It’s hard to find any semblance of normalcy especially in the world of education. Is it worth having a conference at a time such as now? Or is it more important than ever for educators to gather together in person to connect and learn? I think even as we look for solutions, it’s crucial to recognize the challenges we’re facing. So before I dive into what the experience of my first TCEA (Texas Computer Educators Association) Convention was like and what the answers to those questions may be, I think it’s worth noting the environment it takes place in first and what has teachers on edge.
- Everything to do with the pandemic be it mandates, masks, case-numbers, vaccination numbers, testing struggles, or ventilation challenges and the unequal impact of it
- The switch between virtual to hybrid to in-person sometimes at the last moment due to mass absences
- The exodus of teachers be you amongst them or amongst those that remain and the related scheduling challenges it creates
- Teachers being defamed, demeaned, and downright assaulted just for wearing a mask
- Book bans, laws preventing what teachers can teach, laws demanding lessons posted a year in advance, classrooms to be recorded, and teachers fined $10,000 and fired for “uncomfortable lessons”
- All the other societal challenges we face from systemic inequities, demographic changes, or community violence including the return of school shootings
I have definitely been feeling some of that along with other hardships specific to my work that included a sudden shift that would’ve prevented me from attending TCEA. I only that resolved two days before I left. And it has been exhausting. That’s I longer story I may tell you in person if we ever meet at a convention. So I take that deep need for rejuvenation into a space that I wasn’t sure would align with either my pedagogical views or efforts to maintain safety protocol. Here in NYC, all in-person educators are obligated to be fully vaccinated and masked daily. And while most things are bigger in Texas, that’s not one of them. There were TCEA related events with Tech & Learning that required proof of vaccinations. As for mask use, it was sporadic at best. But there were a range of other safety protocols in place, and people could make their choices accordingly. I made sure to wear it in crowded spaces so as to not bring anything back to students and coworkers here in the city. And I tested the day of my departure. So I did my best to maintain safety while still allowing myself some fun.
While there, much of my efforts were with folks from Microsoft Education and their related partners, but it is notable that Microsoft didn’t even have booth. Why? Because their corporate policies did not align with putting their employees into possibly unsafe spaces and they remained consistent in that belief.
All of that is to say that It wasn’t a normal convention year as even the closing keynote speaker, Cynthia Marshall (who was a lot of fun even if I don’t enjoy songs with instructions in the lyrics), had to present remotely for safety. And I’m told the size of the conference attendance was smaller than normal at around 5000 to 6000 attendees. Despite that though, there were a number of sessions, including some where I presented, where people had to be turned away after waiting to get in due to lack of space.
Honestly, every conference I ever go to I have an existential crisis at a point where I don’t want to miss out on opportunities for growth and meeting people, but I feel done with humanity generally. maybe you can relate. Blissfully that was fairly minimal there. Maybe it was the nice weather or the good food, but I think it was because of wonderful connections to teacher friends old and new. It was connecting in 3D with online teachers I respect and adore like Jen Hall and Victoria Thompson that empowered me. It was meeting new people like Mason Mason and Joan Gore that helped me have new hope. And it was finally getting to present with long friends like Knikole Taylor and Kathi Kersznowski that allowed me to believe there was still work for me to do in education. So that was the backdrop to my learning at TCEA, and here are some insights I want to share with you.
- People are always the best part. I learn about tools and techniques and hear some inspirational messages, but, as my examples above might demonstrate, the ongoing connections I can build with other dedicated educators are the best part of any conference experience. And whether they are a long-time presenter or a 2nd-year educator looking to learn, I have learned different ideas from a range of folks, and I hope I have helped a few of them too.
- I’m not here for the thank-yous, but they’re nice to get. Teaching feels very much like a thankless job, especially lately. And I long ago learned to note my successes and failures beyond what I’m told. I’m never quite as good or quite as terrible as others may note on any given day. But having teachers (some whose work you’re familiar with) tell you how much they love what you share will naturally incline you towards sharing more. And when conference leaders and other presenters tell you how informative or fun your sessions were when they would know best, it helps me overcome my natural neurosis to question everything I do.
- Well-developed learning opportunities can still draw teachers. I don’t know about you, but after the last 2 years I’ve grown a little burnt out with the same old online trainings even when the information is of value. But I’ve seen a resurgence lately especially if you can be in person. But beyond that the keys are use internal experts who know your system (unless the system is the problem). Make sign up easy, offer flexible scheduling, make it fun, make it immediately applicable, offer free ready-for-use resources, and a gamified system like Glide helps too.
- It’s more meaningful from a classroom perspective. Some edtech companies aren’t exactly made up of former educators, and others have reached out to build up their educator connections. Some major presenters are far removed from a classroom and some were never there. It doesn’t mean they don’t have worthwhile information to share, but it means a lot more to me if they can say this is what it looked like in my 3rd-grade classroom beyond just cool tools and inspirational words.
- Start your day with positives. What are the first five things you do when you walk into work? Do you enjoy any of them? What in your day brings you joy? It can be student/colleague interactions or, like me, a nice cup of tea and a good song on a cold winter morning. You may still need to check email or write lessons, but if they don’t make you happy, change your schedule up to bring the good things up front.
- There is too much deficiency language in education. This is easily exemplified by all the current “learning-loss” talk. But so much language in the rules and the efforts of schools that like to say they have a growth mindset are based around shortcomings more than strengths. As someone who works deeply with students with disabilities, I can tell you that thinking never works well in the long-term.
- Avoid and overcome anti-learning talk. Many of you have likely heard phrases like I’m not a math person or I don’t do tech or I’m just not creative like that. Those are identity statements that automatically remove a person from any possibility of learning. But we can overcome that by showing ways that these things are not beyond their reach, and the value in them specific to their goals.
- Data is a double edged sword. In a healthy school culture, data should be information and not condemnation. But there are many examples where data is weaponized against a particular group and often it is data that is selective in its collection and biased by its very nature. Check out Cathy O’Neill talk about Weapons of Math Destruction or check out her book.
- Story is the most powerful force for learning. I have shared about unleashing your student’s voices before, but I am regularly reminded that the stories we tell, especially as it relates to the identities of ourselves and our students, will define everything around us.
- Identity drives behavior. Why do we do what we do? Why do we succeed or fail? What do we keep as a priority and what do we allow to slide? All of this is in who we see ourselves as. It is a continuation of the story we tell ourselves. It even dictates what information we allow to affect us or not regardless of its quality. So make sure you’re creating the identity you want to be projecting.
- Community > Curriculum. There are many ways to say this, but if your room is just a series of rules (i.e. don’t talk, don’t get up, etc.) what you’re teaching is conformity and compliance and what kids are learning is a disdain for spaces of learning. What are the exceptions for talking? For moving? Are kids just supposed to know that? That’s why building a community ethos is greater than any rules. And there will never be any lasting retention of curriculum unless students feel safe and connected to the learning leader. And they also know that they are welcomed to sometimes be a leader there as well. Ken Shelton models this wonderfully in his sessions. He has genuine check-ins with teachers just as he did with students. And he really listens to the responses of those who are struggling.
- Stop the nonsense! Some of that list of challenges above is out of our control, and some of it is straight nonsense. For example, the part about a full year of lessons before you’ve even met your students is not only cruel given how little time is generally given for lesson planning, but it’s also bad pedagogy implying there will never be need to adjust for students. Beyond that though Victoria Thompson shared an example of a teacher assigning students to make slave auction posters (yes, you heard that correctly). And clearly that teacher didn’t have a quality community to check in with about it. And clearly the only learning happening in that assignment was not making the world better. But what is even more wild is that the current push to post all lessons, put cameras in classed, and fine teachers is not because of this trash like that happening. It’s because of efforts to stop the kind of thinking that something like that is okay. It is the effort to get people to understand the real costs of slavery and the Holocaust so that we don’t keep comparing everything that is a minor inconvenience to them. Because that is straight nonsense!
- A11y needs more allies. All students…all humans benefit from universally designed experiences. I got to talk with Microsoft’s Robyn Hrivnatz about that for a bit. But I love that major speakers are sharing that idea more also. Leslie Fisher shared a tip about Airpods accessibility features like live listening that were new to most in her session. I personally love the background sounds feature which helps me relax or focus in noisy/crowded spaces. I like the sounds of rain, but maybe you like dark/bright noise to help you sleep.
- Create spaces where people can be their true self. This is hard. Would I really always wear pants and dress shirt to work if it wasn’t obligatory? This last year of remote work answered that question for us pretty quickly. As a neurodivergent person, I can find it a challenge to find spaces that welcome me a s my natural. I know this when I’m told to stop humming, and I didn’t even realize I was doing it. And that’s even when I’m mostly masking the weirdness. Now imagine that moreso for students who have constantly code-switch and the costs that incurs on them personally. Give the kids you work with the ability to express their true identity and true thoughts and feelings safely in the spaces you control. You’ll be surprised at how much more they are willing to engage and contribute.
- Math can and should be fun! Mary Kemper does this really well. By including connections to music and games even for advanced math exercises, we see how easy it is to move beyond drill and kill. The Desmos Marble Slides were a lot of fun. Check out her resources.
- Play is no fun if it doesn’t include everyone. I got to do a session filled with #Fliphunts and #GridGames with the generous Kathi Kersznowski that had teachers running around, dancing, singing, and occasionally getting deep inspiring them to bring playful learning to their classrooms. I also learned about some fun games for students like mystery animal and Stash 101, a fun financial learning tool, from the fine folks on the friEDTechnology team. In addition, I also got to share alongside the incomparable Knikole Taylor about how to make sure the games we play are representative and accessible. Play is powerful, but it must be equitable too. More to come on that.
- Make sure your people know they are seen. Joe Sanfelippo does a lot of great work making sure teachers in his district feel connections to it. New hires are told they got the job by the educator who inspired them to be a teacher or the students for their incoming class. They feel like a superstar ready to do their best. But it’s not just for teachers. Maybe his working one day as the custodian seems a bit performative, but it’s also incredibly meaningful to those employees who may often feel unseen.
- Real leadership is inviting people on a mission to do something extraordinary together. Brett Culp makes it clear that people, especially educators, didn’t sign up for a mountain of cash. They signed up for a mission. The less clear that mission is or the less tethered they feel to their own mission, the less effective they will be. And they are more likely to say see ya’ later. And it isn’t watching others do the work either or dictating it. The best leaders are servant leaders who invite others to build and be leaders as well.
- Teachers are in need of some fun! The sessions on equity and inclusion were some of the most insightful I attended, but there’s a reason why the scavenger hunt and gamified sessions were amongst the most crowded. Teachers, many who feel burnt-out with the profession to some degree, wanted some fun with their friends just like kids want too-especially those kids who have too much stress in other areas of their lives. And if it builds camaraderie and it is good for your mental health then it’s justifiable to find a little escape. And that I was able to join Knikole as she experienced (and succeeded in) in her first ever escape room was a particular highlight (enabled by the ProSolve folks).
- Bitmoji can serve a genuine need. I know so many teachers are in love with their little avatars, perhaps none more than the Bitmoji whisperer herself, Jen Hall. And, yes, they’re cute and fun. But beyond that they can be an important part of creating identity, and more inclusively with new wheelchair Bitmoji. But they can be useful beyond that when creating visuals for digital signs or PD portals to help people, especially those with any language challenges, identify immediately what they will encounter in that space.
- It isn’t about devices, it’s about meaningful implementation. Everybody seems to have more tech now and organizations like Funds for Learning can help you make the most of your budgets. But that is not where the edtech conversation ends. I’ve spoken at length on this site about whether more tech is the answer and keys to its successful implementation. EdTech is a field of study that is about analyzing, designing, developing, implementing, and evaluating the environment and learning materials. And Victoria Thompson who just left the classroom to work at Microsoft starting today has great resources to make sure you’re doing that inclusively.
- Privacy is paramount. Between CIPA, PPRA, COPPA, HIPAA, FERPA, and Ed Law 2D here in NY there are important privacy laws already in place. Your organization needs to be tapped into that information well before even considering platforms and which staff can access which data.