Sunday, January 24, 2016

My Transformation as a Teacher

Guest post by Pernille Ripp, 7th grade teacher, Oregon School District, WI

Beginning of the End of Supreme Bringer of Knowledge

Today I shared the story with my seventh graders of how I almost quit teaching. How I hated the kind of teacher I had become. How I was so sick of making learners conform to all of my inane rule following that I would rather have quit than harm another child’s curiosity. To say that my learners were surprised would be an understatement. “You used to do those things, Mrs. Ripp? Really? You took away recess? You gave “F’?s” You talked more than you do now…”

The learners were not quite sure what to believe but I made them understand that one of the greatest things I ever learned was that I could not keep teaching the way I had. That not only did I have to get rid of many of my rules, but I also had to take a long look at how my learners were learning. That me being the main vessel of information in the room, the supreme bringer of knowledge, and also the lead commander of all creation was not sustainable. Was not inspiring passion, nor was it creating opportunities for learners to actually develop skills beyond what I found necessary.

So in my admittance as failed teacher, I changed and the biggest part of my change was that our classroom had to have room for all of the ways my learners needed to learn. For them to be able to find their voice and decide how they would learn best, because no longer did I want to be at the helm of their learning journey, I needed them take control, to steer the ship so to speak and to make major decisions that would shape the very school year we would have. I taught 4th graders at the time. I was terrified.

Embracing Personalized Learning

Now, almost six years into my transformation as a teacher who embraces personalizing learning as much as possible, I would never go back to the way it was before. The drastic changes I made back then have now become insignificant in the best possible way; they are no longer terrifying, nor are they dramatic, but instead they are woven into the very tapestry of the way we function as a learning community. It is a given that there is choice in our classroom, that there is an ongoing conversation regarding the way they are learning, what they are learning, and how they will be assessed. That learners may utilize the environment in the way that makes the most sense for them, and also use each other as they try to engage with materials.

The changes we have now are so integrated that I sometimes fail to see the marvel in them; we just work as a learning community, yet to others to try to replicate this type of learning community may seem just as terrifying as it did to me so many years ago. Yet the beauty of personalized learning is that even the smallest changes can make the biggest difference. That you should keep the end goal in mind but always keep your eye on the steps right in front of you. Because if you do not, then personalized learning can seem overwhelming at best, impossible at worst. So how does one start toward a more personalized learning environment even within our sometimes regimented public school system?

Listening to my Learners

We start by asking our learners which needs they have that are not being met. We then listen to their answers and try to develop pathways that may include their requested modifications. One thing my learners asked for repeatedly was simply choice in what they created, something that is so easy to give and yet often overlooked. However, when it comes to creation the power of the times that we live in is remarkable; learners have access to so many tools that can support them in their explorations. No longer do our choices have to be between PowerPoint or poster, but instead can be left open to the tools that learners often access outside of school, outside of their supposed learning.

Simply by asking my learners more questions has my knowledge of what is possible expanded exponentially. Asking learners questions can be done in many ways. Now that I teach 7th grade, I do not have as much face to face time with my learners as I long for. Often our conversations happen through surveys or quick Google forms as I check in with them on their learning. Large group meetings, informal check-ins, small groups and one-to-one teaching all have a part in it as well as we grow comfortable with each other and start to trust the notion that we are learning together. And for that learning to be powerful, my voice cannot be the loudest.

Realizing Education is for our Kids and their Future

Six years ago, I set out on a journey that would challenge my belief that education was an institution that could not be changed, but instead had to be blindly followed no matter the collateral damage in its wake. I now know that the day I started asking my learners what changes they needed to become more engaged learners, was the day that I made a difference in the way education can be used. Yet this change is fundamentally not about me. It is about the learners I teach and it is for them that we must embrace a more meaningful way of educating. Call it personalizing learning or some other title, but in the end, we must make the very education that we are stewards of become about the kids that we teach again.

Screenshot 2016-01-23 11.33.30.pngMy pathway not a straight line, much like the pathways that my learners undertake to this day, but I chronicled it in my book Passionate Learners - How to Engage and Empower Your Students in the hopes that someone out there would find the courage that I so desperately needed when I realized that I was becoming another cog in the wheel of a broken machine. I wrote the book in the hopes that the voices of my learners would be listened to so that the voices of other learners may join them. That was my driving force 6 years ago when I decided there had to be a better way and it continues to be so today. We must never forget that ultimately the very education we provide is not for us, but for the kids, and that our future, indeed, depends on it.


Mass consumer of incredible books, Pernille Ripp, helps learners discover their superpower as a middle school teacher in Oregon, Wisconsin. She opens up her educational practices and beliefs to the world on her blog and is also the creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, a global literacy initiative that since 2010 has connected more than 1,00,000 learners. 

Her book “Passionate Learners - How to Engage and Empower Your Students” is helping teachers change the way learners feel about school. Her other book “Empowered Schools, Empowered Students” is meant to give others the courage to change.

Follow Pernille on Twitter @pernilleripp