Reclaiming Passion: Teacher as Designer

“Did your mother change the furniture around again?  I was just here yesterday!” pronounces Zachary’s friend Nick.

If you have ever visited my house then you know that at any given time you will find spaces that are recreated, changed and then designed once again.  I have always had this obsession with creating spaces and so at any random moment you may walk in and find the music blasting and me, probably still in my nightgown at noon or so, rearranging furniture, taking down and re-hanging pictures and moving things from room to room to appease my latest design visions and whims.

Currently I am in the Christmas decorating mode where my goal is to try to use and re-use as much as I can to decorate.  I LOVE this time of the year because it is the perfect opportunity to overhaul all of the current decorating and make room for the greens, and the Santa collection, the white lights and red berries.  Every year we make our way into the basement where there are those crates of Christmas crap we get to dig into and envision where they will all go this year.  Creating a new look is incredibly satisfying for me in the same way that designing a new course, envisioning a new lesson or finding a new way in with a student is.  There is great joy in all of this creating and designing.

I just read an article in the Huffington Post about just this idea, thinking of teachers are learning designers here:

And I have to tell you that this concept is one that I can completely identify with.  The idea that the teacher possesses the knowledge and is trusted to make decisions and be “learning designers” is a brilliant one and sadly one that has less and less respect as programs and data creep in and take over.  The cold hard “facts” are seen as more relevant than what a teacher knows about her students and what designs would work best for each one.  Some teachers are even being told not only what to say (following scripts) and how to teach by programs, but also at what pace, with the emergence of what are called “pacing guides” essentially rendering the teacher and their knowledge as useless.


It makes me think of when my daughter Emma was first diagnosed with Leukemia at three and a half years old.  Initially, her doctor put all of her “data” into a program that spit out what was supposed to be “the” perfect protocol for her.    Her data consisted of blood types, age, weight, height etc.  Essentially the information inserted was the “numerical” value of Emma in the name of facts and numbers.

When we met with her doctor he talked about all of the risk factors, one of which was a high percentage of neurotoxicity to the brain.  This term was one of the scariest I had ever heard and when I asked him to talk more about it he talked about irrevocable brain damage.  I stopped him there and asked him point blank, “Is this a protocol you would put your kids on?”  He stopped, looked at me for an extended period of time and then dismissed himself from the room.  I knew from previous conversations that Dr. Weinstein had twins that were close to Emma’s age.  We waited for an eternity for him to return.


Dr. Weinstein and Emma

And when he did he looked me right in the eyes and said, “No, I would not put my children on this protocol.”  He went on to tell us that he was going to gather his team and review Emma’s case and that we return in a day or two when a new protocol would be chosen for Emma’s treatment.  To this day I am forever grateful for Dr. Weinstein’s humanity, his ability to listen and actually hear a mother’s concerns and to act accordingly trusting not only his instincts and intuitions, but also accessing the knowledge of his colleagues and then coming to a decision that would be best for my child and only my child.  In this case the “program” did not know best.  He did.

And don’t we want the same thing for our kids?  Don’t we want them to be seen as the individual human beings that they are and not the numbers on the bell curve they are deemed to be?  I realize I will be blasted here for actually resisting the idea of using data, but please understand that while “some” data may be useful, too much is limiting.  We need a balance between the science and the humanity in education.  And who is the designer in all of these workings, but the teachers.


We must allow our “learning designers” to access data when necessary, to reach into what they know about what works and what doesn’t work with their students and design their teachings appropriately.  Working with human beings is not an exact science and it never has been.  If it was we would have figured it all out years ago and created the one and only “program” that would work for all students.  The truth is that is does NOT exist.  And so like Dr. Weinstein, as professionals, we need to engage in conversations with colleagues, research current practices and theory to continually be learning the how and the why’s of teaching and learning.

There is a great deal of satisfaction and pleasure as a professional when one is treated with respect and allowed a sense of autonomy.  I know, because I have this in my role through the English Department at the University of New Hampshire as a Field Coordinator for Learning Through Teaching; a job-embedded model of professional development. (See here for more information on LTT,

There is energy and wonder and a sense of creation and accomplishment when designing courses, implementing lessons and ideas, strategies and spaces for the students I work with. But if our teachers are continually stressed out, trying to be everything to everyone all of the time, then what does that do to our classroom cultures; the learning environments where our kids are all day long?

I am advocating for a sense of creative freedom for our teachers as “learning designers”.  Time to blast the music and create from their expertise as professionals as opposed to always trying to catch up with the latest assessment that is due and the latest and greatest program that supposedly knows better.

Why are we so hesitant to trust teachers the way that we trust doctors?

What would have happened had Dr. Weinstein trusted the computer program and not his knowledge and intuition?  I shudder to even consider this as I think of my brilliant 19 year-old Emma in college, a biology major who has always been a “bookworm”.  What would her life be with limited access to books and thinking and learning?  These are her passions in life and isn’t that why we are all here?  To pursue our passions?


Emma sharing one of her passions today…

And so I am off to engage in some of mine where I will do some professional reading, edit this blog, plan my classes for the week, hang out in some amazing classrooms observing and demonstrating lessons and maybe later I will even decorate the front door…how about you?

16 thoughts on “Reclaiming Passion: Teacher as Designer

  1. Oh Tomasen! This does so dovetail with the art of medicine. We need to remember that all the data in the world doesn’t replace the sacred connection between doctor and patient, between teacher and student. Betsy

    • Betsy,
      I could not agree more and I realize that even doctors are under the microscope with different pressures…I find the older I get the more I long for simplicity…the doctors and teachers connecting with their patients and students conjures up images of doctors making house calls and teachers in one room school houses. I wonder what we have done to ourselves with so many other “things” getting in the way of this basic and essential relationship! Thanks for your thoughts!

  2. This is why you are my favorite professor. You opened my eyes to a creative and energizing way to teach reading and writing. My teaching career would not have been as rewarding without the mentoring you gave me. I’m not sure how teachers who have never experienced this are faring.

  3. Tomasen, As always, another beautiful and poignant piece. It’s such an important message that we shouldn’t let data mediate every interaction and decision we teachers (doctors, etc.) make on behalf of the children in our care. Thank you for this!!!!

  4. Tomasen,

    Totally agree with the analogy to an individualized medical treatment plan. I know working with orthopedic patients we customize their exercise program based on their learning style. For example, pictures of exercises are used instead of words for those who are more visual learners to yield the best outcomes. I am very familiar with Individualized education plans, but know they are only created for a small percentage (and even then seem very cookie cutter like),. Doesn’t each child deserve their own iindividualized education plan based on how they learn best?

    And……..your front door looks great!


    • Debbie,
      Thanks for reading and replying. Your insight that IEP’s are even cookie cutter is a great one. So true that even then we try to put our kids into neat little boxes instead of looking at what they need. I do believe each child could have their own IEP if we let the talented teachers do their jobs instead of all of the crap that now surrounds their jobs. Very little time to teach, reflect and plan.
      Hope you are well!

  5. and to combine it all with what we’ve experienced with other students from previous years. Teachers carry with them the knowledge of successes and failures (or ‘things gone wrong’) with other students they’ve had. That knowledge should be used going forward.

  6. Tomasen, your passion for learning and teaching, along with the art of crafting these poignant reflections, fill me with hope. You raise questions and concerns that spark thinking, conversation, and maybe a bit of rebellion for me. Feels so energizing!!! I love being a learning designer! Thank you for being a huge influence along my journey.

  7. Weird… I had a similar conversation with my teaching partner at the end of the day today. I’ve attempted to work in the way (it’s not really a program, but a method) that’s being piloted now in our school. After laboring over 1st trimester report cards, I’ve decided to go back to teaching literacy in a way that I know well. It’s effective, inclusive and (dare I say) FUN! I’m through with being told what to teach and how to teach it, by people who don’t teach. I do know my students. No one else in my school could say they know them better. I have to be the one making the decisions on how to teach them based on the “whole child”. Remember that catch phrase?

    • The “F” word in school! FUN!! And why do so many of us allow those “others” to tell us how to teach? We are so quick to give up our expertise to someone or something that might know better. On the flipside it is this openness that makes you the remarkable teacher that you are. It is about keeping true to ourselves, our students while also investigating and questioning all that is thrown at us!
      My first entry is about teaching the WHOLE child!! LOL!

  8. This year our district purchased a computerized reading program. I am finding out a few things about these so-called, miracle-working programs. They take the passion out of reading. They take the teacher out of the equation. Students would rather read and discuss and sit near you to go over a book (even in high school). These types of programs take away the essential ingredient in the teacher-student relationship – the teacher and the teacher’s passion for what they teach.

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