As a teacher with more than fifteen years’ experience, my professional story is one of continual learning and change. Before I began teaching as a profession, what I thought I understood so well from ten years of full-time post-secondary study turned out only to be the raw materials that needed reshaping into what diverse learners need. Here, I’ll do my best to relate what I’ve learned.
Learning is always prior to teaching. Far and away the most important thing that I’ve learned from my students is that every student learns differently and comes from differing circumstances from every other student. Importantly, they all learn differently and come from a different perspective than I. It is not their job to meet me where I stand but rather my job to meet them where they are—and to empower them to make forward strides. I am grateful that I’ve been able to make continuous learning a part of my professional development story. I’ve taken courses on EdX and Coursera, at the Graham School at the University of Chicago, and through varied professional organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, Leadership & Design, NCSS, AMLE, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and Arizona State University, to name a few. Without my continuous learning, my teaching risks becoming flat, improvement rendered impossible. My biggest challenge is to continue growing in fighting systems of oppression, bringing an equity analysis framework to all I do; this focus is not a touchpoint—it must be at the core of my practice. A more academic but important second concern is to continue learning to improve in measuring my students’ learning outcomes, a challenge I’ve studied and designed (and re-designed) solutions around for years.
When I’m meeting new people, I’m usually recognized as a teacher at heart long before it would otherwise have come up in conversation. And people aren’t wrong to notice this as a core element of my personality and weltanschauung, or worldview. I’m a natural-born teacher and have a calling to teach in the truest sense of the root of the word “vocation,” vocare, “to call.” I bring my whole self to the process of teaching, whether that be reading up on the latest pedagogical strategies at home, collaborating with team members to design genuine and engaging learning experiences, working directly with students during class, leading a Dungeons & Dragons session after school, or coaching on the soccer pitch.
I’ve come to believe that what I teach and how I teach it make all the difference to my students’ successes and what impact we have, collectively, on the world around us. What I teach matters because I provide what librarians call “windows and mirrors”—chances for students to understand and see more of the world around them and to gain understanding of themselves. This means that my curricula must be diverse both in what it looks like and in how they’re delivered.
Representation matters, and my job is crucial because students will only be at their current stage of their education once. They must have every opportunity to succeed and to see what really makes up our global human community, not just the parts of it that are most comfortable to their teacher. This means that Jewish History, Black American History, East Asian History, and works by BIPOC creators are necessary elements to undimmed windows and to mirrors reflective of each student’s unique perspective.
Additionally, how I teach must be accessible to learners of diverse backgrounds and learning styles. Part of learning that students all learn differently is realizing that learning in a classroom can never occur on a single path with a zero-sum opportunity for students. Rather, the design of my courses must be variable and personalizable to learners of all sorts. Again, it’s not their job to meet me where I’m at—it’s my job to meet them where they begin and help them move forward. This area is one of my continuous efforts to improve my teaching practices. I’m respected in education for my game-based, gamified, and game-psychology-driven design choices. My experience with experiential, problem-, place-, phenomena-, and inquiry-based education along with giving students meaningful choices all helps me to craft experiences that will engage learners.
What comes first when it comes to helping students in and out of the classroom, relationships have to come first. Unless the student trusts me and knows that I’m on their/her/his side, the student cannot learn from me. There will always be a wall between us. So while I’m teaching, I’m also building trust by demonstrating concern while maintaining intentional and clearly communicated boundaries. All of this feeds the students’ need for social-emotional learning. In my experience and training, SEL is best emphasized as a part of every lesson rather than as a separate class in which some or many students will be embarrassed to engage. Students get to know themselves, how to manage themselves, and how to recognize and coach themselves away from unhelpful patterns—this is essential to all curricula. Everyone must be on board; schools that leave this work to one person wind up not teaching SEL very well at all.
After remaining teachable as a lifelong learner and keeping my students’ needs and equity at the forefront of my design, I tend to think a little less directly about teaching and more about the outside-the-classroom designs that impact that teaching. I’ve had amazing opportunities to work with fellow educators over the years and have had an impact on student and teacher experiences, contributing however I can to the culture of my institution and its community.
The place where I’ve had the biggest impact, as concisely as I can put it, is in developing an interdisciplinary middle school program at the McGillis School, a K-8 NAIS- and NWAIS-member independent school. We have designed schedules, teaching roles, scope and sequence, student conference and grade reporting schemes, and we’ve retooled the entire academic program with interdisciplinary studies at the center.
To provide one example: while coaching students through a month of self-assessing their work and study habits, my team co-designed and co-taught a unit about risks, asking students to choose and then evaluate the riskiness of a possible and particular teenage behavior. The case study for modeling evaluating risk was a particular avalanche. We had students work through the New York Times’ “Snowfall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek,” a monograph-length multimedia article. Classroom teachers helped students identify all decision points and places where cognitive biases could impact the players’ evaluation of risks. Students were guided into the backcountry to dig snow profile pits and evaluate risks that way, too. We then transferred this approach to a risky teen behavior of the students’ choice, and we guided them through this process while continuing to help them work through self-assessment using daily rubric check-ins. This unit is what I’d call an SEL-focused unit of interdisciplinary, place-based, and experiential learning. It hit targets in our scope and sequence and meets ELA and Science standards. Most importantly, it was a genuine and memorable learning experience. This is just one of I’d say two dozen units of study that I’ve built with my team. (My simultaneously biggest hit and most critical miss was the “Worst Pandemics of All Time March Madness” unit I planned for through the end of 2019 and which our team began teaching at the end of February 2020. That one didn’t last long due to COVID-19, which students had been tracking via the WHO’s daily reports throughout February. I’d love to return to this unit!)
Several of us have been invited to present what we do and what we’ve built our program at conferences and to professional organizations. I presented one such unit (“Escaping the Supervolcano”) at AMLE 2019, where I also presented my gamified classroom experience and handed my records to all interested teachers. All of this work has required extensive collaboration and team building. In my nearly six years tenure at McGillis, my teaching and admin teams have worked together for well over a thousand hours to design what we’ve created. I’ve learned more from working with them than I ever learned on my own before working on such a close-knit team.
Another way I’ve contributed to my community by designing for culture is by coaching middle soccer for three seasons. This last year, I decided to work at building the community around this extracurricular activity, so I organized a group RSL night and a potluck World Cup weekend event. These were fun events, and everyone felt more connected from participating. I realized this past fall that even with only modest efforts I could help community members to feel connected and included. I did something similar when, in January 2018, I began running an after-school activity I called “Nerd Hour,” where students could play strategy-based and role-playing games. Talk about SEL! I got the opportunity to see the kids who are often quieter in class, who aren’t traditionally standout students, or who have no other points of social connection and found them to be among the most social and connected students I’ve met. I’ve used what I learned there to host games at conventions, and the knowledge flows the other way, too. Who knew being a nerd would be such a cool thing in middle school?
Teachers who’ve worked with me know that I bring my passions into my classes, taking my love of learning as a starting point for design. History and Philosophy were the passions that drove me into education. I continue to love these areas of study, but because I’m a writer and am now publishing my writing professionally, I get to share that process with students (warts and all) and to enable them to see it as a real option for them, too. Not everyone is interested in being an author, though, so my experience from my youth of being a so-called “bad student,” a reluctant writer, and having learned how to read and write with comfort and expertise contributes to my relating to students who are themselves hesitant readers or writers. I empower them to find their way to books they love and to find their own voice through creative expression in the written word.
A Word about Service & Care
I’ve served on plenty of committees, and I always look for opportunities to be of service to my community in this way, too. I’m currently serving on the board at the Utah Middle Level Educators’ Association at the state level and on the PTO policy-development committee at the school level. These are just my most recent efforts. My favorite experience in this realm is probably the work I did on an NWAIS steering committee to build and then facilitate a large (approx. 1,000-person) educators’ conference based in Tacoma, Washington in 2021 and in 2022. Working remotely to collaborate across complex logistical issues and finding the right topics, speakers, and design modes to help teachers and administrators get the most out of their conference was a thrill for me, truly. I did something similar back in 2011 when I chaired, organized, and facilitated a graduate student conference that had scholars attend from all over the world. I love this stuff.
My commitment and passion I have for the work that I do is paramount. I attend conferences every year, present wherever I get the opportunity, serve on committees or boards whenever I’m asked and it’s possible, and work hard to continue developing as best I can so that I can give back as much as I can. Of course, the highest service I can do is to myself and my family, and I put self-care and family above all else. Neglecting these things would mean that I won’t publish another word or empower another learner. I recharge by writing, skiing, and watching movies. My favorite pastime is traveling, where I enjoy reading and writing in faraway places and visiting important historical sites (I’ve spent some six months in Europe over the years and love every chance I get to return to the trains that got me from place to place and the hostels that I have called temporary homes.)
If any of this speaks to you, drop me a line at stevecaponejr at gmail dot com. I’m always looking to expand my network!