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overachieve @ TEDxTJHSST

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TEDx is “designed to help communities, organizations and individuals to spark conversation and connection through local TED-like experiences. At TEDx events, a screening of TED Talks videos — or a combination of live presenters and TED Talks videos — sparks deep conversation and connections at the local level. TEDx events are planned and coordinated independently, under a free license granted by TED.”

I had a great time speaking at Overachieve: TEDxTJHSST last Friday at my alma mater. It was an honor to be selected, and I am so grateful that I could share my experiences and ideas with TJ students. Below is the written version of my talk (the actual version ended up coming out a bit different because of nervousness and my inability to memorize). I’ll post the video when it’s ready.

Overachieve: Let it Go

Back in 1998, one of my teachers said to me: “you should come back and talk about all the biotech things that you accomplished after mentorship.” Back then, I thought I knew it all: that I’d major in chemical engineering at UVA, become an engineer, and live happily ever after in the suburbs of Washington D.C. I’d have a “we came for the sports” bumper sticker on my car and my children would know the TJ cheer by heart. I went after that goal hard…and ended up in a completely different place. However, I am just as successful, maybe even more. And that’s the story I want to tell you today: the story of how I learned to “let it go”, learn how to really learn, and pursue my passion of bringing high-quality education to the urban high school where I teach.

In spite of my perfectly laid out 1998 plans, I felt a bit unsure as I kept knocking out different pieces. I thought these fit society’s definition of success. First came the undergraduate engineering degree, then the master’s and then the consulting job. I did well at all of those things, but the seed of being unsure kept on growing even as I collected more gold stars. I realized that I loved working with students back in 1994 when I started tutoring at Weyanoke Elementary School next door. It took many years of doing more volunteer work to tell myself “hey, if you love this stuff more than your “real” job, *make* it your real job.” In 2007, I quit my consulting job to go to Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and become a teacher.

Making teaching my real job was much harder than solving differential equations, writing my master’s thesis, and working with government clients to develop wireless communications solutions. Furthermore, each small victory in classroom management or lesson planning felt much more satisfying. Midway through my first year of teaching, I came back to speak to Mary O’Brien’s Humanities class to share my experiences and encourage many of those students to pursue education as a career. Five years later, I’m thinking more “big picture” about my journey from exam-school kid to urban teacher.

Yes, it’s cheesy, but the journey truly is the destination. Earlier in my journey, I would have probably talked to you about incorporating creative, project-based learning for STEM education, because I was still focused on overachieving. After more years of math teaching and getting involved in school leadership, I still love to incorporate those projects. I now have a very different perspective about implementing them, particularly overcoming the fear of mediocrity. You know FOMO as Fear of Missing Out. I’m coining FOM as Fear of Mediocrity.

During my educational journey, fear of mediocrity took up more energy than pursuing my passions. I thought that I had to keep collecting gold stars and working hard so that I’d still be excellent and not mediocre. It took a long time to let go of that fear and focus on what would make my teaching better. I often tell people: “you don’t become a math teacher because you like math. You become a math teacher because you like working with youth.” I stopped fussing so much about having perfect worksheets or PowerPoint presentations. I focused on creating simpler lessons and then doing on-the-fly adjustments to make them easier or harder based on how the kids were responding.

I teach a lot better without that fear. I feel like myself in my classroom, joking with kids and checking in on them like a mother hen. I used to be afraid of being “nice” like the character Miss Nelson from Miss Nelson Goes Missing. I wanted to be her alter ego, Viola Swamp, the terrifying witch who inspired fear with just a look. I used to think that becoming Viola was teaching’s gold star. Now I’m not either of them, but my own quirky mix. I’m also more focused on helping students let go of their fear of math, of asking questions, or of just being themselves.

Learning How to Learn: Let (Your Imagination) Go
Letting go of that control was tough. It was way easier to set up what I thought was the perfect lesson “script,” but then I’d get caught up in wondering why my students weren’t aligned to it. I often credit Carolyn Gecan and Jane Gullickson, my 10th grade Humanities teachers, with inspiring me to implement creative projects and with developing the mindset to let go of control to make room for learning. In their class, lessons ran smoothly yet they let go of enough control to let us develop fun skits and learn some group skills along the way. I may never have my students develop skits for MacBeth, but I’m now okay with unstructured time for developing a probability carnival or stop-motion animation.

1) Play more.
– Many of you may be taking more AP classes than there are periods in the day. Many of you may pack your schedules so tightly with extracurriculars that you feel like the Energizer Bunny bouncing from activity to activity. I urge you to loosen up those schedules and schedule in some unscheduled time. I urge you to cut down on the Starbucks and Red Bull and get more sleep.

2) Make space.
– Make space not just in your schedule but also in the perspective you take when figuring out what your passions are. I spent way too much time crowding out what I didn’t think would earn me gold stars, and even in my teaching life I spent too much time aiming to copy my mentors and create scripts. Making space to let my creative side run free and do more with less was one of the best things I did for my teaching.

3) Reframe.
– Many of you have been used to always being at the top of the class, so much so that anything but #1 is equivalent to failure. Don’t be like Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights. He said “if you’re not first, you’re last.” I think the opposite: it’s how far you’ve progressed, not where you end up. It’s okay to be middle of the pack, or even at the back of the pack! My biggest mistake was thinking that my previous gold stars automatically conferred “good teacher” status upon me. It didn’t help to have non-teaching friends say to me “oh you went to Harvard. You must be such a good teacher!” even before I’d made it out of student teaching. I was one of the worst first-year teachers I have ever seen. That crimson H on my resume meant nothing in the classroom. In fact, the best first-year classroom teaching I ever saw came from a grad school classmate who was an improv comedian. He could adapt on the fly and stay cool under pressure…much more important than a high GPA or SAT score.

That’s how I went from exam school kid to a teacher in an urban, International Baccalaureate for All, Boston Public School. I could’ve given up after my first year in Boston Public Schools. I cried over tough classroom management experiences, struggled through piles of grading, and dreamed of coming back to Fairfax County, where I thought everything was perfect. When I say “I teach in Boston Public Schools” I often get the reaction of “wow, that must be so tough. That must be scary. Aren’t you scared?” I was definitely scared, but not of violence. I was scared of the very fluid nature of teaching, scared of mediocrity, and scared of what it meant to change my mindset about overachieving.

I wish I’d know then that playing more, making space, and reframing would help me teach better. I’d always reverted to the same strategies that earned me A’s: adding more caffeine or working more hours. At Harvard, I learned tons about math education, pedagogy, the dynamics of race, class and power in urban schooling. However, they didn’t address the unique challenges of the overachiever-turned-teacher. I’m glad I let go of those strategies and trusted that I could teach with less structure and more space.

I tell you my story not only to raise awareness of urban teaching as an awesome career opportunity, but also to raise the issue that “exam school” students need support for pursuing teaching in urban schools. You may be in Differential Equations now, but that doesn’t mean you’ll graduate from here with the ability to teach math well. Overachievers may not come out of the gate as awesome teachers right away, but they still have a ton of potential to be! You may be recruited for programs like Teach for America because you’re the best and the brightest. If you go that route, props to you! Young adults like you have a lot of potential to effect change in education, but roadblocks like FOM can hold you back. FOM almost held me back from becoming a grade team leader and IB coordinator, both of which involve managing people, influencing teaching and learning, and facing administrative challenges. I never thought I’d be in an administrative role, let alone enjoy it!

I challenge you to bring the best of your TJ learning to urban teaching or to K-12 education in general. Use your amazing education to pay it forward by bringing opportunities for service learning, mentorship, project-based learning, or educational technology to other communities. Play more, make space, and reframe.

3/30.

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