Colorado’s Teacher of the Year for 2017: The best lessons ‘have a soul’

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

What better candidate to share best practices about the profession than the Colorado Teacher of the Year?

Sean Wybrant, a career and technical education teacher at William J. Palmer High School in Colorado Springs District 11, will hold that title for 2017, state officials revealed this week.

Wybrant captures students’ imagination with forays into virtual reality and other whiz-bang tech stuff, then goes old school by calling parents weekly — weekly! — to let them know about the great things their kids are doing.

The best lessons, he says, have a soul.

Wybrand teaches Digital Media Studies – Computer Science/Video Game Design & Programming to ninth through 12th graders at Palmer, which is just east of downtown in the Springs. Let’s get to it …

One word or short phrase you use to describe your teaching style: Crafting heroes

What’s your morning routine like when you first arrive at school?

Greeting students in the hall and welcoming them into my room, then posting any information on the calendar students need to know and getting coffee to try and wake up enough to affect students positively.

What does your classroom look like?

Sean Wybrant, Colorado teacher of the year

Usually, students are hanging out or in class from the time school opens to the time school leaves; it is rare to have my room completely to myself even during passing periods or lunch or after school, which fills my soul. Student art is all over the walls in various stages of painting and design. Computers are blinking, plants are hanging/standing on/near desks, posters of inspirational women and clubs are on the walls, our motion capture system is prominent, white boards with student project plans are in various stages of use, and our interactive headsets are on students’ heads or mounted on glass heads. Guitars, amplifiers, drum sets and other musical equipment for my live performance club are in use or out in the corner of the room. Superhero action figures and game characters move around the room as reminders to myself and students that we have the potential to be heroic.

What apps/software/tools can’t you teach without? Why?

A great teacher doesn’t need apps, software, or the kinds of technology students have access to in my room. A great teacher can have conversations with kids and help them see the world through new lenses. That having been said, because I teach kids about computer software development, Unity, Visual Studio, Mono Develop, Greenfoot, Eclipse, Vicon Blade, the Adobe Creative Suite, and the Autodesk Creative Suite make it much easier for kids to design/ develop/ prototype/ test/ implement their solutions. We are currently using many of those to create interactive holographic experiences for the Microsoft HoloLens. Technology like that is just a set of tools though. Probably the most useful tool in my teaching toolkit, beyond experience with kids, is a whiteboard and marker.

How do you plan your lessons? 

When planning interactions and lessons with kids I start from the question, “Will this lesson and experience help make the world a better place for my students?” I believe that simply focusing on curriculum without a real world outcome is short sighted. When we start to develop a game or a programming experience I want my students to be working to create something useful for themselves or others. Once I determine if our course of action is going to be beneficial for the students and community I think about the overarching requirements of the project and then continue to break that down into specific skills the students will need to demonstrate to achieve success.

I also try to determine what roadblocks and issues they might run into and how I can ask the right questions to help them navigate around those issues without providing the answer for them. This part takes probably the most work because if I tell them all the answers I can seem really smart without actually teaching them anything. Helping them learn how to find answers and iterate through solutions is a much harder dance to get right, especially when the final product isn’t something from a book but rather something we are creating from scratch.

What qualities make an ideal lesson? 

Too often people think that having a pretest, body, and post-test to a lesson is enough. There is this narrative that if we teach the curriculum and students parrot back the right information and they do well on a test it was a good lesson.

The best lessons have more than that, they have a soul.

They have a deeper meaning that builds until the students realize that the information has a meaning that impacts them and/or their world directly. Some of the best lessons are the ones with the flexibility to become unscripted, the ones where the conversation goes right off the rails and that perfectly scripted 45-minute debate turns into a discussion about something that grabs the students and brings learning alive for them. That doesn’t mean we should run unscripted all the time, but there is a falsehood that learning has to be scripted according to a set of rigid rules and predetermined end points with neatly defined answers to problems we already know the answer to. The thing is, life is messy and many problems don’t have neat answers when you get out of school. Sometimes that means the projects we work on don’t necessarily fall into a business or academic definition of project success. One of the most important and impressive learning experiences in my teaching career for the students and myself was an attempt to build a multicontinental food drive that failed in really impressive ways – we learned about corruption, international laws, shipping, empathy, organization, and humbleness but we didn’t have a successful project in terms of the food drive itself. Talk about learning, though.

My students literally are building the future right now in ways that are messy and brilliant because they have the freedom and flexibility to do so within constraints that keep them on track toward an end point they envision. There is passion in the room and passion in their projects. When I see data meetings focused solely on scores and pre/post data without discussions about the actual kids I think that many of those lessons probably lacked the very thing kids need in their lessons – relevance. That relevance should be connected to some example of how to apply those skills to a new situation with the opportunity to apply it while they are still in school. There is a lot to be said for trying out solutions by creating solutions and testing them against unknown circumstances.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson? 

If students really don’t understand what to do or how to do it, I will step in and help them in more targeted and direct ways. Sometimes that includes creating sub-lessons for them or creating more directed instruction like step by step videos they can re-watch if the concept is skill heavy. I also open my room for individual help and have provided both onsite and offsite tutoring. A few times, while attending conferences or during breaks, I have created screen sharing and one-on-one distance learning experiences. Mostly though, taking the time to sit with a kid one-on-one in the classroom can do wonders to help students and many times the issue is simply students missing class, so I have tried to make the supports available 24/7 and free up time in classes to help kids out.

What is your go-to trick to re-engage a student who has lost focus?

Usually, it is just sitting down with kids and listening to what they are struggling with. While there are kids who are off track for a single period here or there and just need a look or day to get their lives in order and then are back on track, some kids really just need to know that someone cares about them. If I can get them in my room, I can usually just talk with them to help them find their way. Most of the time the kids that are disengaged with my courses are kids struggling with issues outside the room with their families, other teachers, or feeling like they lack a place/purpose. In almost all of those cases, just sitting with them, listening, and letting them know that I believe they are capable of great things helps them find their way back.

How do you maintain communication with the parents?

I try to call kids’ parents at least once a week to tell them about the great things their kids are doing. For some students that is making an augmented reality experience that blew my mind, for some, it is taking leadership of a group, for some it is simply making it to class. I can’t tell you how many times I have called home to tell a parent about how much I appreciate the unique vibe their kid brings to my classroom or how much their voice contributed to a conversation and heard, “In [nine-ten-eleven-twelve] years this is the first time I have received a phone call about my kid that has been positive.” In some ways, that is why I continue to call home. Every kid brings something positive to the school and deserves to have their parents hear that they are appreciated.

What hacks or tricks do you use to grade papers?

One of the coolest things about my position now is that the grading happens every day for kids around the room. We take on projects that we don’t know the answer to, so part of why I spend lots of time looking over and talking with students in the room is that we are discovering answers together. There are reflections and blogs, but most of the significant grading comes from the hands-on testing, iteration, and creation of new ways of solving problems for unique situations. That kind of experience requires discussions with me, among peers in the room, and across skill sets. Again, chatting with kids about their thought process or having them demonstrate how to do something speaks volumes about their ability to apply learning and synthesize the content from multiple interdisciplinary courses.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

I really enjoy Sir Ken Robinson’s books on creativity. I am currently reading “Finding Your Element.” I am also listening to “A Short History of Nearly Everything” narrated by Bill Bryson. That is a great, funny, thought-provoking book about nearly everything. I am also about 25 percent of the way through “11/22/1963” by Stephen King, and if I don’t finish it this year I think one of my colleagues is going to beat me up because it is her book and I have had it for about two years now. Yikes!

What’s the best advice you ever received?

The thing about advice that impacts you significantly is that it is difficult to just pick one statement. My father told me:

Everyone has a story to tell and something to teach you; don’t ever think you are better than anyone else just because you are the star of your own story. There are lots of stories out there and if you don’t learn something from each person you meet you weren’t paying attention hard enough. The flip side is true as well – no one is better than you either; it doesn’t matter if they run a company, have the most glamorous position, or are the most influential person on the planet – don’t ever give someone power over you because of a title or their assumption they are better than you.

I am a complete nerd as well and grew up on comic books. Spider-Man was hugely influential to me in my younger years and when I became a teacher it was literally because I want to save the world. These words are some of the most important to me as a teacher and something I think about every morning before I get to school:

With great power, there must also come great responsibility.

We can’t forget that as teachers, we can be the person who negatively impacts a kid for their entire life … even if we do so unintentionally. This profession bears so much responsibility that I literally have a tattoo and lifelong reminder of that just in case I ever start to forget. If we are intentional and remember the power of the words we use from the position we speak from we can inspire a student and literally save his or her life. That is a pretty awesome responsibility and privilege and every teacher should consider that every day in my opinion.

If we are intentional and remember the power of the words we use from the position we speak from we can inspire a student and literally save his or her life. That is a pretty awesome responsibility and privilege and every teacher should consider that every day in my opinion.