One Teacher’s Journey to Becoming a Teacher Designer
Here is a teacher daring to design.
By: Elsa Fridman Randolph & Keena Smith
Teacher Designer: Keena Smith
Keena Smith is a math interventionist and Teacher Leader in the Greece Central school district in upstate New York. Being an educator is a second career for Keena who previously worked in Washington, DC for the Chemical Industry supporting Health, Safety and Environmental Managers in monitoring and complying with environmental regulations. Keena’s decision to switch careers and become an educator was strongly motivated by her childhood. She grew up with two surrogate mothers who were teachers themselves and, in Keena’s words, “modeled every day love and deep empathy for their students and truly anyone whose lives were touched by them.”
Keena was first introduced to design thinking a little over a year ago when she was on the team responsible for planning her district’s Summer Leadership Academy.
“The Superintendent came in and passed out the toolkit from entrepreneurs by design and shared an experience she had designing prototypes where the students gave the feedback. As she highlighted her experiences interviewing the students, designing solutions, prototyping, soliciting feedback and going through multiple iterations, it occurred to me how much this was like engineering for education! I was curious and excited from the start.”
Over the course of the past year and a half, Keena has had various opportunities to engage in design thinking challenges and collaborations. These experiences and the lessons she learned along the way, which she recounts below, have helped her grow and thrive as a teacher designer, leader, and inspiring collaboration partner for her peers.
The Power of Empathy
In October 2014, a team from Greece had the opportunity to engage in a design thinking challenge aimed at promoting a college going culture in LA. The experience was a game changer for me. I experienced the power of building empathy for the end-user through ethnographic interviews and witnessed how, in only one day, we were able to generate truly innovative ideas that we were all so motivated to make come to life. I saw an idea from one of the teams “fail” when getting feedback from the end-users (teachers) and watched that failure become the most innovative solution of the day as the team took the feedback and iterated solutions that were actually meaningful. I learned that you cannot go wrong when you truly listen to understand.
I learned that you cannot go wrong when you truly listen to understand.
Cultivate a Bias for Action
In February, our district began to use design thinking. We designed solutions around increasing student voice in one of our high schools. Those of us who had participated in the challenge in LA were facilitating and guiding table groups. Many times, as educators, we talk around a problem over and over without ever reaching implementable solutions or progress moving forward. At the end of this design thinking experience however, the group came away with eight tangible ideas. The next steps after the challenge were not meeting to talk, they were meeting to do. How powerful!
The next steps after the challenge were not meeting to talk, they were meeting to do. How powerful!
I had the chance, two months later, to return and hear from the students and iterate solutions to roadblocks the building encountered as they were moving from experimentation to implementation.
The students articulated how honored they felt to be a part of this work and how they could see the changes taking shape in their building. One student remarked, “You are not just our teachers, you are becoming our family.” Of course I teared up upon hearing this, I could not believe the impact that listening to the students and acting on their feedback could have on the culture of a building.
Trust the Process
In April, I had the opportunity to bring the design thinking mindset and process to my own elementary school for a full day of professional development. My colleague and I co-led the experience with Jessica Munro and Coelyen Barry from entrepreneurs by design. We started the day by crafting the how might we question that would drive the challenge — How might we inspire self-leadership over one’s learning and empower students to lead others?
All the design thinking challenges I had previously been a part of had involved designing for end users I did not know. This was the first time we were designing for ourselves and I was not sure how this was going to go. I feared it would be much easier to be a “yes, and” rather than a “yes, but” person when I was not so close to the problem.
As teams “pitched” their prototypes to the students, one student remarked, “so…when is this really going to happen? One, maybe two, years?” Yet, we ended the day with four fresh ideas and created four small-scale experiments to test over the next few weeks. We set up simple systems to monitor the experiments and get feedback from the students. We realized the need to create checks along the way based on some of the roadblocks and learnings from the high school experiments we had previously done. The ability to connect across schools in the district and learn from each other was invaluable.
Toward the end of the school year, our building design team met to work on a presentation to the whole staff sharing and celebrating our work. One teacher reflected on the past few weeks and was amazed at what we had accomplished and learned in such a short time with zero dollars spent! Another teacher remarked, “How can we not think like this?!” Seeing the success and impact of our solutions, I realized that my fears had been unfounded and that I needed to learn to trust the process.
Another teacher remarked,“How can we not think like this?!”
A teacher came to me in May concerned about the escalating behaviors in the building and stated that we needed to have a “boys’ academy” in a whole wing of the building to really make a difference. Because of my experience with thinking differently about problems and prototyping solutions, I was able to reframe his concern into an opportunity by asking him to think about a small experiment and prototype some solutions we could try rather than dismissing his concerns because of feasibility.
I was able to reframe his concern into an opportunity by asking him to think about a small experiment and prototype some solutions we could try rather than dismissing his concerns because of feasibility.
For three weeks, we worked with a small group of boys in multiple grades who were all struggling with behavioral issues to build a garden for Flag Day. Starting the project by empathizing with the students, we learned that the boys were most motivated by hands-on projects, had a desire for “brain breaks” throughout the day, and felt leadership opportunities should be earned. Together, the boys researched the meaning behind the original flag, measured, designed and built the flag to be the centerpiece of the building’s celebration all the while working on and building their social skills and relationships.
Throughout the experiment, we solicited feedback from the boys and made changes based on their feedback and behaviors. The boys shared that they felt proud and creative. By the end of the project, they were also referring to each other as friends. Adults observed some of them as becoming leaders taking pride in their work.
Every time I participate in or lead a design challenge, I learn something new about the process and potential impact it has to change the way we approach problem-solving in education. The paradigm shift that adopting a design thinking mindset has created in my own thinking has been one of the most transformational things I’ve experienced in my entire career. Design thinking is not some big event but rather a way to approach and think differently about any challenges we might face. Hearing from and listening to the needs of the end user and not assuming you think you know what they want is crucial. If you listen and have empathy, you can’t go wrong.
If you listen and have empathy, you can’t go wrong.