07/02/2012 12:21 pm ET Updated Aug 29, 2012

Taking a Classroom Leap of Faith: Teacher Embraces New Roles

It's summer, and school is out. For many that means vacations, barbecuing and relaxation. But for a group of highly energized teachers who are themselves "learners" at heart, summer is anything but time off. It's a time to be engaged in new approaches to teaching and learning. Summer is when dedicated educators like Jennifer Isbell use their time away from the classroom to collaborate with other teachers and immerse in re-imagining learning.

Jennifer, a teacher in the Lucia Mar Unified School District in Arroyo Grande -- an agricultural area near California's Central Coast -- will teach social studies at the new Central Coast New Tech High when the school opens this August. To help her prepare for this transition from a traditional high school (where she currently teaches) to a New Tech school, she attended New Tech Network's (NTN) annual New School Training (NST), held recently in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

I practically salivate as the time nears for this week-long training -- I can barely capture the intensity and personal journeys that take place. Teachers, administrators, IT staff and counselors work day and night to acquire knowledge, develop skills and create school plans necessary to transform teaching and learning at their schools. At the heart is a new pedagogy -- developing a whole school approach based on project-based learning (PBL). We have designed the training to be a Project for the entire faculty for each school, just as students will experience PBL in all of their classes. Being "students" posed challenges for many participants. Some spent time outside their comfort zone, but ultimately appreciated the opportunity to learn first-hand what students will experience at their "new" school.

"New Tech practices what they preach," Jennifer told me. "They ask the teachers to do everything as if they were a student so we can identify with what the student is going through when they're in school."

Many of our teachers arrive at NST with skepticism and some fear. They're apprehensive because everything is new and different. Some teachers may have experienced similar introductions to "new" programs in the past. We say the journey yields significant rewards for students and that makes it worthwhile. Changing traditional schools to a student-centered culture is hard work. The work isn't finished by the end of the week. These educators have moved from talking of change to actually making the change.

Jennifer had been preparing for this training since being hired to teach at Central Coast New Tech a few months ago. And she enthusiastically shared her feelings regarding her experiences. "Meeting weekly with the other Central Coast staff has been terrific," she said. She also visited two NTN schools in Los Angeles, and did a substantial amount of online research. "One of the most rewarding activities was spending two days shadowing teachers at Da Vinci High in Davis, CA, and getting a real feel for how students are taught at a NTN school," she continued.

Jennifer has taught world history, psychology and sociology for seven years, which means she is an educator who has stayed in the field longer than five years and is as passionate today as she was as a student teacher.

At the training, Jennifer was excited to put faces with the names of people she has communicated with online in the NT network. She was also happy to collaborate on a project with her peers. "I was a little nervous," she admits, "but it was a positive kind of energy."

Jennifer noted the sessions were demanding, but says she was up for the challenge.
"The training was a great first step for me to become an expert on the New Tech method of teaching and learn even more about PBL," she said.

Jennifer used the time at the training session to further build relationships with her new team at Central Coast. "It was very important to become a solid unit," she explained. "Experiencing new school training together more than met my expectations, and we left Michigan feeling that we had become like a family."

Observing the transformations taking place at NST inspires all of us at NTN. We ask teachers and administrators to be open to new ways of working together and facilitating learning -- to embrace and create a 'student-centered culture' knowing that will require everyone's role to change -- the student, the parent, the teacher and the administrators.

Jennifer was able to experience this new culture at the conference. "I now understand more about keeping the school student-driven and centered. A traditional school is about what teachers and parents need. At NTN, it is about the students -- they are the number one focus. It is every teacher's dream," she said.

New Schools Training is both a culmination and a new beginning. We finish training and our work shifts to "coaching" teachers and principals. It is our "hand off" -- the faculties take responsibility for moving forward and making their schools places that prepare students for college and career success. Everyone who is part of NST takes a leap of faith knowing they are not alone and that our motivation is itself "student centered." Let me know what you have done to put students first, and how you have reacted to learning something new and different? Don't tell anyone but it is my ideal "vacation."