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#RethinkSchool: “Not a Second to Waste” – A Teacher Embraces Student-Centered Education

Drawing on a wide-ranging teaching career at the community college level and with students attending Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) schools, Daniele Massey understands that a personalized education can be great preparation for success in college, careers and life. 

Today, Massey lives in Virginia with her family. Her husband remains on active military duty. In this interview, she describes her journey and lessons learned.

You’ve had opportunities to work in different school settings and different phases of a student’s life – what has that process been like for you?

When I first got back to the high school classroom I was paired with a teacher who was very traditional in style — very lecture-based:  you give the information to the students and they pretend to receive it.  Then they go home and do homework, but don’t understand anything, and they come back the next day and you start the cycle over again. It creates a lot of frustration!

Then another colleague transferred in. We were teamed up to teach algebra. And I remember we looked at each other and agreed: The kids are not getting it. What can we do about this? They have to master algebra. We felt that urgency because algebra is a required graduation credit.  It’s the gateway class to future success.

So we combined our efforts and skill sets and it ended up being the most fabulous teaching experience of my career. We ended up “flipping” our classroom, and focusing on whatever was best for our students.

Could you speak more about how that change happened and what it looked like?

We looked at our state and local assessment data and saw the failure rate in algebra. And, we looked at the problem-solving being tested on the state assessment.  So, we had the hard facts to back up our argument.  Then we went to our principal and said, “This may sound crazy, but we want to tear down the wall and combine our classrooms and create a learning center – with workstations, group activities, and different projects for the students.”

Our principal listened and asked questions.  We showed him the data; we broke it down for different groups of students. After about 30 minutes he got up from his desk, grabbed his toolbox and said, “Okay. I’m so moved by what you want to do. Let’s go.”  He took out a hammer and crowbar and literally started tearing the wall down right then and there!

With this new approach we were also able to communicate that math is a way of thinking. It’s not just something that happens during period 2, by reading chapter 2.  Suddenly math became something our students could actually enjoy and have fun with.

How did their parents react?

We had to get all the parents on board.  Our principal supported that 100 percent.  For example, we had to find another way to tell parents what was going on because their kids weren’t coming home with familiar textbook assignments like, “On page 55, do numbers 2-20.” Instead, a homework assignment might be, “Watch this video and take notes.”  Parents were wondering, “Is my kid actually learning?”

Once the students understood our new approach, we started putting the parent outreach in their hands. We’d say, “Explain to your parents what you’re doing. Walk them through your day.” And once they understood, the parents thought it was incredible. They started volunteering to help!

It ended up being a whole team effort.

Do you think that sense of urgency, with your very mobile students from military families, contributes to your school model?

Absolutely. You may only have that one school year – if that much time — to work with a student.

Being a military spouse and a parent myself, I can say to my students and their parents: “We don’t have a second to waste. What do you need?”

You have to do what’s in the best interest of the student, not what is easiest for the teacher or the school. Once you start to focus on the student, all of a sudden the conversation among the teachers, administrators, superintendents shifts to that personalized context, and seeing every student as an individual.

What advice do you have for fellow educators who are changing schools and launching new ventures?  

What you want to think about first is – What will the benefit be for students and their learning? What’s at the heart of what I’m trying to do?  As long as you remember that, the details will come.

Otherwise, it becomes a burden for you as a teacher – the grading and all the reports.

That’s not what teaching is. Teaching is creating a learning experience that best fits the needs of the students.


ED’s Writing Team composed this post based upon an interview by Denisha Merriweather of the Office of Communications and Outreach. (The original interview has been edited for length.)

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Note: This is a post in our #RethinkSchool series. The series features innovative schools and stories from students, parents and educators highlighting efforts across the United States to rethink school. Check back on Thursdays for new posts in the series. The #RethinkSchool series presents examples of approaches schools, educators, families and others are using to rethink school in their individual and unique circumstances. Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. The Department of Education does not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.


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