TEQ #14: Push Boundaries, Empower Students, Inspire Growth – Carson Ratliff

There is no doubt that there are many concerns about the modern system of education in the United States. Conference breakout sessions, Twitter timelines, and Professional Development rooms are all abuzz with the school choice debate; the perpetual fight over standardized testing and how to best evaluate schools, teachers, and students; movements to support better compensation and support for our nation’s teachers; and the terrifying rate of teacher – especially new teacher – turnover and burnout. It’s stressful and exhausting just compiling this short list. However, there is also no doubt that so many many teachers, administrators, and leaders in the field are up to amazing and life-changing work often in spite of public or political support and circumstance.

Our world is always in flux; we need an education system to rival that. Educators must be vigilant in their pursuit of best practices and supports for students. In order to serve student needs, modern education must be innovative, student-centered, and experiential. For those engrossed in modern education, these ideas are by no means revolutionary, but there is some catharsis in putting them together. These pillars are also in no way mutually exclusive; the best learning takes place when these three qualities of education all meet in one lesson or classroom. Even as I elaborate and explain each of these concepts, I find the lines between them blurry. As an early teacher, I try to keep these principles in mind when designing lessons and thinking about how to engage my students on a daily basis.

Innovative

While innovation is often best demonstrated in terms of technology, being innovative does not just mean using the latest technology in the classroom. While it is important to embrace technological trends, innovation surrounds every aspect of what a teacher and learners should be doing in the classroom, not just the tools or medium being used to deliver content or demonstrate that learning.

The responsibility of the innovative teacher is twofold: they must introduce students to new ideas and ways of learning AND embrace the interests and trends students are already capable of bringing to the table. Student interests and pre-existing skill sets need to be given airtime in the classroom; a teacher that supports innovation helps students cultivate their ideas, hone their creativity skills, and pursue their passions. An innovative school establishes and hones curriculum that is reflective and responsive to student needs and interests. Students need to learn ways to work on discovering their why and then applying that mission or drive toward completing authentic work.

Student-Centered

On the first day of the Leadership course I teach, I ask students if they know their why: “Why do you do what you do?” It takes some time and some students never quite figure it out, but by the end of the semester course, students have at least spent some time considering their mission, core values, and purpose. While learning course standards and unavoidably preparing for state-mandated assessments, students need to engage in processes of self-discovery along the way. This can be achieved in a variety of classrooms and in myriad ways, but the students must always be at the center of the process.

This process can also help students uncover and realize their talents and passions. In a modern world with an increasingly innovative and diversified job market and career spectrum, modern education is allowing for more and more specialization. Students need opportunities to engage with and practice a variety of skills and disciplines while still in high school. Once students find an area of interest or specialization, they need structures in the general classroom to harness and grow their skills.

Experiential

Education in the modern era must embrace hands-on learning opportunities in authentic environments. Students cannot be given their learning; they must actively take part in an experience of the process. Part of the authentic dynamic of this process requires the tearing down of some existing classroom walls. One critical aspect of modern education is its imperative cross-curricular nature. In order to fulfill the pillars discussed here, teachers have to embrace a responsibility to connect their classroom experiences across disciplines and thus more accurately model the fluidity of the working world.

The modern workforce hinges on peer-to-peer collaboration, effective communication, adaptability to changing circumstances, and dynamic critical thinking prowess that can only be developed from experience. And in order to really feel this experience in school, students have to be allowed to productively struggle. They have to take problems head on without the training wheels embraced by many antiquated approaches to education. We need teachers educated in project-based learning as a support system to question and motivate students in this environment, but this role should be like that of a spotter in the weight room, rather than as a crutch for students to lean on.

So What?

Gone should be the days of rote instruction, monotonous lectures, and other teacher-centered experiences that leave students as passive vessels of hopeful retention. If teachers pour passion and enthusiasm into their work and push students out of their comfort zones and ordinary routines, they can create life-changing classroom experiences. By putting students at the center of experience-based and innovative practices, teachers can empower and inspire incredible amounts of growth. Isn’t that what we’re all here to do?

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Carson Ratliff is in his second year as an English and Leadership teacher at West Michigan Aviation Academy in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Carson is happily engaged and cannot wait to marry his fiancé, Jordyn, this December. When Carson is not in the classroom, he enjoys spending time with his older siblings, playing and coaching basketball, and losing golf balls and getting sunburned on the golf course.

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