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Just Keep Going

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Heather Stinnett, Lead AdvisorTeaching and learning remained the same throughout much of the 20th century. The homework, the textbooks, the science projects, and the issues that came along with them (poor planning, missed due dates) were all fairly predictable. Since the rise of home computers, the Internet, and more widespread availability of tech in the classroom, however, things have changed at a breakneck pace. These tools are meant to facilitate learning, streamline interactions between teachers and students, and make everyone’s lives easier; and in my experience, they can do these things and more when leveraged purposefully. There’s one aspect of this that we too easily forget, though – teachers are now teaching students in ways we were never taught, and as a result, we have become more detached from the learner’s perspective than we would like to believe.

Each week at Khan Lab School, I have one-on-one meetings with my bright, spunky, and tech-savvy 8-10-year-olds. Every student has an individualized spreadsheet called a Goal Tracker, where we record their learning goals and their weekly progress. We have a color code to indicate when goals are met and to visualize the areas where students are successful and where they might need extra support or intervention. I often leave comments with suggestions or words of encouragement like: “It’s not always comfortable, but it makes you stronger. Keep going, kiddo!”

While designing the Goal Tracker, I took great care to make sure the tool was as easy to read and keep up with as possible – but somehow upon implementation, and in spite of giving the kids what I thought was ample time, their tune was always the same: “I didn’t have time to update my Goal Tracker...”

I’d respond, “But you have the time! I’ve given you time! Why don’t you just…”

I caught myself one day when a student responded back, “But I can’t just!

It reminded me of (unsolicited) advice I’ve received from friends outside of the teaching world: “Why don’t you just grade the work as they give it to you, so you can have the weekend free?” “Why don’t you just talk candidly to the kid who is acting out in class? I’m sure she’ll stop if you just level with her.” “Why don’t you just change careers if it’s so stressful?” “Why don’t you just…”

The word just started to really get under my skin. I’d shut down in these interactions and decide I wouldn’t share what I was going through. I wanted to shout out, “Just because you were once a student doesn’t mean you know what it’s like to be a teacher! That’s the same as saying you know what it’s like to be a parent because you were once a child.” (Parents know this song and dance all too well, as even strangers feel empowered to “just” all over them in public.)

I had assumed that I understood the other side of this experience, when I’d never had to do these things before. I’d become a just person. I talked the talk of becoming a lifelong learner day in and day out with my students, but I hadn’t taken the time to put myself in their shoes or to model it for them in a meaningful way.

It was that same day that I made myself my very own Goal Tracker and enrolled in three continuing education classes at Stanford. It was time to set some new goals and put my Goal Tracker to the test.

A few weeks later, I began taking classes and working to fill in my Goal Tracker. I filled it with my homework assignments and even a fitness goal to get me doing more yoga and cardio. For the first couple of weeks, I filled it in on time and honestly. Some weeks, I didn’t meet my goal of homework for this class or that, and I used our Goal Tracking color code accordingly. I felt confident that my role modeling would go smoothly and seamlessly, and that I’d uncover new strategies to share with my students.

In spite of my well-laid plans, stuff just started happening.

One day, I left my laptop at school when I had intended to take it to one of my evening classes. In my determination to put myself in my students’ shoes, I suffered through the three-hour class without my laptop, in spite of having ample time to return to school to grab it before class. (At school, when a student leaves his or her computer out, the consequence is that it be confiscated for a day, to have a taste of the natural consequence of what might happen in the real world if you leave a device lying around – it might disappear, and you can’t use it.) I took notes on the backs of papers I found in my purse with a pen that only worked halfway, and learned the hard way that no matter how organized and fastidious a person might be, sometimes stuff just happens. (I have since eased up a bit when my students’ computers get confiscated.)

I humbly admit that I fell behind in many of my goals rather quickly, and by the middle of the term, my Goal Tracker reflected a splotchy rainbow of goals met, half met, and not met at all (not even close). To make things worse, a third of the way through one of my 10-week-long adult ed classes, I realized I didn’t enjoy the content, the teacher, the readings, the time of day, nor anything about it. I decided I would give myself a week to decide whether to drop the class and get a partial refund. During that week, something happened that made me reconsider.

To my students’ delight and amusement, I shared my Goal Tracker with them and allowed them editing access so they could leave me comments and make suggestions, as I do for them.

One day, when I was feeling particularly behind on things, I got a notification that one of my students, Surya, had left a comment on my Goal Tracker. My kids are kind, but I figured I had a scolding coming my way for such poor performance in my experiment.

Instead, I opened the window and it revealed a message of encouragement: “Keep going, Heather!” This beautiful and simple message instantly filled my bucket, and I felt a renewed sense of determination. I had been slogging through and letting my discomfort get me down. When I thanked him for it, Surya told me, “You always tell us that sometimes learning is uncomfortable. Keep going!”


Heather's Goal Tracker
Heather's Goal Tracker


The power of his simple comment made me stop and think. I realized that kids are given so little choice in a typical learning environment, and we forget how painful it can be for them when they don’t feel engaged in their learning. I decided that no matter how agonizing I found my class, I would keep going in order to experience what it’s like when something just isn’t working for a student, and how to cope with it.

Walking the walk of lifelong learning (and using the tools I ask my students to use) gives me a window into the easily-forgotten realities of being a student, and the new-to-me systems of learning in the 21st century. Here are some of my takeaways:

  • Look for the grain of truth. When students give you feedback, no matter how off-base it seems, keep an open mind.
  • Life is busy for all of us, kids included. Things come up, and things get hard, and sometimes I can’t even and that’s okay.
  • Learning can be uncomfortable – and sometimes it’s downright agonizing. When I didn’t like my class, I stuck it out and made myself go every week; something adults don’t often have to do, but something that kids have to do all the time.
  • Feedback and advice are great tools when something’s not working, but we often forget to call out the positives adequately. Celebrating even the small successes goes a long way. Too often we pass over opportunities to celebrate and focus our attention on areas for improvement.
  • Walk the walk. Remember that you’re a role model for your students, and this includes modeling what it’s like to fail and try again.

At the end of this experiment, I was more in-tune with my students’ experiences than ever before. Working through the challenges of the term with them openly made our group stronger in ways I hadn’t anticipated. I have continued to take classes and share my learnings with them, and I have been intentional about sharing my roadblocks with them as well. Being vulnerable and transparent about what we’re going through makes adults far more credible in children’s eyes when coaching them through similar roadblocks, and it can result in more meaningful and genuine relationships.


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