It’s Time to Try Something Better

Elijah CarbajalBlog, Differentiate Better, Engage Better, Innovate Better, Lesson Plan Better, Reflect Better


  • Now is the time to try something better than what you have done before.
  • Each day, try something better, and over time, you will notice big changes.

As I sat in this brilliant student’s IEP meeting, I couldn’t believe what I heard. I had to consciously control my facial expressions. I was shocked and frustrated. Not at the student or the family. At the student’s gifted teacher. I’m thinking to myself, Really? Your “gifted curriculum” is an online math game that I and almost every teacher I know already use? I was challenging the student more than this teacher, and I actually kind of struggle to challenge gifted students.

I was sure that the parents’ concern of their student being under-challenged would prompt the other teacher to dig deep for some ideas about how to challenge this student. Unfortunately, her next words made me cringe inside. “I can provide some really challenging worksheets...” At that point, I was really hoping that was the end, so I could squeeze in another suggestion, but the gifted teacher continued the sentence. “I can provide some really challenging worksheets even though I know your child doesn’t really like that.

I had to say something.

“If we are concerned that he is not being challenged, might I suggest some project-based learning opportunities so that he has a chance to apply what he is learning in a real-life setting? If there is something he is interested in, let him explore that using the skills he has and is learning.” The parents seemed okay with that. Unfortunately, the response from the other teacher crippled the excitement. “You know, now that we are virtual, that’s just too hard to do.”

Are you kidding me?

The parents assured us that they would do, purchase, set up, etc. anything in order to make this project-based, hands-on learning happen, and the teacher said, “Okay. Well, we can always revisit this another time.”

To be honest…

Early in my career, I probably was that teacher in some ways. Just doing the easy stuff because it’s easy and anything else would be too hard. I’m sure that some of my former colleagues could say, “Hey, you’ve been that teacher before!”

I’ll be completely honest, when schools shut down in March, it was hard for me. I didn’t know how to challenge kids who did show up to virtual classes, and I didn’t know how to get kids to come to virtual classes who weren’t coming. I struggled.

Fortunately, I have gotten better. I haven’t arrived. I’m by no means perfect, just better. Better at challenging students, at communicating with families, at classroom management. The way I speak to kids is better, friendlier, and more natural.

If you are teaching virtually and striving to make this work, I salute you. You are doing great, even on days you don't feel like it. Your efforts to be better is what this is all about. Click To Tweet

“There’s a way to do this well.”

One thing that I have talked about with my girlfriend, Tracey, a talented artist and teacher, is doing this whole virtual teaching well. Her quote to me is, “There’s a way to do this, and there’s a way to do this well.” Isn’t that what we should all be striving for? To work to the best of our abilities? Don’t we want to do this like we did in March, only better?

To get an idea of what we went through from March 2020 through the end of the school year, just observe the following picture from the best sitcom ever, The Office (U.S.)…sorry, Friends fans.

For real, though. At the end of the year, the public shook our hands and thanked us, but we were probably still in shock over what happened. We pulled magic out of nowhere and made it happen, but, what I have heard from lots of teachers and principals is that we were in “reaction mode” in March. We were like the gifted teacher I described: scared to try something new because we were in reaction mode.

In March, we were in reaction mode. Dave Burgess said recently on the Pushing Boundaries podcast that this change was thrust upon us. He’s right. We had no choice. Educators had to react to a situation (COVID-19) that a lot of schools and teachers found themselves ill-prepared for. We were flying the plane while building it. It was hard.

Something Better: The Right Parts

It still is hard. Some school districts have decided to open again, utilizing things like mobile office trailers in order to split up crowded classrooms and make socially distanced learning easier. However, my district has decided to remain in a virtual setting until January. In some ways, we are still building the plane as it is flying. There is a difference this time: we have learned what works and what doesn’t. Teachers, once afraid to embrace technology are killing it, using breakout rooms, Jamboards, Peardeck, Bitmoji Classrooms, and all the other tech tools out there. We are communicating with families more often, which is always going to impact learning. A lot of teachers are giving their kids experience that they can’t get from watching a YouTube video. Teachers are creating opportunities that require more than just asking Google or Alexa for a quick answer.

Teachers are building the plane, only this time, we are using the right parts.

Or at least we should be.

Something Better: Not Being Married to the Curriculum

I recently interviewed for two positions because my position at school was cut. (Classic case of too many teachers, not enough kids.) Both schools seemed interested, and they both stood out, only for opposite reasons. When I asked if I would be permitted to supplement the learning with outside projects (think project-based learning, hands-on, exploratory learning), I was told by one school, “Not at this time. We want to follow the curriculum with fidelity.”

Curriculum is an important tool to foster learning. At the very least, it can get a conversation between you and your kids going about the topic you are covering.

But this person wanted to be married to the curriculum. It bordered on scripted teaching. When the person described the curriculum as “robust and rigorous,” alarm bells started ringing. When I asked what a “robust and rigorous” curriculum looked like, I was just as let down as I was with the other teacher at the beginning of the story.

It was worksheet work, and it was mostly independent work. Both of those factors cripple interaction between teachers and students, except when the teacher tells the robot, er, I mean student that he or she is done and it looks good.

That’s not “like March, only better.”

“I just care that you are learning.”

Better is when teachers create experiences where the kids are excited to get up and move. It means we’re taking our kids outside for a science lesson, yes, even in a virtual setting. Better is letting kids learn from each other and give each other feedback even if they don’t turn their mic on. (Hello, chatbox and the Nod extension!) Better is making safe places for kids to express their emotions without judgment, criticism, or rejection, yes, even in a virtual setting.

Better is asking kids to describe how they learn best and how they want to turn in work—student choice and voice.

That teacher’s words, “…even though I know your child doesn’t really like that,” was my view of education when I started teaching. “I know you guys don’t really like this, but sometimes in life, we all got to do things we don’t want to do.”

Sound familiar? It’s what I used to tell my students. But what if we asked them about how they best learn and how they want to present their learning?

Even in a virtual setting, we should be asking kids how they learn best and how they want to turn work in. Students are using iPads, Chromebooks, and everything in between. Different technology could mean different means of getting work done and turning it in. It can be challenging to figure this out. Trust me, I know.

But a neutralizer to this problem is not worksheets. We want better, which is not necessarily familiar. We want better, which is not necessarily easier. Better says, “Here’s what I need you to learn. I don’t care what strategy you use to learn it, and I don’t care how you prove you learned it. I just care that you are learning.”

Better Teaching = Better Results

So that’s what I did. I decided to try something better. This time I told the third graders—who I started this year with—that when it came time to turn in work they could be the YouTuber (video), the blogger (blog/journal entry/Google Doc), the storyteller (Google Slides/Jamboard/video), the podcaster (audio), the musician (song), or the artist (drawing/painting/photograph).

I was surprised to get A LOT of videos from kids exploring an ecosystem, reading the stories they wrote, and explaining how to solve a particular math problem. I got a few podcasts too! Others were bloggers. Some kids wanted to take pictures of what they did. There were a few who drew digital representations of learning artifacts. (Yeah, the drawings of their animals and plants were a little silly, but their point was clearly made, and their learning and understanding were on point!) Everyone was learning, everyone was happy, and everyone was excited to come back to a virtual classroom the next day!

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Try Something Better Today, Tomorrow, and Every Day

If you are teaching virtually and striving to make this work, I salute you. You are doing great, even on days you don’t feel like it. Your efforts to be better is what this is all about. I hope that all teachers want to be better. Better for our students, our schools, our profession, and ourselves.

If you find yourself in the position of the gifted teacher, I challenge you to answer this question: what is one thing you can do today to be better than you were yesterday? Just one thing that you can do today. That means it needs to be something small.

Something small that can be done today that will make you better than you were yesterday.

And when you wake up the next day, repeat it. You see, better is a process you become part of, not a status that you achieve. Embrace that process each day.

Better today than yesterday. Better tomorrow than today.

About Elijah Carbajal

Elijah is a teacher, like his mom, uncle, and grandparents before him. He has been teaching in the state of New Mexico since 2014, currently working in the Albuquerque Public School district. Elijah enjoys blogging about all things educational and listening to podcasts created by his friends in education, some of which he has been honored to be a guest on. He strives to make school a place that students love to be at by creating fun, safe, and engaging experiences and environments for all students. By challenging the norms of what education should look, act, and feel like, Elijah has created exciting opportunities for authentic learning to take place. Outside of the classroom, he can be found running, listening to or creating music, reading, or relaxing with his cat, Nala.