Podcast: Honoring the Art and Science of Teaching - Steve Barkley

Podcast: Honoring the Art and Science of Teaching

What happens when the marathon of teaching – the long rewarding journey with its share of challenges becomes an unending obstacle course laden with ever-changing rules and unseen hurdles? Jason McKenna, an experienced teacher, author and current VP at VEX Robotics explores this question.

Podcast Transcript:
[00:00:00.330] – Steve [Intro]

Welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. As instructional coaches and school leaders, you have a challenge to guide continuous teacher growth that promotes student success. This podcast looks to support you with strategies from our experienced guests and insights that I’ve gathered across many years. I’m thrilled you’re here. Thanks for listening.

[00:00:29.360] – Steve

Honoring the art and science of teaching. I read the following words in the opening of an article written by Jason McKenna: “Imagine teaching as a marathon, a long rewarding journey with its share of challenges. But what happens when this marathon transforms into an unending obstacle course laden with ever changing rules and unforeseen hurdles?” That’s the question I invited Jason to explore with us today. Jason McKenna is an experienced educator and the author of, “What STEM Can Do for Your Classroom: Improving Student Problem Solving, Collaboration, and Engagement – Grade K-6.” Jason taught for 20 years before becoming an author and the VP at Vex Robotics. Jason is passionate about helping teachers and schools create meaningful learning experiences for students. Welcome, Jason.

[00:01:37.900] – Jason

Thank you for having me. It’s my pleasure to be here.

[00:01:41.260] – Steve

I’m wondering, before we jump into some of the questions I posed out here for you, I wonder if you want to take just a moment to tell people a little bit about Vex robotics.

[00:01:53.310] – Jason

Sure. So, Vex robotics – we’re the world’s leader in STEM education for students all the way from kindergarten through college. The reason why we could say that is because our solutions are being used in over 150 countries by millions of students and teachers every single day. We also host the world’s largest robotics competition. So in late April, we’ll have about 20,000 very loud, enthusiastic students to set upon Dallas, Texas, for the Vex Robotics world Championship. As a former teacher, the thing that I’m most proud of is we’ve certified over 16,000 teachers in our online professional development platform to help teachers teach STEM education. And I like to say that we lead the world in engaging students in meaningful learning experiences. So oftentimes, if you walk into a classroom and you see a student engage with a Vex platform again, whether that student is five years old or in college, they’re on task, they’re engaged, they’re collaborating, they’re having fun, they’re doing all those things that I was desperate to teach my students and always struggled with until I actually started teaching STEM with robotics.

[00:03:03.480] – Steve

Thank you. I’m going to go back to this sentence that I quoted, and I’m wondering if you’d start with a description of the term, “ever changing rules and unseen hurdles.” What picture does that paint?

[00:03:18.460] – Jason

So if you think about the reason I like to say that teaching is like a marathon is because running a marathon is hard and teaching is hard. Running 26.2 miles is not easy, but it’s very rewarding when you get done. And when you go to think about running a marathon, you create a training plan, and you’re going to slowly increase your miles every single week and you might try to focus on your pace, you’re going to focus on nutrition, you’re going to make sure you get enough rest. You’re going to do all these particular things and that’s what’s going to allow you to be successful in running that marathon. So imagine you show up on the day of the marathon, and the race organizer says, okay, instead of running 26.2 miles, we’re going to run 30 miles. And every fifth mile there’s going to be a wall that you have to climb over. Then every 7th mile, there’s going to be something that you have to crawl under. Oh, by the way, in the middle of the marathon, there’s a 200 meter pool that you’re going to have to swim 30 laps, something like that.

[00:04:20.100] – Jason

And you would be like, oh, my gosh, this is totally what I’m not prepared for. How that impacts teaching is some of my, I don’t want to say my worst days, but some of the days that I felt, like, totally frazzled, again, how I would feel on the day of the race with that race organizer told me all that is in the middle of first period, at the beginning of first period, I’m sorry, I’m getting ready to teach. I got my plan. I’m ready to go. Fired up for the day. I’m excited. I get a knock on my door, and the door opens, and there is the guidance counselor standing there next to a young man or young woman holding a stack of books saying, hello, I’d like to introduce you to so and so. They just got dropped off by their parents. This is their first day. Can you please get them a locker, get them a desk and get them started? That’s that same exact feeling. Same exact feeling. If you were to tell someone, if you were to give them that marathon analogy that we just talked about, everybody would be like, that is awful.

[00:05:24.060] – Jason

Oh, my goodness. That’s just horrific. You’ve trained for a marathon and now you got to swim laps, you got to climb over walls, it’s longer than you thought. But we don’t often share that same empathy for educators when they have to go through that same experience. So that’s really what those words are addressing there.

[00:05:43.080] – Steve

That’s a great example. Just a great example. So what are your thoughts on leveraging technology as a response to some of those hurdles that were thrown all the time?

[00:05:54.910] – Jason

I think what you want to be able to do with technology is use technology to free up your own time so that you have the time and space to plan and expect those things and to be able to deal with them well. So I can make the argument that when that happened the first time, when the guidance counselor came and knocked on my door and dropped that student off, I’d every right to be frazzled. I have right to be upset and go have a conversation with the guidance counselor like, hey, what’s going on here? Why’d this happen? Blah, blah, blah. Then it happens a second time. By the third time that happens, if I’m still frazzled, it’s probably on me, because I now should know that there’s a likelihood that this could happen and I can prepare myself to allow that to happen. How do I prepare myself to allow that to happen? That’s where technology comes in. So I think what you want to be able to do as an educator or as a person that works in business or anything, identify those things that really set you apart. When I was teaching 6th grade and before I started teaching STEM, I threw away our language arts books because they were terrible. I mean, they were just awful.

[00:07:07.290] – Jason

Like, the stories were boring, they were bad, the kids were bored, I was bored. Everything else like that. And I started teaching shakespearean sonnets as a way to teach context clues, comprehension, main idea, all that good stuff. And I loved it. I was enthusiastic. And I will tell you, I was probably teaching those sonnets better than just about anyone else to a 6th grade classroom. That’s what I was really doing. Well, that’s what I was good at. So how do I maximize that and minimize those things that are distracting me from that and preparing for that? That’s what we really should be using technology for. Am I spending a lot of time reformatting my seating charts? Am I spending a lot of time organizing makeup work for students at missed classrooms? Am I spending a lot of time determining if students have the necessary documentation that the nurse needs? Those types of things. Those are not things that are really separating things that are really impacting my students. So how do I use technology to spend less time on those things and spend more time on the things that are having a great impact on my students like talking about shakespearean sonnets and then also preparing for those unseen hurdles that I know may come up.

[00:08:21.130] – Jason

So I should ask myself, okay, the guidance counselor shows up tomorrow with a knock on my door. How will I be better prepared for that? How will I make sure that that student has a great first day of school? And not, I’m haggard, I’m upset, I’m angry, I’m scrambling. How do I make sure that student has a great first day of school? How do I prepare for that and spend time doing that and not redoing my seating chart?

[00:08:54.520] – Steve

You describe strong teachers as being able to combine expertise, empathy, and the ability to spark curiosity. Since a lot of the listeners to this podcast are administrators and instructional coaches, what would an observer see in a classroom when expertise, empathy, and ability to spark curiosity are present?

[00:09:19.600] – Jason

Great question. So, one of my jobs here at Vex robotics is that when I talk to my two owners, Tony and Bob, one of the things I tell them, I can walk into just about any elementary classroom around the world and I have, and I know that that teacher is teaching, like math and language. No one has to tell me that. As soon as I walk in the classroom, I know. So, first of all, if I’m an administrator, if I walk into a classroom, how do I know that this is a classroom where thinking is emphasized? How do I know this is a classroom that curiosity is something that is emphasized? How does the physical layout of the classroom, how do the things on the walls, how are things organized in the classroom? How does this communicate to me as the administrator, but more importantly, obviously, to the students, that this is somewhere that curiosity is emphasized? Do students have dedicated places where they can tinker, play, and explore? Does the layout of the classroom itself emphasize collaboration? Does the structure of the classroom itself emphasize cooperation and learning? And do students, again, have the opportunity to explore different things and really spend actual time thinking?

[00:10:37.450] – Jason

Are there prompts on the walls encouraging them to do these types of things? I think, number one, when an administrator walks into the classroom, those are the types of things that should be communicated to them. I think that, number two, how is the teacher actually interacting with the students themselves? Is the teacher driving all the learning, or are the students driving their own learning? I think one of the best things that you can do, the job that I’m at right now, one of the ways that I judge myself, is by the quality of the conversations that I’m having with the people here in the office. Are we talking about, for lack of better term, dumb stuff? Are we talking about things that actually impact our customers and deliver value to our customers? So what is the quality of the conversation that the teachers are actually having with the students? Are they saying, Johnny, make sure you’re on task. Hey, don’t forget to put your name on the paper. Hey, don’t forget to take a look at this or that. Are those the types of conversations that they are having? Or are they having much more profound conversations?

[00:11:40.440] – Jason

Or are they saying things like, have you taken a different perspective on this question? Have you tried different things? What are different approaches that we can take with it? What are different ways that we can try to solve problems? Those are all much more productive conversations. Are you actually having those conversations with the students? And then to get back to your first point, so your listeners might be thinking about this, thinking, this is completely open ended. It’s not. Does the teacher embed routines in the classroom? Are those routines memorialized or written down somewhere in the classroom so the students are focused on the learning and what not to do next?

[00:12:22.040] – Jason

You can be very structured. You can have routines, that’s important. But also those routines is what allows the students to be very open and creative with the projects that they’re working on. So that’s kind of the whole picture, like you were mentioning there before.

[00:12:36.320] – Steve

So the routine and the structure actually generate the openness and the exploration.

[00:12:44.260] – Jason


[00:12:45.150] – Jason

That’s exactly right. Because that’s what allows you to focus on those things, because you’re not trying to figure out what does success look like? Am I on the right track? Am I doing the right thing? Where do I get my materials? All those particular things.

[00:12:58.500] – Steve

When I read those words describing that strong teachers combine expertise, empathy, and ability to spark curiosity, it struck me that I could rewrite it for the school leaders. School leaders are able to combine expertise, empathy, and the ability to spark curiosity with teachers.

[00:13:24.140] – Jason

That’s 100% correct. We can rely upon research to help us identify best practices that we can be using our classroom. That’s the expertise portion of it, and that’s something that we can share, we could talk about with our teachers. We can collect data on how our students are doing. We could obviously share that. We can try to shine a light on those teachers that are doing things particularly well in our classroom. But at the end of the day, I’ve been lucky enough at this job now that I’ve talked to teachers all over the world, I can’t tell you one that I know of that drives the school every morning thinking to themselves, I’m going to do the worst possible job I can today. I want to be a terrible teacher today. I want to make my students miserable today. I want to make this parent upset today. I don’t think anybody does that. So if you’re a school leader and that teacher is not performing well, however we define well, if that teacher is not doing the things that you are asking them to do, I think the first thing to understand there is empathy.

[00:14:37.980] – Jason

I think the ability to observe without judgment is something that administrators should really be able to work on and do. So it’s not that this teacher is doing this because they’re not listening to me.

[00:14:51.190] – Jason

Just recognize that this teacher is not doing this. And then that leads into the idea about sparking curiosity. Try to understand why that is. Again, is it just that they just don’t want to listen to you? Is it just that they don’t know what to do because they’re incompetent or is there more of a root cause of that particular problem and issue? That’s something that is going to take time as a school leader. That’s something that’s going to take effort, but that’s our job. My old boss used to have this saying all the time, people don’t want my job, they want my office because he had a corner office here. If you want to be a school leader, yes, it’s hard, but that’s the job. You have to be able to not just say that this teacher is not doing x, y, and z because they’re lazy, because they’re incompetent. Again, the ability to observe without judgment is one of the highest forms of intelligence. So are you willing to actually go in there and find the root cause of the issue and address that?

[00:15:59.280] – Steve

It’s interesting that I’ve been playing with the question for teachers and then suggesting that it’s actually the same question for instructional coaches and administrators. And that is when you’re looking at the struggling student, the question is, “I wonder what it is that I don’t know.”

[00:16:20.660] – Jason


[00:16:21.320] – Steve

And the same thing in that classroom with the struggling teacher, the leader’s ability to start with that question, “I wonder what it is that I don’t know” as a starting point.

[00:16:40.350] – Jason

And I think when we talked about empathy there a moment ago, it’s also having empathy for yourself. Because there will be some days where you don’t want to ask yourself that question because you’re upset or you’re tired because you were up late the night before and those types of things. So have empathy for yourself and share that empathy with yourself as you’re also directing empathy to your teachers.

[00:16:59.360] – Steve

Well, thanks, Jason. I wonder, closing out here, if there’s one or two strategies you might share with coaches and leaders about supporting teachers in a way that causes teachers to hold on to passion and joy.

[00:17:13.230] – Jason

So I think it kind of goes back to what we talked about before. Number one, think about the conversations that you’re having with teachers. Teachers did not, again, the teachers that I know of, I’m sure there might be one or two that did, but the teachers that I know did not get an education to raise test scores. They did not get an education to examine data. They got an education because they love students and they love teaching students or they’re very passionate about a particular subject. You see this a lot with secondary high school teachers. They’re very passionate about math or chemistry or whatever it is, and they love to be able to share that information. Have those conversations with your teachers. Yes, you have to have a conversation with them about test scores. Yes, you have to have a conversation with them about data, but also talk to them about those things that they are passionate about and use that as a way to help reignite the joy of teaching and learning with your teachers. So think about the conversations that you’re having with your staff and with your teachers. Think about the things that you are emphasized.

[00:18:19.120] – Jason

You do not get what you ask for. You get what you emphasize. So if you want teachers that are being passionate and if you want teachers that are engaged, then how are you actually emphasizing that with your approach and your leadership? So those would be the two biggest takeaways that I would give school leaders. Number one, think about the conversations that you’re having with your staff. And number two, think about what you’re actually emphasizing.

[00:18:44.600] – Steve

As you were saying, that last part as I was listening to you there, that probably too many leaders miss the opportunity to share their own joy and passion.

[00:18:54.040] – Jason

100%. Model it.

[00:18:57.420] – Steve

If the teachers know where my joys are and where my passions are, I can use that to communicate that that’s important to me and look for them to do the same.

[00:19:06.800] – Jason

And one last thing, if I can just add to that real quick, why don’t we do that? It’s because of a lack of trust. I don’t trust myself to be vulnerable enough with my staff to say, this is what I find joy and passion within teaching and learning. I don’t trust them enough to do that. And the teachers oftentimes don’t trust me enough as a school leader to be able to share that. So I guess the third thing that I would add to it that I just talked about is establish a culture of trust. Emphasize that first, because if you don’t have that, then you won’t have anything.

[00:19:43.240] – Steve

And again, as I was listening to you, it all does go back to the classroom.

[00:19:47.500] – Jason

Yeah, same thing.

[00:19:49.610] – Steve

The teacher’s not showing her joy and passion – we may have classrooms where kids don’t know that having joy and passion for what they’re learning is an expected part of it.

[00:20:01.760] – Jason


[00:20:02.190] – Steve

Well, great talking with you, Jason. I wondered if you’d let people know the best way that they can contact you,follow up, find out about the blogs that you’re writing.

[00:20:12.080] – Jason


[00:20:12.550] – Jason

So you can obviously follow me on social media. My Twitter handle is at @mckennaj72. I’m active on Twitter and LinkedIn, much to my daughter chagrin, I am not active on TikTok or Instagram. Maybe one day in my spare time I’ll do that. You can go to my website, jmckenna.org. There you’ll be able to contact me. You also see you can subscribe to my newsletter. All my blogs are posted on there also. And if I’m traveling at an event, I put that on there, too. So that’s a great way to understand where I’m at, what I’m doing.

[00:20:44.150] – Steve

We’ll be sure to post that in the podcast lead in.

[00:20:46.490] – Steve

Thank you so much.

[00:20:47.640] – Jason

Thank you for having me.

[00:20:48.460] – Jason

I really enjoyed it.

[00:20:51.400] – Steve [Outro]

Thanks for listening, folks. I’d love to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter or LinkedIn at Steve Barkley. Or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.

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