Why I left Public Education (and then came back).

Why I left Public Education (and then came back).

In November of 2010, I became the first ever Online Community Manager for Edmodo. I was the 13th employee at a startup that was barely two years old. It was my first remote position, and also my first role outside of public education. This is how I framed it to those I left behind in the Douglas County School District:

In the past 7 years in Douglas County, both as a Teacher and as the Online Learning and Technology Resource Specialist I have been supported and fulfilled in my work. In fact, I can’t imagine a better way to have started my working life. From a very young age I wanted to be a teacher, and I always said that I would only leave the classroom in order to create change on a larger scale. Once I was in a district position created to do just that, I promised I would only leave Douglas County if my vision for online communities led me to something that was bigger than any district. I believe that I have found that thing. 

It was certainly “bigger” than my role in a school district or in the classroom. It is true that in my role at Edmodo, I worked with thousands of teachers across hundreds of schools. I brought “the good news” about social learning networks and hybrid learning pedagogies to schools that had never experienced it. In other words, it was an exciting time to be an “Influencer” at a company on the forefront of educational innovation.

I stayed less than a year.

Now, this happened for a lot of reasons. I struggled in a remote position at a time where the best tools for team communication were group Skype chats. I chafed in a role with an overly “attentive” supervisor. The health insurance situation at a startup is rough, and my COBRA plan for keeping Kaiser as my family’s insurance provider capped out at 12-16 months. But, none of that really mattered in the end. I left Edmodo because I wasn’t happy.

I wasn’t happy because my theory of change was intensely flawed. I believed that by increasing the scale in which I was creating change was directly proportional to my own sense of purpose and happiness. I believed that by reaching thousands of teachers (and through their classrooms, tens of thousands of students), I would be serving a greater purpose. I would be introducing new learning modalities and opportunities for collaboration that I had experienced in my own classroom, but there was something lost in the pursuit of that goal.

Scale is a seductive myth.

It is a myth because the things I learned in my own classroom, cobbling together a set of tools that worked for my students specifically was not the same as learning from a single platform that is ready-made for ”digital education.” It is seductive because you can talk yourself into the idea that by getting everyone on board with Edmodo, Google Classroom, Moodle, Schoology, Canvas, Blackboard, or any number of other tools, you are doing something fundamentally “Good for Kids.”

“Creating change on a larger scale” is only possible if you don’t care what kind of change you are creating. And, I did care about the kind of change I was making, and not all of that change was for the better. The change I made in creating Edmodo’s first online “Help Center” was to ensure that teachers became advocates for a product instead of a practice. The change I made in getting whole schools and districts to move their classrooms into Edmodo was to help create an environment where the classroom is never missing from the students’ lives, whether that classroom is a positive and supportive place or not.

The purpose of my work is not generic. It is not to build better general purpose tools or to make learning better in the abstract. The purpose of my work is to learn as much as I can in the time that I have, and to make the spaces I inhabit a more connected, equitable, and inclusive place for others to do their learning. As it turns out, there is no single product or organization who does that. But in 2010, I didn’t know that yet.

In 2010, I believed that change was sufficient. I believed that if we only got enough people to move away from worksheets and paper-based textbooks and move toward online communities all of our education systems would get magically better. Hint: they did not. That is why I left. It is why I have yet to join another company or organization who believes they are going to “transform education at scale” without first doing the deep work of understanding the impact that the transformation will have on others.

And that is also why I took a good long look at another educator who just this week has made the decision to leave a prominent role in public education in order to “make pedagogy a conversation that defies its usual container” (if that quote doesn’t make sense to you, I highly recommend reading Sean’s full post). He is making his own decisions for his own reasons. I cannot judge him, as I have made very similar decisions for very similar reasons.

And yet, it is my sincere hope that the kind of change that Sean Michael Morris ends up creating at Course Hero is the kind of specific change that he actually believes in. I deeply enjoyed (most of) the people I worked with at Edmodo. I loved being able to see into dozens of classrooms a day and talk with teachers from around the world. I am even proud of the work I did to empower teachers and students to be better collaborators and creators in their classrooms. But, I do not believe in Edmodo any more than I believe in Apple. And, I absolutely do not believe in indiscriminate change.

If, as is suspected from at least a fewopinion havers” online, Sean’s role at Course Hero does not align with the values he has written about for years (student ownership of learning, skepticism for surveillance edtech, etc.), I fully expect him to move on just as I did from Edmodo. I expect that he will take everything that he learns from Course Hero and become even better at advocating for the kind of change that I know he deeply believes in and passionately fights for.

Full Disclosure: I was directly responsible for choosing Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel to keynote the leadership strand for the Innovative Education Colorado Annual Conference in 2019. I did this because I read An Urgency of Teachers, and I wanted others to know of their work in writing such an essential book for modern educators.

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