Being a teacher can be a tough job and often thankless job. But the state education department celebrates the profession each year by naming a Teacher of the Year. The winner will be selected in October from a group of four finalists. This week we’re bringing their voices to the air. Today, it’s Anchorage teacher Ben Walker who teaches 7th grade science at Romig Middle School. Walker said teachers have very different challenges today then in past decades.
WALKER: We have a number of students who are speaking English as a second language. We have a number of students who have some struggles that maybe didn’t necessarily exist or weren’t identified 20 to 30 years ago, so that’s a really big challenge to kind of address those.
The main thing, though is to — you know — when you focus on the student instead of the teaching, then you can really start to address those rather than worrying about yourself. And, “Well, I learned it this way. So everybody should be able to learn it this way,” and a lot of that takes giving up control and allowing your students to kind of teach you how they learn best. And then, using your expertise to further that.
TOWNSEND: It seems like it would inspire a lot more creativity.
WALKER: It inspires creativity on both ends when you give students the ability to kind of, you know, help shape their own learning. It’s not like in the 70s, there’s these free school ideas where kids just kind of came and could do whatever they want. That’s not really what it is, you know? It’s more of a, “Here’s kind of our goal, whether it’s content or skills. What are some ways we can get there that work for you?” So you’re still ending up in the same place.
TOWNSEND: Technology has transformed education. It’s transformed everything, but it can also be an enormous distraction. How much of a challenge is the distraction of online media versus the benefit of it for you in the classroom?
WALKER: You know, it really depends. I think there’s certainly a portion of our students who are overdoing that. But, at the same time, if a student or anybody is really interested in what they’re doing, they have the — they will not keep going to that as a distraction. I teach science, so coming from a scientific perspective, technology is awesome because, you know, if we were just going to rely on textbooks, we’d be so far behind with what science is actually doing. So we really try to embrace that.
TOWNSEND: One of the things that you said was students today must be able to learn, unlearn and relearn to remain competitive in the workplace. What do you mean by that?
WALKER: You know, it’s no longer that students are going to have one or two careers in their life, you know? I mean, when we talk about the shift to kind of the gig economy it’s called, where people are doing more shorter terms at different places. You need to be able to undo what you did, you know, keep what’s good about it and relearn something entirely different outside of your wheelhouse. And I think part of that is giving the students the ability to, you know, be in charge of their own learning.
TOWNSEND: How do you go about helping your students understand the relevance of what they’re looking at that maybe they can’t immediately connect to, but is crucial for them to move forward and really have that full picture?
WALKER: I spend a lot of time tying careers into what we do. So, just showing them that what you do here in seventh grade, when you start on this path, you’re picking up these skills, these ways of thinking. And, the other thing is that, you know, if we want a community that’s actually going to be a real, viable community, it needs to be STEM literate. It needs to understand science technology and engineering, especially in Alaska. You know, when you pick up the paper or go to the grocery store, or, you know, you go to vote, it’s nice to have a baseline of STEM literacy. So, you know, you look at some of the things that come up in our state, with our resources or our fisheries. If people want to have a valid input in that conversation, it helps if they at least have a basic understanding of what kind of things people are talking about. Otherwise, it’s going to be only people that have those understandings that are going to make these decisions.
TOWNSEND: What do you think in the future decades education will be, and what do you think it should be? Do you think it’ll be automated? Will we still have teachers in classrooms?
WALKER: You know, I don’t know to be honest, because there’s a lot of different things in play. You know, the fiscal reality of Alaska especially and just our world in general will probably lead to more personalized, digital type learning. However, education has always been like a social kind of learning context. But, I still think there’s a huge, huge part that needs to be personal relationships between either teacher and student or students and other students. So, I would be very sad if that completely went away and we were all just looking at a screen.