The Courage to Open the Door

Taking a risk to invite peers into your classroom not only helps others learn about new instructional practices, but also helps us learn about ourselves.

Heroes are near to my heart. In fact, my favorite superhero is indirectly the reason I became an educator. Spider-man’s modern folklore sprang from a simple premise: “With great power comes great responsibility.” While I would be the last to describe myself as having any “great power,” I have always known that I wanted to use any of my “gifts” in the service of others. That mental model led me right into a classroom and has kept me in education ever since.

But characters in comic books are obviously not the only kind of heroes. The stories of heroes stretch throughout the entirety of human existence. Their journeys are the ones that help us to aspire to something greater than ourselves, to have the courage to move into the unknown, and to strive for achieving goals once thought impossible.

One of the heroes that comes to mind for me: Susan Knoebel. Susan is a fifth-grade math teacher in the Pendergast Elementary School District (AZ), and she and I teamed up through my work with ALP as part of her district’s journey to infuse technology within their learning environments. We were able to work together over the course of a school year to take steps on how these newly available resources might fit into her instruction.

Her goal was to spend more time with individual and small groups of students for real-time feedback on their understanding of the grade-level content, so we decided to work toward a stations-based approach that paired more small group opportunities with short-term skills development and long-term project-based stations. She experienced a great deal of success in shifting in practice, and her students achieved significantly as a result.

As a key component of the Innovation Lab Classroom approach to amplifying that tech infusion across the school, the month of March brought with it an opportunity to invite her peers into her learning space to see this type of learning in action.

She. Was. Terrified.

I kid you not: the morning of the walks, she was literally shaking. She almost decided to withdraw from the experience, because she was so fearful about what other teachers would think of her.

(For reference, her reaction in this instance is far from unique. I have seen the fear of judgment keep educators teaching in isolation far more often than not. If we truly seek to create communities of professional learning in our schools, we need to take intentional steps to dismantle this aspect of our foundational culture. But that’s a different story for a different day.)

Ultimately, after a deep breath and a burst of caffeine, Susan powered through her anxiety and took the risk to open the door to her classroom. Over the course of the morning, dozens of her peers came to visit in shifts, taking note of interesting practices and reconvening to reflect on what they had learned. The inspiration that her peers felt from seeing her classroom environment led them to commit to targeted next steps that would help them embark on their own learning journeys.

I came back to reflect with Susan later that day to thank her for her courage, and to share with her the excitement that came as a direct result of her willingness to share her practice. Her response? “I thought everyone already did that.”

So often, we don’t recognize our own exceptionality unless someone else is willing to help us see it for ourselves. By opening her classroom doors, Susan not only inspired a new approach to teaching and learning in her school, but also allowed herself to reflect on and reinforce the qualities that make her a hero to her students and peers. Her courage can be an inspiration to us all to open the doors to our learning spaces and invite teammates to learn with us.

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