At a Crossroads

I’m at a crossroads in my teaching career that I didn’t think I’d ever come to. Let me explain.

For the past month, one of my classes has been working on an anti-trafficking campaign to raise awareness of slavery in Canada.  The last couple weeks haven’t gone well.  For reasons I don’t really want to get into at this point, we’ve put the project on the shelf.  But now what? Going back to how we used to do school doesn’t seem like a great idea.

What do I mean by that?  Learning about great individuals who chose to make a difference in the world, but not doing anything like that ourselves.  Learning content and skills to jump through the hoops we call a secondary education, creating assignments that only I’ll ever see — an education that has little current impact on the world outside our four walls.  It’s the way a large part of our North American school system currently functions.

The thing is, I don’t want to return to that. Everything inside of me loathes this idea. I want my students to make a difference in this world, for them to use their voices and talents now, rather than waiting for some future date, after they leave high school.

So what’s the problem? Inquiry learning can be a bit of a roller coaster.  It can be really difficult for students to start learning how to do it in grades 10, 11 & 12.  There’s so much they need to unlearn, and often it’s a shift that requires skills they haven’t even begun to develop.  This is why I argue vehemently that we need to be introducing inquiry learning when our kids start school.

Because I begin introducing the idea of real world learning so late in my student’s schooling career, sometimes the shift is incredibly difficult.  Sometimes we hit a wall, and I don’t know how to fix it, like now.  It’s not my student’s fault; there’s so much for them to unlearn and re-learn.  And even as a teacher, there’s so much for me to unlearn and re-learn. I don’t have all the answers.

I guess the bottom-line is that I want my life to matter. I want my teaching to matter, and if it doesn’t, I’m not sure I want to be a teacher anymore.   I can’t spend the rest of my career teaching in a way that doesn’t affect the real world outside my classroom, that doesn’t actually prepare my students with the skills they need, and facilitate them becoming stronger, wiser people.  I’d rather do something else.

I’m stuck, and I don’t know how to move forward. Maybe I expect too much. I don’t know.

About shelleywright

I love education & learning, which likely explains why I'm a teacher. My areas are ELA, Sr. sciences, and technology. My classroom is best described as a student-centred, tech embedded pbl/inquiry learning environment. Furthermore, I am Buck Institute for Education National Faculty member
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30 Responses to At a Crossroads

  1. Tony says:

    I run into the same thing when I teach my 8th graders. They want the answer, they don’t believe that the journey itself is the learning. Don’t give up, the skills you are teaching them are the skills that will see them right for the rest of their lives. I also find that while the curve may be steep, they do enjoy the way I teach and it really hits dividends in the second half of the year. On another note, every year there are more teachers teaching the way we do. If there are others at the school teaching like you, find them and see where they are taking the kids – you can then refer to them in your own course. Hang in there.

  2. Erin says:

    Oh Shelley, I know what you mean. You have been an inspiration to me. I have had mixed success with inquiry based learning @ the elementary level. The grade 8s were the hardest. Last year I the academic class and mostly wanted to see, hear, do, get an A. They got angry when I branched out into inquiry based Math & English.

    I also find many teachers are afraid of it because they feel the curriculum is too dense.

    I want to home school my 5 year old twins because I don’t want their creativity & love of learning crushed by traditional schooling.


    • I’ve thought things like that about my own kids, who are 6 and 4. Today’s schooling situation is tough. There are pockets of change and ingenuity, but on the whole, I’m not sure it’s what our kids need. I’ve also found that “academic” students are the most resistant to inquiry learning. They’ve already mastered the other system, and know how to get the grades, which they see as the bottom-line. My fear is that, one day, those same kids will think money is the bottom-line, rather than having a job and life that you love.

  3. Lona says:

    I can’t imagine a teacher who hasn’t reached this point in his or her career; I hope that you can take heart knowing that. I don’t have any magic to help you overcome your difficult times, but whether you decide to leave or stay I can tell you that when you do overcome the obstacles you’ll be lighter and freer. Be true to what you believe.

  4. lindybuckley says:

    Shelley, I am a PYP trained teacher working with two colleagues, also PYP, now working in a non PYP school where inquiry is getting started. As competent Inquiry teachers we know what inquiry students are capable of, but we find it hard to achieve this because the teachers below, on the whole have not had the training that we have had and therefore the students have not learned how to learn through inquiry. I understand your frustration. I can’t imagine how hard it is to be introducing it in grade 11 and 12.
    Maybe try not to do everything through inquiry. Maybe pick just a couple of projects. That has worked for me in my early days in my school where I was the only inquiry teacher on my team…. little by little…. Having colleagues who are also Inquiry teachers is also important because they will know how you feel….
    Yes starting early is the key. But don’t give up hope!

  5. Bruce says:


    You are a brave person to share your frustrations and doubts in this way. Hopefully it helps others to do the same and then we can have real conversations and truly learn from and with each other.

    You know, the latency on much of a teacher’s impact is very long. Neither you nor your students will fully understand the impact of your teaching and your relationships until you can look back on them later. For your students this may take years. However, when you are doing the right things for the right reasons – which you are – you can be comforted by that knowledge in the interim.

    In the meantime, look after yourself – put the oxygen mask on yourself first and all that. Maybe some extra turkey and good long nap this weekend will give you the boost you need!

  6. Shelley one thing I learned at Unplug’d is that every educator struggles at times, everyone gets frustrated and finds a wall or a point that they feel that they are alone. Know that you aren’t alone in thinking that what you really believe in might not be the norm, and that you will face obstacles or naysayers in that journey. But stick to the journey. The journey may have to change at times. It might mean a different inquiry project or a different ‘label’ for the type of learning so that decision makers take another look at the project or style of teaching.
    When I was sharing some of the people and inspirations of unplug’d back in Scotland, an educator in Scotland asked if I’d met you and if you were really as genuine and awesome as you were in the virtual world (true story…!) I of course said you were, so don’t let it change your path, stick to what you believe in, it is inspiring other educators and your students.

  7. Don’t give up, Shelley. Not that you would. As I know you through your blog, you would NEVER give up. So, you’ll SHIFT sideways or forward, certainly not backwards. You’ll take a breath. Once you’ve done that, like they the flight attendants tell parents to use the oxygen masks in an emergency BEFORE they give it to their children, you’ll instruct your students to breathe. You’ll remind them that Americans were still hanging blacks 100 years after slavery ended. That it took martyr after martyr for people to inspire somewhat decent behavior. Next, offer your lucky students a more personal, less dramatic, close to home example of how long it takes people to get it right; truth is, more often than we want to admit, it takes people way too long. It has to feel personal for us to care enough to fight. But, it can’t feel personal when it is harder than we imagine. This is life. Your older kids can handle it; they’ll need to handle it if they’re going to go off and make the world a better place… like you ARE! You matter, Shelley. Don’t ever forget it. Peace!

    • Thanks, Kelly. This has been such a huge encouragment! It is a long, long process but an important one. I’m not sure what it will look like in the end, but my students and I will create that together and that’s what matters.

  8. K. Lirenman says:

    PLEASE DON’T LEAVE THE PROFESSION! It’s teachers like you that question what and why you are doing what you are doing that have the greatest impact on our students. For those of us that are truly dedicated to what we do and are passionate about how we do it, it will never be easy. But trying to move forward, accepting change as a necessary, will make our journey that little bit easier. Thanks for being you and know that you do make a difference. A very, very big difference.

    • Thanks, I deeply appreciate your encouragement. I’m surprised, at times, the depth at which I have to question, not only how I’m teaching now, but how I used to teach, and what the school system supports. It’s tough! I don’t ever remember having conversations like this about pedagogy when I was learning to be a teacher. But it’s encouraging to find a community of educators who struggle like I do.

  9. I have been reading your progress since at least spring and have been inspired by what you have done. I have started teaching in a new PBL this fall with 9th graders. We are part of the New Tech network and received excellent training. One of the things we have been told over and over is that there is an “October wall” for students when they get burnt out a bit and overwhelmed with their 1st PBL experience. I don’t know if this is what is happening with your students or not. But the good news is that it is a stage that can be worked through. I sense that there is more to it that you do not want to share publicly.

    I hope that you will not quit inquiry based learning. I know that your passion will spread to students and inspire them.

    • I’ve never heard of the October wall, but that’s really helpful information. Sometimes it’s incredibly difficult to know how to help your students, but this provides a new framework to work with. I think they are feeling overwhelmed, at times, as am I! Thanks for the encouragment!

  10. Shailja says:

    Shelley – reading through your blog has continually inspired me! Your methods of thinking and teaching are totally new to me and inspire me to push the envelope in my teaching practices. I have not had time to correspond with your regularly, but I keep up with your blog and am always telling my fellow teacher candidates about the amazing things you have accomplished with your students. We can only strive to accomplish a fraction of what you have. Please know that what you are doing is invaluable to your students, colleagues and everyone who has been touched by your amazing teaching practices. What would you tell your students if they came to you with the same dilemma that you have posed in this blog? I would say to “make it count” – by thinking globally the way you do, you DO make everything count. And all you do DOES matter!! Never forget that!!

    • Thanks, Shailja. This is one of the reasons it’s so important to have a network of people who understand and support what you’re doing because you may not have people like that physically present in your building. Thanks for the encouragement!

  11. Danielle says:

    There are so many times we as educators are faced with the same thoughts you are having. I believe it is because we care so much! We want to make an impact in our students, with our students so that they can then pay it forward and continue the process.
    Inquiry Learning changes how kids Have to think… they are not being spoon fed as they may have come to be comfortable with. I am finding the Inquiry piece is bringing back the thoughts of being a small child again, questionngg, wondering, experiencing. This all takes time and patience as everone adjusts.
    We have to keep on keeping on as what you are doing Shelley, is just what you should be. Your passion and love of learning will grow and inspire the students whom are so blessed to have you in their life.
    You do make a difference!

  12. Paul says:

    What would you do that’s as challenging and rewarding as teaching? You are a leader in a necessary and long overdue conversation about transforming education. I love your human trafficking awareness campaign idea and lobbying for a much needed law to address the suffering caused by it. I’ve tried similarly oriented units based on social issues and world problems. But then you get the raised eyebrows at not having had a test in a month, that you are “behind schedule” in a curriculum that is a mile long and a half-inch deep with a government administered test at the end. It is frustrating that so much of what we do seems to be pre-scripted for us and designed to reach just the “low hanging fruit” of learning. I don’t know what the nature of your difficulty with this approach is at all. I remember a couple of parents inquiring into my project and then communicating with them the why and how of what we were doing with the steps of critical evaluation and communication that were built in. They couldn’t be more into what we were doing at that point. Whatever the nature of the problem, communicate why and how you are doing it and your passion will come through, and with it, I believe, any question about the value of the kind of learning you are cultivating. Such an inspiring idea should be met with enthusiasm. If not then it is probably misguided dogma and the slow-changing nature of the education system rearing its ugly head. Recognize it for what it is, and keep teaching the way you want to teach.

  13. Altitude says:

    I appreciate the honesty and authenticity of your post. The idea of standing at a crossroads is something that resonates strongly with me – both as an teacher and otherwise. After reading your post it sounds like you’ve already had a number of ‘crossroad’ experiences that have brought you to the place you are today, and it’s encouraging to hear about your heart for your students and about learning and teaching in a way that means something. If I may take a little risk myself, the first thing I thought about when I read your post was a Biblical passage that may speak to you regardless of your spiritual beliefs:

    “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths,
    ask where the good way is, and walk in it,
    and you will find rest for your soul.” Jer.6:16

    I don’t mean to sound presumptuous, but from the sounds of it you have found a ‘good way’ as a teacher (although that certainly doesn’t equate – ‘easy way.’) I hope you find rest in knowing that your pursuits and vision as an educator are good and encouragement as you pursue deeper, more meaningful learning and teaching.

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  17. ajm112446 says:

    I believe I hear your despair, I also was a teacher for eighteen years.
    The one thing I learned is you can teach someone information but you can’t change anyone; you can only change yourself. As much as you want to prepare your students for the real world you have to let go and trust in Providence that He has everything under His control. Your not running the show.
    Teaching is a noble profession, feel good about it. The fact that you care about your students and want the best for them is very good, you do the best you can but as Gilbrian,the Prophet, says, ‘you point them in the right direction and let go’. It’s not your job to carry the burden on your shoulders for how your student fare in this world, that is why we have to surrender to ‘sweet is thy will’. I hope this helps.

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