: It’s different than anything, yeah.

Alison: So the class begins, and I remember feeling grateful that I was the teacher-in-training, and again could really shadow through this whole semester, that you were really there to show how you move through the day-to-day, you know? That was what was concerning for me. I thought, “Well, what do we come in on, on the first day? How do we introduce them to all of this? And day two, we have them doing the Business Model Canvas and day three, they’re going to meet the business. All right, I’m here. I’m in for the ride.”

But I remember day two, we had them present on the Business Model Canvas and do an exercise with that. And after the students left, I was like, “Wow, that was great. I thought that went pretty well. Here they didn’t know much coming in the door, and I was impressed they moved through and learned a lot already.” And I remember you said, “Are you kidding? Those kids left and were so upset with us.” And I said, “What? Are you kidding? What? I don’t . . .”

Doris: Yeah, that whole de-schooling thing . . .

Alison: Didn’t even register.

Doris: You had no experience with . . . yeah.

Alison: So here I had really forgotten how fragile students can be, especially at a teenage age, where they’re not used to getting real feedback. They are not used to hearing . . .

Doris: They got a lot of direct feedback that day.

Alison: They sure did. It didn’t even occur to me to hold back or to couch . . .

Doris: Yeah, you should have held back or whatever, because they didn’t, yeah.

Alison: Exactly, right. It just seemed obvious, “Why wouldn’t you say what you said to these kids? How positive that you said it, because they’re going to grow.” That was where my head was. And I remember you said, “Oh, some of those kids are . . .”

Doris: It’s a total shock to their system.

Alison: Yeah, totally out of their comfort zone to be presenting on the second day in front of their peers, all this. So as we’re moving through, there’s little elements coming up, you know, about assigning homework in that . . . everything is now so technological too. That was a shift for me.

When I was in high school, people wrote homework on the board and were looking up articles as the students are doing their work during the day and we’re like, “Gosh, well, they’re really struggling with this in this very moment. Let’s find a couple of articles and videos relevant to that for their homework. We can assign that later tonight.”

Doris: Even that was something you needed to learn over a long time, which article . . . you don’t look up the article that . . . remember?

Alison: That’s a great point.

Doris: We’ve had multiple conversations about that. It’s not that simple. It’s not, “Oh, they’re struggling with this, so let’s find an article that says that.”

Alison: Exactly.

Doris: It actually can’t . . .

Alison: The word you use that I love is “parallel learning.” You find articles that are . . . really, you find any kind of learning element or reference that the students will digest and think through and then form their own bridge over to the actual . . .

Doris: That’s exactly right. You want them to make the connection, because then it is theirs.

Alison: They own it.

Doris: They own it, they get it.

Alison: That was so helpful, that language, for me, because then I understood, “Okay, I’m not finding an article directly relevant to . . .”

Doris: You’re not doing their problem for them.

Alison: Yes.

Doris: You can’t. If you do that, the whole thing falls apart.

Alison: Right. So all these little elements, right? I mean, who knew what I was getting into up front?

Doris: Yeah.

Alison: Learning all these different nuanced ways of. . .

Doris: Staying one step ahead.

Alison: That’s right, and teaching in a way that is truly transformative, that it’s not the teacher in the front of the room standing there with all their expert knowledge, talking down to the students, saying, “X, Y, and Z.” That it’s helping the students really define their own learning journey, where you’re giving them the tools along the way.

Doris: By the way, you’re working harder as a teacher, in many cases. It’s crazy what you have to do everyday.

Alison: Well, I actually was pretty surprised about the . . . I have a number of friends who are teachers, and I know that on the weekend, on maybe Sunday, they’ll sit down and do their lesson planning for the week.

Doris: Yeah, it’s a lot of work. Teachers work hard.

Alison: Absolutely.

Doris: No question about it.

Alison: Yeah, after school, weekends.

Doris: Not saying this is harder than that, but this is . . . yeah.

Alison: Sure, but it’s different is what it is, because we can’t sit down on Sunday and sit down and plan a lesson for the whole week, because by Tuesday, one team who’s solving a problem might be in a totally different place than another team.

Therefore, we have to meet them where they are and prompt the learning that might be completely off where we thought we’d be by that point of the week. So even if we had a bunch of things pulled or prompts or exercises or things we had hoped that we could get to, if you’re really worried most, like you say, about what the students learn in that moment, then it becomes about their needs and not what you want to teach them.

Doris: Right, and what you saw is we do map ahead, even a week’s worth.

Alison: For sure.

Doris: But every single day we look at what we mapped out for that day and very often, most of the time, have to completely change it or move it to different places, because of what you said, yeah.

The first time you sat through my giving feedback to the students after their first business problem, that’s something that I’ve been told many times, is very different than what students normally get. What was . . .

Alison: That’s a great point.

Doris: How did that feel to you, to see when I first did that?

Alison: First did that?

Doris: Mm-hmm.

Alison: I remember thinking what a gift it is for these students, who don’t have a lot of meaningful feedback, to sit with someone outside of their family, outside of their immediate world, right?

This is a teacher who has their best interest at heart and is most interested  in their growth and to have a real conversation, one to one, where you open up and have them reflect a bit about where they’re at in their journey, what they’re learning, what skills they’re working on, and that you’re very direct.

You give them your honest feedback about where you see them in the process, so much so that they end up really craving that kind of feedback and acknowledgement about where they are. More so than “Oh, you got an A on this assignment,” or “Oh, we need to have 9 points out of 10 in order to feel like we’ve mastered this.”

Doris: I think the first time that you sat through that, one of the things that was interesting to me, again, is because you haven’t been a teacher in high school, you appreciated the feedback, you appreciated what I was saying. You valued it. But once again, at the end of that when I said, “Oh, yeah, so and so was very upset by what I’d just said,” you had no idea.

You didn’t understand that as a teacher giving them a grade as seniors for a semester, when they’re applying to colleges, that there’s all kinds of other things going on, underneath that conversation, for those students that you just . . . so the whole doing this in a high school, where they’re in a private school, great school, progressive, they get a lot of great feedback from all kinds of teachers.

But as all of them said, it’s radically different than anything they’ve experienced before this class, and it’s really, really hard. Those first few weeks are really tough for them.

Alison: Are a challenge.

Doris: Very tough for them.

Alison: They’re definitely out of their comfort zone, and being asked to work in a much different way than they ever have. They’re wanting the recipe. They’re so badly wanting to please their instructors, and they want to just give us whatever we want. I remember a couple of the students were like, “But what do you want?” You know? They were frustrated.

Doris: “What’s the answer? Give me the answer.”

Alison: We don’t know the answer. The entrepreneur doesn’t know the answer. That’s why they’re asking us to help them solve it. And for the students to understand that, it was just a completely different approach to learning than they’ve had before. I still think I have a lot to learn in a lot of elements, but especially around understanding these students and where they are.

They look very adult, they are very topically intelligent, right? They’ve done a lot of reading, and they’re well-informed, and they can stand there and speak well about a variety of topics but they’re still really young in their development and their growth. To know that’s part of the reason we’re here, to help them on that journey. That I have to continually be sensitive and mindful of where they are, but also not drop expectations.

I know that’s something really important, right, that we keep the expectations high for these students, to really step up and push themselves in a new way, where it’s very intrinsically motivated to go out there and solve a problem. Not because they’re trying to get an A but because they’re trying to help someone in the real world solve a problem.

It’s an exciting journey to be on. It’s been a very new experience for me, working inside of a school, inside of an institution like this. And I appreciate how entrepreneurial we are, as a team, approaching the build of this sort of program that really is a startup in itself and working to understand these different strategies that work well, that you’ve been developing over all these years.

Doris: When you were in college and a couple years out, you spent time coaching women who weren’t entrepreneurs to begin with, and coaching them on entrepreneurship and starting something. In education we use a lot of these words now, you know, “Don’t be the sage on the stage. Be the guide on the side. Be a coach,” etc. But those words don’t really do this justice.

The kind of coaching you did and what this is are very different, very different. I saw, as I was leading you through this, that there are many things we do that don’t come naturally. They’re not obvious things, including where that line is.

When you have students who are given a real problem to solve with a deadline, and they have a team, and it’s up to them where they go, you’re right, we’ve developed all kinds of systems. So there’s very, very much paths and guidance along through the process, and there are real elements to the process.

But there are these lines around what we do or don’t do, that we’ve kind of established over years, that you wouldn’t naturally know. So can you talk about your experience with being a coach in the moment, not being a coach with that . . . ?

Alison: Sure. Yeah, it’s a great distinction, because when you’re in the space of a coach trying to really move people to the next step, the approach is more of a . . . kind of like an advisor, right? Where you’re sharing things with them, you’re prompting them with different ideas. You’re joining their team in a lot of ways.

Sometimes you sit there as a part of the team and think, “Okay, how would we approach this if we were working together?” Whereas the work to be done here in the classroom is intentionally designed to be student centered and student driven where to go into the room and sit there with their team and brainstorm a bunch of ideas is really not helpful . . .

Doris: In fact, it’s the opposite.

Alison: Exactly right . . . for them in their problem solving. You always say to answer questions with questions, and something I’ve learned a lot this semester is how often I need to bite my lip, how often I need to sort of drop a bomb, ask a really tough question . . .

Doris: Force yourself to walk away.

Alison:  . . . and then close the door. Walk out and let them stew and have to work through those tough challenges on their own, because that’s where the learning happens.

It’s still a new space for me to be working in, but it’s an exciting skill that I’m glad to be developing, because I recognize how powerful it is to be able to ask good questions, broadly, to anyone in your life. But when you’re specifically helping to develop another young person . . .

Doris: Yeah, your job is to teach them methods, tools, techniques to guide the learning, to push the learning in directions, to keep those expectations high, etc., but not to solve their problem.

It’s kind of like if you give a test to your . . . you know, you’re a teacher and you give a student a test, and they get help on the actual answers. Yeah, and it’s not intuitive how to do that.

Alison: That’s true.

Doris Korda

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