Updated: Dec 16, 2021
“If you are going to grow, you have to be intentional.” - Curt Kampmeier
Laying the Foundation
I began my teaching career with the best of intentions. My goal was to reach students, to help them feel valued, to inspire them to love learning. As a high school English teacher and basketball coach, I spent several years learning about my craft, trying to figure out what would motivate kids the most. I remember reading Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle the summer after my second year of teaching. Her student-centered approach to teaching literature and writing had me hooked, made me want to try it with my own students even though I had never heard of a high school teacher attempting it before. I redesigned my classroom to encourage private discussions between students. I created mini-lessons to model how to give feedback to another writer or to exchange ideas through a reading log. I made it so that each day of class was about engaging students where they were at.
The students' academic growth was significant and the difference in their overall attitude was noticeable, too. They were reading books for the first time in their lives and sharing parts of themselves that I never would have discovered had I not made these changes. There was a young man named Tom whose writings and reading logs revealed his obsessions with chess, and, although English was not his favorite subject, he relished the chance to write about his passion each day.
Another boy named Kevin had me as a teacher twice - once as a sophomore when I was using a more traditional teaching style and then as a senior, when I used this more student-centered model. In my first year with him, he mocked me, our class and studying in general. During the senior class, he transformed, even spending well over a month writing and rewriting a six-page poem until it was just right. As a person born and raised in Louisiana, Kevin had tremendous pride in his Southern heritage and, initially, a rather unsophisticated perspective of people from the North. His poem told the story of a Civil War soldier from the South who had to fight in a battle where he came face-to-face with his brother fighting for the other side. Kevin's process helped him to develop empathy, inspired research about soldiers' experiences during the Civil War, and broadened his perspective about our nation’s history.
Road to Understanding
During that year and those that followed, I did all sorts of things that supported the autonomy of my students, developed their self-efficacy, and encouraged their sense of connection to others. At the time, however, I had no concept of any of these things. I lacked the vocabulary, the expertise, and the perspective to name why what I was doing worked. In years after that one, I sometimes reverted to more traditional styles of teaching and still had moments where great things happened. But my successes came from intuitions I had about teenagers, a little luck, and lots of guess work. It took me years to figure out why I was doing what I was doing, and why it seemed to reach students.
Looking back now, there were so many ways I could have been more deliberate in my choices and in my planning, when I could have been more intentional in determining the “why” behind my actions as a teacher, coach, advisor, administrator, and even as a parent. That does not mean I was bad at what I did; however, I had many moments where I could have been better and it would not have taken much effort.
What was I lacking? Too often my decisions around planning came from gut intuitions or past habits rather than from deliberate considerations about what my goals were for the young people in front of me and what the best ways were to reach those objectives. That's not to say past experience and the instincts we develop do not matter. They absolutely do, but we can get to entirely new levels of effectiveness when we are intentional about the choices we make. The good moments take place more frequently; the connections are more profound; the influence we have is more lasting. In sum, intentionality can make us more powerful educators, parents, and humans.
“Ultimately, human intentionality is the most powerful evolutionary force on the planet.” - George Leonard
Starting the Journey
My goal with this blog is to help us all be more intentional in our dealings with adolescents. In other words, I want to get more people thinking about educational intentionality. What is intentionality in general? In a nutshell, it is purposeful action based on philosophies and strategies that research has shown to be effective for learners. It is choosing a particular course because we have come to learn from our own experiences and various studies of others that purposeful "doing" is the best way to inspire meaningful growth.
But who has time to know what past and present research says? Who has time to gather data to discover the practices that can transform instruction? Most people I know, especially those with teenagers in their lives, don’t have the luxury of extra time. Thus, I will use this space to share these ideas with you, to condense educational literature and some of my experience into manageable chunks, and to offer guidance that will build your intentionality as a teacher, coach, parent, and/or administrator.
There is no one "right way" to be great in education, but there are plenty of people who educate based on ingrained routines that have more to do with muscle memory and hardened principles than with the audience who is before us. Much has changed in our world, particularly in terms of how we learn from and interact with others and our surroundings. We must adapt if we want to make education the platform to create future leaders and citizens. Our individual and collective efforts can make harnessing the amazing energy and vast potential of young people a regular occurrence rather than a lucky accident. #EdTentionality seeks to do that. I hope you will join me for the ride.