Teacher to Team
by Michelle Greene | 08.30.16
Michelle Greene is a math teacher at Lamar High School in the Darlington County School District in Lamar, SC. She was a LearnZillion Dream Team member from 2013-2015.
LearnZillion helps districts improve classroom instruction by providing their teachers high-quality, standards-aligned materials that they’ll actually use. Each year, LearnZillion selects a Dream Team of educators from a highly competitive pool who create content and lead professional development experiences in districts across the U.S.
My undergraduate degree was math with an education certification and a degree in political science. I taught at the university level for four years [and then] got my masters in statistics. I was going to graduate in March of 1996 and that wasn’t in the middle of anything [hiring-wise]. I had an interview with a consulting company in Chicago, but my grandfather said, “Michelle, won’t you sit down and think about it for a while?”
An opportunity for a long-term substitute position came up where I’m currently teaching. I went for the interview and was really impressed—it was the middle of nowhere, 2000 people in this town, and when I started there were 300 kids [in the school], now down to 250. I walked in and fell in love with the school—the whole atmosphere was one of a community of learners with a supportive and caring staff. I knew it was a place I wanted to be.
My very first class was a journalism class—the guy I was replacing taught math and journalism. I walked in, and this [student] said: “Are you going to be as good as Robbs [their former teacher]? If you’re not, you can turn around and leave.” I said [to myself], “I’ve really got to do this.” It told me they were counting on me to be the best teacher I could be, and I had to work to achieve the confidence so I could get their approval. And I’m still at the same school [today].
At my school there are not a lot of professional development opportunities because there’s not money in our budget for it. Anything we do has to be on our own, through other means. I go to the internet all the time looking for PD and came across LearnZillion. [The site said,] “Do you want an opportunity to go to San Francisco for a free trip and work with other amazing teachers?” I was like, sure! [It] presented teachers with a great opportunity to create a community of teachers excited about helping students learn.
I applied and had no idea I’d get accepted. The day I got accepted I was sitting at the baseball game [as a stats keeper] and [received a message saying], “Congratulations, welcome to the Dream Team.” And I’m dropping the stats book, [the students] are all like, “What’s going on, Ms. Greene?” I was really excited to be accepted.
[LearnZillion says], “We know you all ask, ‘Did you really pick the right person?’ and yes we did.” They are the most positive [organization] I’ve ever been around in terms of giving teachers support, positive feedback and encouragement.
I got to go to California—I had never been west of Texas, and it was the first time I’d been on a five-hour flight, that was very interesting. I went to California and it was like a celebration of teachers. Eric Westendorf [LearnZillion CEO and co-founder] and his team were just awesome, trying to get teachers to feel good about themselves, work together [and foster] a common belief in what we were doing. That’s what LearnZillion does—it provides good teaching and good activities and good resources for anybody that’s interested in providing the best education for their child.
We were set up in different teams—high school, middle school and elementary school, separated into statistics (my group), geometry, algebra and functions. We all worked with a coach, seven or eight people per group. What we were tasked to do was to come up with 10 lessons in our [subject] area, and do a video, an end-of-lesson project and some activities. The video was for the kids but also talked about things the teachers might see—student misconceptions, etc.
It was probably the most amazing PD I have ever had because it was a product that you made, not just for you or your classroom, but for the world—it’s an open educational resource that anyone can use.
[My second year on the Dream Team] I changed coaches and the process changed a little bit—you still had to do a video but you had to come up with three levels of lesson plans. I felt like that was more beneficial to me; in my own classroom, it taught me how to come up with that different level of questioning and activities for my students. I [had] never had much instruction on how to differentiate lessons in math, and this LearnZillion experience helped me to create more differentiated lessons by putting more scaffolding where struggling students might need it and less scaffolding as I see students might not need it.
[Starting my] second year we used Slack for collaboration. We had forums and we would talk about, “I need an idea for this,” etc. We could talk about everything and help each other get through our material, and get what we needed to do done. I could get help from a kindergarten teacher or a middle school teacher. Slack was a very effective tool for creating a sense of community for the Dream Team members and a place to find somebody who was an expert at doing something you weren’t. For example, we had some amazing graphics people who came up with awesome images for different lessons. Since a lot of LearnZillion is about is creating community, Slack was a great way to establish, maintain and grow a great community of educators.
Since then we have [set up] a Facebook group, and any problems, anything we need—we talk about it on Facebook and there’s always someone who can come up with an answer. A couple of people in my group, we are best of friends now, and that’s been a wonderful byproduct of the process. My third year, elementary and middle school were [LearnZillion’s focus]. I was still working with statistics but it was for 8th grade, and that was an eye-opening experience. I didn’t realize that even in 8th grade they still counted on elementary-type thinking in that I had to use cartoon characters in my lessons. It was a whole different thinking process and taught me how to appreciate the people who teach the subjects under me, driving to help students succeed.
Even though I don’t teach middle school, my favorite lessons were part of the bivariate data unit I did in my third year. Lessons were divided up into conceptual lessons, fluency and procedural lessons, and application lessons. I loved the middle school concept [using] characters—the feeling was that students would be able to see the same characters throughout the year’s curriculum.
Two of my [favorite] application problem lessons showed my exuberance—it’s all about the students and getting them excited about the math!
[Recently,] I was in the grocery store in my hometown. I had on my LearnZillion Dream Team shirt and a lady comes and taps me on the shoulder. She says, “Do you do that?” I’m like, “Grocery shopping?” And she was like, “No, LearnZillion?” She said, “My son is autistic but he loves those videos.” It was most memorable for me because the videos are impacting that child. That child is learning because we took the time to make [those] videos.
Michelle’s advice to other teachers interested in applying to a program like LearnZillion’s Dream Team:
Confucius said, wherever you go, go with all of your heart. If all of your heart is in teaching, you seek anything you have to [in order] to put your passion into it. That’s why I scour the internet, look at Facebook and Twitter forums, and anything I can apply for, I apply for. The only thing they can do is say no and if they say yes, you’ve got a great experience coming.