Leena’s Journey Part 1: A Web Series on Life Outside of the Classroom

For those of you who frequent CodeMonkey’s Blog, you may remember Leena from her experiences on going from educator to exhibitor at ISTE. For those who are new, Leena’s story on switching sides tells a first-hand account on the difficulties she faced throughout her teaching experience as it became clear that many schools were stuck in outdated teaching methods.

The following segment called Leena’s Journey tells a first-hand  account on what it is like going from student to teacher – and realizing not much has changed all those years in between.  Enjoy!

“If you would have asked me 9 years ago if I were going to be working outside of the classroom, I would have told you no. But yet here I am…

From a young age, kindergarten actually, I knew I wanted to work in education. If you ask my mother, she will say that it was based on my kindergarten teacher, that I loved her and that she instilled my love of learning.

What I remember though from a young age was that school was fun. I had amazing teachers who allowed me to create, innovate and explore. I was also pretty far ahead academically from others my age. I remember vividly every year at parent teacher conferences the teachers always saying, ‘Leena is a rockstar…but…she won’t stop talking.’ The truth is… I was bored. Although, I was allowed to create, it wasn’t daily and only when we had projects. I would come in every morning anticipating… hoping for a project so I could research and create. The opportunity to create was rare, in fact extremely rare. It was always a worksheet, followed by another and then questions from a textbook. This patterned continued on all the way throughout high school.

When I entered college and had to write an essay for the first time, I was astonished. I had never in all the years of my school learned how to write an essay that was longer than a page. During my first day of college, the professor, a former Harvard professor (don’t worry he moved for his wife), assigned an 8-page paper that we had to compile based on three textbooks we had to read for the course. I was in full-on panic mode. I didn’t know what to do. I was the first ever person in my family to go to college. So, honestly, I had no idea about the resources that were available to me. After crying, I went home extremely distraught after that first day, cracked open my textbooks and read for what seemed to be hours. Then, I wrote my paper editing, adding, and editing more. After a full week, I submitted that essay, proud of what I had accomplished.

To my dismay, when it was returned to me, it was covered in red pen. Actually, if I am being honest it was painted in red pen. The grade at the top was a C. A C!!! I was…lost…heartbroken. Mind you, this was the first C I have ever had received in my lifetime of schooling. It was then, at that moment, that I knew in four years time when I became a teacher, I didn’t want to fail my students the same way that it happened to me. I couldn’t and wouldn’t let them down. I can, with certainty, say that high school was a breeze. I never studied or really tried that hard. But college taught me a new lesson, one of grit and determination and even more so of failure. That lesson, that I learned in that class of my freshman year, was the lesson I was going to bring into my classroom.

My last semester of college happened fast. It was almost in a blink of an eye that I was student teaching. I remember when I set foot in my classroom, that I would be teaching for the next 16 weeks, that it looked exactly like the classrooms I had as a young student. The books were the same, the desks and the equipment were all the same. Long gone were the days of chalkboards, they had been replaced by white boards. But, almost all of the content delivered was the same and in the same way I was taught more than 15 years prior. As I sat there observing, I couldn’t believe that the tactics of innovation that we learned in class were literally no where to be seen and that they would even be far fetched and unlikely to be seen today.

When I graduated and set foot in 2009 in my classroom, I felt the same deja vu I had when I entered my student teaching classroom. My team teacher walked in to meet me that first day, and with her she brought resources. The same ones they had used more than likely in her first year of teaching. The history worksheets she brought were copy-written with the same year that I was born, of 1986. I could…not…believe it. It was then that I knew that my years of education and in the classroom were going to be a challenge.

I was not ok with worksheets day in and day out. I wanted my students to innovate, collaborate, become thinkers of their own and know that failure is ok but that you have to grow from failure. This, in theory, sounds like it could be so easy. However, to get administration and thought leaders to be on board with this idea of teaching was not popular. It wasn’t in my first year nor in my 9th year.

Something magical happened during my second year of teaching. I was hired at a STEM school. A true STEM school. Not one that has one class in replacement of art, or music. It was not an after-school enrichment program. Science, Math, Engineering and Technology were woven together with “Lifetime Skill” or as what others call 21st century skills. But here, the admin and thought leaders were guiding you, encouraging you to innovate yourself and create problems that students could solve though inquiry, integrating content specific skills that you would no longer have to teach in isolation. It was like I was home. My students, even the students who were non readers and non english speakers, were blossoming. That year I saw the most growth out of any year to date that I have taught. Unfortunately, this only lasted one year for me as this was when the economic crash happened. Instead of teachers retiring, no one did that year. Thus, they started to cut jobs and move teachers around. The new teachers were on the bottom of the totem poll and basically were sent up the creek.

I then found myself at the most strict school. Student were not allowed to partner with one another. There was no team work. Every student had to speak in full sentences, sit up straight with their hands in front of them. Every Friday was test day. No exceptions. It was run like a military camp. There were rules for rules and this applied to the staff as well. My students were not happy. I was not happy. Those two years I learned classroom management and really honed those skills as well as how to create a really great worksheet.

A few years after there was a technology opening at a new STEM school, same concept as the other. It was the sister school to the one I had been at years prior. This time, I was the technology teacher. I was the T in STEM. I have always loved technology but this is where I first learned to code. I then would help teachers get jazzed about technology as well. Later, that next year my team teacher and myself help developed and create a maker space for our school. We delivered training to teachers and students. It was a space for true innovation. I was in love and stayed there for the next few years.

That next year, I was given an opportunity in Austin to help grow a local STEM school and become the enrichment director. Although, the position didn’t turn out to be as advertised, I was given full creative control. This is where I really learned to write curriculum and really personalize learning for students. I also fell more and more in love with technology, STEM, and the possibility of integrating the world we live in with our students.

The last two years I have spent it in the normal classroom. My principal and stakeholders didn’t understand my vision for what students achieve when given the chance to fail and create. The school was so uber focused on test scores that we were told what to do and when to do it. Almost without a choice or any creative control. These last two years I struggled more and more with the philosophy of worksheet-driven education. Our students no longer learn this way. Nor are they invested in this methodology. Their lack of drive and ambition trickled into the classroom. My problem with worksheet methodology was that I knew what they are capable of achieving given the correct guidance and opportunity.

I knew when my decision to leave the classroom was going to become a reality and not only a thought. It happened one day when I sat down with my principal. She was discussing (more so telling me) how she didn’t believe that students could innovate like I envisioned and that she didn’t want to help provide guidance or resources. I then told her we live in Austin, a city of innovation, but if you were to walk in the classroom you would have no idea that the city was a buzz. It was then that I knew that it was time to take a new direction.

It was time. Time for change.”

–Leena Saleh, Former STEM Teacher; Professional Development Manager at CodeMonkey

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