A year ago, I would not have guessed that I would be writing this blog post. While I considered myself to be quite capable in many areas of my life, in no way would I consider myself unique enough or exceptional enough to be sharing my experiences with a group such as this. At that point, I was a month into my 8th year of teaching, all of them spent at Canyon High School (a public school with roughly 2400 students). I was teaching the same subjects I am teaching this year (and have taught the past several years: AP Psychology, IB Theory of Knowledge, and Varsity Girls Basketball), and by most measures was doing a pretty damn good job of it. Deep down, though, I knew that really I was only doing a good job being a run-of-the-mill public school teacher. I was working within a system that I didn’t wholly believe in, but I had come to grips with the idea that it would still be enough for me to call my career satisfying and significant.
Sometime in March of this year, something changed inside me. An avid viewer of TED videos, I joined their TED Conversations group and began reading and commenting on posts dealing with education and human potential. I was a chance to be part of a community of people who were wondering the same things I was wondering; questions like “How can we empower kids to reshape the education system?” and ideas like “The world’s youth population is the world’s greatest natural resource.” I re-watched Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talks (“Bring on the Learning Revolution” and “Changing Education Paradigms”). I was reading and exploring at a tremendous rate, and within a month’s time I convinced myself that I needed to be part of this learning revolution.
My explorations and conversations eventually led to my discovery of the AERO (Alternative Education Resource Organization) and the many examples of alternative schools and programs that existed all over the country and the world. I was enamored with these people and schools that were creating the types of learning environments that were consistent with my beliefs about what education could be. When I discovered that AERO was putting on a conference in Portland in August, I signed up immediately, hoping to connect and join up with those either interested in the education revolution or already actively participating in it.
Amazingly, the AERO Conference exceeded every hope I had for it. More than anything, I went hoping to find answers for the direction I wanted to take my professional life. That’s an unrealistic expectation for any conference, but somehow, it came through, albeit in unexpected ways. Saddled with my frustrations with the limitations and restrictions of public schools, I think that part of me hoped to meet some people who would want me to join their amazing alternative school or start one with them. Instead, I left with a renewed sense of educational values and a determination to return to my school this year and design a class environment that allowed those values to be the centerpiece of all that we do.
At some point during the conference, I became aware that while these amazing, mostly private, alternative schools are doing things that I think all schools should do, the public school system needs people who are willing to stand up and fight for the education revolution that needs to take place on behalf of all the students who can only afford to attend public school. On the second to last day of the conference, attendees were given an opportunity to speak in front of the group and share their thoughts with everyone. Now this is about as out of my comfort zone as something can be, but I felt compelled to share something that had been leaping inside me. My heart pounding and my voice shaking, I shared the following insight (paraphrased as best as I can remember): “As a Social Science major at San Diego State, I spent a significant time learning about the Civil Rights Movements and the Free Speech Movements that took place in the 1960s. I found myself in awe and envious of the members of those movements and their opportunity to be part of something amazing and revolutionary, often wondering if I would have had the courage to participate in them myself had I lived in that era, wishing that there were something equally important for me to be a part of. Now I realize that this revolution in education is the movement of my era, and that I am proud and excited to fulfill something that I had dreamed about years before.” This moment in front of the AERO audience is significant for me not just for the realization, but for the symbolic decision I made to get up and address the group. If I am to be part of a movement, I must be willing to take risks, step out of my comfort zone, speak up, and take action.
While I believed that I have been doing good things in my classroom these past 8 years, I saw huge opportunities for improvement, mainly in creating an atmosphere that most effectively allows students to reach their potential as thinkers, decision-makers, and community members. Armed with ideas, I worked with enthusiasm to figure out how to put all of this into action. I wanted our class to be a community where students feel like they have dignity, are trusted, and have a voice that carries weight in the class. The class would be designed and run democratically, with my role changing from one of authority to one of advisor and partner in their education. I spent countless hours reading, talking, and thinking about the implications of such a class structure, while I had no idea how everything would turn out, I could say that it would all be done with love and purpose.
So here I am. A year ago I was just another teacher in a typical American public high school. Now, I am a month into my first year as a participating teacher in the education revolution. I began a blog in June (www.thinklovedo.wordpress.com), from which some of this post has been generated, with the intent of sharing some of my thoughts and hoping to turn those thoughts into action. I have shared some of my early experiences of this young school year on that blog, and will continue to share them both here and there as the year progresses. I want to finish with the disclaimer that I do not purport to have the answers as to how to run a democratic classroom in a public school. I am merely trying to continuously learn and grow as we go along, and hope that each day, things become clearer. I have become increasingly content with the idea that I am not pursuing some sort of end-goal as an educator, but rather, that I am on a path of thinking, loving, and doing that I plan to remain on my whole life. My name is Matt Dale, and I look forward to us all getting to know each other a bit more as we all go down our paths. Thanks for taking the time to allow me to introduce myself.