When we made Aliyah 12 years ago, I quickly realized that I would need to adjust my educational expectations. After 10+ years of teaching in some of the top Jewish day schools in the US, I became accustomed to high standards and innovation in all areas of learning. My first visit to my son’s school showed a different picture. Coming from the Jewish day school world, my largest class had 19 students. Suddenly, my first grader had 39 other classmates. My old school in the US had computers, Smartboards, and other equipment in every room. My son’s school had a computer lab that just looked sad. To top it off, this was the “good” school! Thinking about the “bad” schools gave me nightmares. Somehow though, after 11 years in the school system, my children have both received decent educations which have allowed them to expand both their knowledge and interests. While nothing is perfect, I am at least at peace with both of my children’s academic journeys.
So, this story would be over if it were not for the fact that even though my kids are in the Israeli system, I have, at the same time, continued to work in the US educational system. As the CEO of an online learning company, I work directly with both Jewish and non-Jewish schools in the US. I get to see the innovations and challenges that these schools are having every day. While my own kids may not know the differences between the two systems, I cannot help but wonder which approach is the right answer.
I recently spent almost a month in the US visiting schools and attending one of the largest educational conferences. This trip was a great opportunity to see firsthand how the schools in the US are adjusting to meet the learning needs of the students. The fact is that the jobs of educators have changed greatly over the past decade. Teachers are still underpaid, underappreciated, and overworked. Yet, we are faced with increasing academic demands and expectations. As I visited schools across the US, I learned a few valuable insights….
- Technology cannot and does not replace good teachers! Over the past decade schools have spent millions of dollars on technology equipment meant to create a 21st Century learning environment. Many schools that I visited were even using online platforms to compensate for staffing shortages. Any experienced educator would agree though that even with the greatest and newest computers, technology is still a tool, not a replacement for teachers. Many schools are now realizing that new tech tools require more professional development and training for the educators. I visited one school in Austin, Texas which features 3D printers and Surface laptop carts in almost every classroom. The former head of school had a goal of creating a true STEM based learning environment. Fast forward 3 years…. That principal left the school and the equipment sits mostly idle all day. While the new principal would love to feature more STEM and project-based learning initiatives, she does not have the buy-in from her current staff, nor does she have the funds for the type of professional development that her faculty needs. At the end of the day, tech tools are great, but only if they are used to support the learning.
- It’s not always about the grades…. While grades are an important part of the academic process, my visits to certain schools led me to believe that some learning cultures may need to be slightly adjusted. I visited one private school in New York. I happened to walk into a classroom where a student was upset that she received a 92% on a test. Apparently, she felt that she deserved a 94% and was arguing with her teacher for the 2 points. We can look at this issue from both the viewpoints of the student and of the teacher, but regardless of which view we choose, this type of behavior may not be in the best interest of our children. Yes, grades are important, but often the students seem to be forgetting that it is important to learn for knowledge. In this particular school, the high school valedictorian is chosen solely based on GPA. So, even 2 points on a test can make a difference. I actually felt sorry for these students as I could not imagine my own children dealing with this type of constant pressure. As educators, we need to find the correct balance between grades and knowledge. Several of our partner schools are actually moving away from grade centered models such as AP courses in favor of college courses which place more emphasis on understanding and less on a specific exam.
- So many new possibilities… I spent a week of my trip participating in the TCEA conference in Austin. This conference was attended by 12,000 educators and was designed to highlight some of the best educational trends and developments. One of the best parts of going to these types events is that all of the educational companies are in one place. For educators, it is almost like going to the candy store and seeing all of the amazing new possible treats. While it would be impossible for any school or district to adopt every ed-tech tool, the fact that there are so many options gives us a valuable reminder that education is changing, and that as teachers we need to be changing as well. At this year’s conference, STEM learning tools were at the forefront. Several companies have created tools, kits, and curriculums designed to embrace this learning approach. Each company’s ideas were slightly different, but it was uplifting to see how much easier it is today for teachers to adapt to these new innovations. Another highlight of the exhibition hall was online learning. Many schools are realizing that in order to provide its students with full educations, that sometimes outside help may be needed. Very few schools can supply everything internally, and online courses have helped to ensure that learning possibilities are available for every student. There are different approaches to online learning and as with the STEM tools, each school needs to research and choose the model that works best for them. There were so many other great ideas and companies that could really help to advance the educational options for our students. This conference also provided an amazing opportunity to meet other educational professionals and to be able to brainstorm ideas. Participating in these types of events can be such valuable opportunities for teachers and educators.
With all of the innovations, changes, and various educational approaches, it should always still be about our students. As teachers, we have a responsibility to change the way we educate our students, but we must not forget that it is our job to meet their needs any way we can. Great technology does not equal successful students. Great teachers on the other hand can in fact make the true difference.