Monday, May 6, 2013

Outside Voices from the Inside: Gary Anderson

Gary Anderson teaches English at William Fremd High School in Palatine, Illinois. I've "known" Gary via Twitter and Facebook for quite a while now, but it was only in November that we finally met face to face at NCTE in Las Vegas. Gary is an inspiring teacher and an accomplished writer with a kind and giving heart. I have learned so much from him as part of my personal learning network that it seems like I've known him forever. If you are an educator in any sort of capacity, you should get to know him too.

Follow Gary on Twitter: @AndersonGL
And/Or read his thoughtful blog about teaching and writing: What's Not Wrong

How long have you been teaching? 
This is year 33.  I’ve been at the same school for 26 years.

What initially drew you to a career in education? 
I’ve always respected what education can do to improve the lives of individuals and the quality of a society.  All I’ve ever wanted to do is make positive contributions toward those ends.  As a student, I had a few very good teachers. From them, I learned important lessons about how to do this job in ways that makes learning fun, interesting, and relevant.

What motivates you as a teacher? 
Nothing is better than when students take steps forward as writers or readers or thinkers, and they know it and are proud of it.  When I can see that I designed an experience or laid the groundwork for making that happen, I get pretty excited and look for ways to repeat it or build on it. 

At this stage of my career, I’m also motivated by designing programs and systems that help students, teachers, and schools make authentic improvements in their approaches to improving literacy.  I love helping my students, of course, but I also enjoy helping other educators help their students.

What has been your best classroom memory thus far? 
I’ve been privileged to witness some moments when people claim an undiscovered part of their identity or share a life-changing experience.  It’s incredible when someone says or writes, “This is who I am,” or “This happened to me, and I learned how to help other people because of it.”  Because English teachers deal with expression, communication, and artful story-telling, these kinds of situations will come our way if we provide authentic opportunities for students to express themselves.  And, no, those moments were not covered on any test.   

Other fun, memorable experiences have involved directly connecting students with authors.  This has happened countless times through our school’s Writers Week program, but also in more recent years through students’ book blog posts and authors’ comments on them.

What do you want the future of education to look like? 
The future of education needs to be highly individualized.  Future (and current) educators need the ability to help each individual student discover how she or he can go about solving problems, creating new possibilities, and living a satisfying life in an era of rapid change.  Technology will play a big role in that. 

Students need to become responsible digital citizens, and teachers need to take the lead in making it happen.  Students are becoming more restless as they find that school is less relevant than what they are learning online.  I understand that frustration. (I was a bored high school kid too.)  That frustration can serve as the basis for a new era in education if we can transform their restlessness and channel it into curiosity, discovery, and practical or creative applications.

What makes you stay in the classroom? 
I’m the luckiest guy in the world.  I found a school and a community that values education and educators, and allows me to provide an honest living for my family.  Although my on-site colleagues and I face more and more challenges each year, especially in this current educational climate, we do a fine job of preparing students for what comes next. 

In addition, my professional life is immeasurably enhanced by the online colleagues who I learn from and share with each day.  We all need a professional community supporting us and helping us serve our students.  I’m blessed that my professional community includes talented, dedicated people from within my building, across our state, as well as from around the country and the world. 

What do the words “use your outside voice” mean to you? 
Classroom teachers are the lost voice in today’s education debate.  We constantly hear from politicians, policy-makers, bureaucrats, and self-appointed experts.  Classroom teachers are the real experts on what is happening in schools today, and we need to speak up and speak out.  Others are framing and defining the debate, and they’re getting it wrong and spreading misinformation. 

So much positive, important work is going on in classrooms all across America, but the messages in the media about teachers are mostly negative.  I personally know hundreds of teachers, and that image is flat out wrong.  The vast majority of classroom teachers are noble, honest, dedicated, smart, generous professionals. 

The other half of “using your outside voice” is getting the right people to listen.  We need to do a better job of claiming and maintaining the attention of decision-makers and the general public.  We can’t just be preaching to the choir.  We can’t just be trees falling in the forest with no one there to hear the crash.  Although talking to and supporting each other is important, we need to be even more strategic in how we communicate progressive ideas about reform.

Every day we need to show our support for one another.  Every day we need to counter misinformation with truthful evidence.   Every day we need to do something positive for our profession.

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