20 Years

Twenty observations from my classroom

Adrian Neibauer
35 min readMay 27, 2023
My first classroom

I don’t remember much about being a novice teacher. I have strong emotional memories: feelings of stress, anxiety and overwhelm. When I think back to those first three years, the strongest memories I have are from the teacher’s lounge. I remember sitting in the lounge, eating my lunch, and listening to the older, veteran teachers complain about the state of “today’s kids.” What fascinated me was that it was more than just mere venting. Certain teachers could wax poetic expounding on the reasons why their students struggle in class. I vowed very early in my career never, never, NEVER to become one of those cynical teachers.

Fast forward to the present. I have been an educator for twenty years. I’ve had a front-row seat to a variety of educational initiatives come and go in our school district. I have worked for many principals; some who lasted for years, and a few who only lasted a couple of months. I taught in the classroom during major world events: the war in Iraq, the invention of the iPhone and Wikipedia, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina, just to name a few. I have taught Elementary school under four presidents and in that time, I’ve witnessed over 950 K-12 school shootings and a global pandemic. As of this writing, more than 323,000 children at 346 schools have experienced gun violence.

I really don’t want to sound like one of those cynical teachers who has “seen it all” and recollects with skewed nostalgia the better days of teaching. I was born in 1980 so I consider myself an “elder millennial.” I can empathize with some aspects of that generation, while feeling at home with my fellow Gen-Xers. I’m not as old as Boomers, yet.

I have worked with students in classrooms with no technology and classrooms with one-to-one technology. I have held space for students who have experienced racism, school violence, and bullying. I have facilitated debates with students parroting their parents’ polarizing political views and those who are working to fight the same oppressional educational system that marginalized their parents. I can still remember one of my former male students who raised his hand one day and asked, “Why don’t we have a White History Month?” I remember gathering in the library to watch our first African American President, Barack Obama, address students for the first time in the history of the American Presidency.

Since I have mainly taught the 4th and 5th grades, my bias starts with my personal, racial, and socio-cultural experiences. I am a White, heterosexual, male teacher who teaches in a suburban school district. I have witnessed the evolution of K-5 public education and the political, economic, socio-cultural factors that influenced me and each new class of incoming students.

As an educator I get to observe how the changing world impacts teaching and learning. I get to start over with a new group of students every year. During my twenty years as an educator, I have seen how technology, teaching methods, school shootings, and a global pandemic have shaped both teachers and students in the classroom.

Here are some of my (hopefully, not too cynical) observations:

1. No Child Left Behind — 2001

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was the education system I entered into as a young teacher. I have no experience teaching before NCLB. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 was a U.S. Act of Congress that reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, effectively scaling up the federal role in holding schools accountable for student outcomes.

My entire teaching career has been under the watchful eyes of this federal oversight. It shaped my early experiences as a novice teacher as I learned new curricula and began to understand how standardized testing would be a part of our collective schooling experience.

Whereas NCLB felt scary at first, now it is the air I breathe. I continue to subvert efforts to standardize my pedagogy and mandate how many hours I spend preparing students for weeks of meaningless tests. I have yet to be called into a meeting about my standardized test scores, and luckily, my pay has never been tied to testing outcomes.

Still, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge its impact on me. No Child Left Behind, and the subsequent push for standardized testing, pushed me early to critically look at the educational system. I admit that as a young teacher, I did as I was told and didn’t push back. Over the years, I have learned that if you accept the status quo, you become the status quo. If you don’t ask questions, very few people will speak up because it threatens the system. If you don’t fight white supremacy, racism continues. Silence is complacency. Indifference is malpractice against our students.

2. Standardized Testing — 1998-present

I’ve administered scantrons; booklets, and online question sets. I remember when the acronym for our state standardized test changed and my required role shifted from just passing out the test to students to walking around my classroom actively proctoring the exam. Early in my teaching career, test prep started as week-long practice sessions to get students ready for the exam. Soon, test prep dominated my spring teaching: months of teaching to the test and taking practice tests; coaching students on what to eat beforehand in order to score well; covering up all instructional posters on the walls; and reassuring crying students that it is just a test and not the sole determining factor in life.

Photo by Nguyen Dang Hoang Nhu on Unsplash

Unfortunately, not much has changed since the early 2000s. The expectations are the same; however, my compliance in following these expectations has changed. I haven’t “taught to the test” in many years. I place no weight on the outcome of any standardized test.

3. 21st Century Learner — 2001

Being a “tech person” I latched onto this buzzword hard. I played video games in the 80s and learned how to type in High School. I remember arcade games and when SEGA, Nintendo’s rival gaming system, was released. In college, I had a panic attack when I lost dozens of pages after my computer crashed and I had forgotten to (Ctrl+S) save my work. Basically, as an Elder Millennial, I have memories of life before the age of the Internet and cloud computing.

So, it is not surprising that I incorporated this list of skills into my pedagogical practice. I wanted to teach my students how to use technology to critically think, problem solve, communicate and collaborate. I used the P21 Framework and interdisciplinary themes to be more creative and innovative in my teaching.

I also remember when, in 2015, people started asking, We’ve been in the 21st century for over a decade. When will these 21st century skills just be skills?

4. Wikipedia — 2001

Original Wikipedia Logo (2001–2003)

The reliability of Wikipedia continues to be a subject of conversation among teachers. I remember when “crowdsourced” was a new term that no teacher knew what to do with. If anyone can contribute, how can it be reliable? When Wikipedia went online, I was fascinated with the idea of every human being in the world contributing to a common project in real time. This was long before we got to see the globe crowdsource our collective efforts to create a Covid-19 vaccine in record time. In 2001, teachers struggled with trusting a website that purported to have millions of contributing voices. Was this the end of objective research? Should we allow students to use Wikipedia as a source?

This led me to create opportunities for students to practice corroborating information they found on the Internet. Before Google, when students had to research using library books, I don’t remember there being a push for teachers to teach the concept of corroboration; kids just copied down facts from the encyclopedia.

Today, I’m surprised that I still hear teachers critique Wikipedia as an unreliable source of information for student research. Anytime I heard teachers commenting on the amount of errors in any given Wikipedia article, I would excitedly explain that error correction analysis showed article errors are corrected within minutes. In our current climate of false information and “fake news”, I think it is vital that we continue teaching our students how to critically evaluate information.

5. Blogging — 2005

I started my first blog in 2005. I wanted to post my poetry to the Internet in hopes of connecting with others. I wanted to find a writer’s community that could help me improve my writing. Since I never took any creative writing courses in college, or pursued an MFA, I turned to the Internet for help.


I continued posting to the ether and received little to no feedback. Three years later, I decided to start blogging with my students. I had formed a boys writing club and wanted my male students to not only see themselves as writers, but have a place to keep their writing that they could access whenever they wanted.

Blogging has been a part of my life for fifteen years. I can’t say that I was ever an avid blogger, but I would write things periodically and post them to my blog and wait to see what would happen. This was before social media and writing platforms like Medium. Perhaps if I had connected with others online, I might have written more.

I think the biggest change has been giving students a platform for their voices. 20 years ago, the only audience for a student’s writing was their teacher and maybe their family. Now, students can share their thoughts with the world. They can write a letter to their congressman or congresswoman and message them on Twitter. Students can publish a book on Amazon or post their stories, observations and opinions on their own blog. I know that many teachers lament the disappearance of handwriting, but I believe that the democratizing of students’ voices across the Internet is a positive trade off for handwritten essays.

6. TED Talks — 2006


As a young teacher, my professional development consisted of whatever my school district deemed important. I would be required to sit in various staff meetings or workshops on topics intended to improve my teaching. From Thinking Maps to new curriculum initiatives, I took what I was given and tried to improve my craft.

Then TED came out. Since I couldn’t afford to go back to school for an advanced degree, I immediately fell in love with the idea that I could watch engaging lectures from some of the most brilliant people on the planet. I could learn about anything I wanted! How can skateboarding save our schools? Dr. Tae had me thinking about how we learn and structure learning environments for our students. If I needed some inspiration, I could turn to Ken Robinson, Dr. Christopher Emdin, or Simon Sinek. If I needed a deeper understanding of a particular subject, I could listen to imminent scientists, scholars, and philosophers. After a huge fail in my classroom, I could watch Astro Teller explain the unexpected benefits of failure. And, of course, when I needed a pep talk about being vulnerable in my classroom, I would turn to Dr. Brene Brown.

I started using TED talks in my classroom immediately. Why would I try and translate a concept to my students when I could have them listen to an expert in the field? I never considered myself to be the “sage on the stage” or expert in the room. This is one of the many benefits of teaching and learning in the age of the Internet: information is immediately accessible.

Now, TED talks are a part of our daily lives. I watch at least 2–3 per week. I have my students write their own TED talks using resources from TEDed. Back in 2006, I had no idea that TED Talks would teach me (and my students) how to think critically about new or difficult information. Unfortunately, I still have to sit through mandatory workshops, but at last now I can listen to outside experts that help me grow as a teacher.

7. MOOCs and LMSs — 2007

Poster, entitled “MOOC, every letter is negotiable”, exploring the meaning of the words “massive open online course”

Schoology was designed by Jeremy Friedman, Ryan Hwang, and Tim Trinidad in 2007 while studying at Washington University in St. Louis. It was originally designed for sharing notes with each other; however, once features were gradually added, this note-sharing platform would turn into a huge disrupter of my classroom. I remember catching a Schoology t-shirt from a launcher and listening to Friedman inspire the audience in the future of massive open online courses. Friedman created a cool learning management system that had a real impact on how teachers taught.

What if students could log in and access courses online? Even though MOOCs were originally intended for higher education, I envisioned my fifth-graders social networking, accessing online resources, and engaging with each other outside of my classroom. I tested out a bunch of LMS’s: Moodle, Blackboard, Google Classroom, and Canvas. At this point, I had not taken any online courses, so these ideas seemed a bit far fetched; however, once I played around with Schoology, I saw an opportunity to become a teacher-facilitator of student learning instead of the sole gatekeeper of knowledge.

A huge part of my Master’s degree was delivered online via Canvas. I had access to the content on my own time, which was important as a full-time teacher going back to school. I was self-motivated and organized, so online learning worked for me. Going to campus once a week was ideal because I could have facetime with my classmates and professors. Often on my commute to campus, I would fantasize about what this hybrid learning environment could look like in an Elementary classroom. If I had students all day, how could I get them to interact with material outside of the classroom. What if I could blend face-to-face time with at-home practice or preparation for the next day?

8. Flipped classrooms — 2007

I wanted to flip my classroom so badly! I wanted to be that teacher that had students interacting with content from anywhere: home, school or on vacation. I didn’t believe in homework, but I did think that there was some benefit in students preparing for the next day in school. Students could read and ask questions about an article online before coming to class to analyze, discuss, and debate with their peers. If students didn’t fully understand a concept, they could rewatch an instructional video as many times as they needed. If students were absent, they wouldn’t fall behind because they could log into Schoology.


Just like anything, flipped classrooms and blended learning are not ideal for all students. Fifteen years ago, not every student had access to computers or the Internet at home. And since I couldn’t let students take the school device home, there was not much flipping happening in my classroom. Still, I persisted. I used our LMS to teach students how to collaborate and interact online. I brought in resources from all over the web, from video guest speakers to interactive digital texts. I taught students how to navigate the Internet and annotate what they found. Trying to flip my classroom wasn’t a huge success, but it was a gateway to the future I saw in teaching and learning online.

9. Document Cameras — 2007

Canon document camera, an Epson projector and 50 feet of S-Video cable

Document cameras were a step up from using an overhead projector. Instead of using overhead pens to draw on transparencies, teachers projected original documents, plans, drawings and objects directly on their projection screen. Teachers could now display newspaper or magazine articles, a selection from a book or some student work. Even though this was more technology substitution than redefinition (see SAMR model), many teachers liked the flexibility of transitioning from their Interactive White Board (IWB) to their document camera. Most teachers I worked with always kept their document cameras turned on and perpetually taught from a chair at the front of the room. I never saw this as much different from teaching from the overhead projector; however, document cameras did allow teachers to use a decent camera to capture an images to upload to a computer for use in multimedia projects. In fact, some document cameras allowed teaches to share the screen display or freeze and annotate images.

10. Whiteboards to SMARTboards — 2009

I was part of a fifth grade team that applied for and won an Interactive Whiteboard. We were the first grade-level team in the district to have SMARTboards installed in each of our classrooms. We also received a year’s worth of professional development to help us learn how to use the new technology. The idea was simple: instead of having students passively listen to you teach and write on the whiteboard, you now created interactive lessons that got students out of their seats and up to the SMARTboard. Students could use an oversized stylus to draw, pop digital balloons that revealed vocabulary words, click on multiple choice answers, or animate a part of your lesson. Lesson plans turned into interactive PowerPoint presentations. Representatives for this new technology excitedly told us that interactive whiteboards would transform public education.

As with most new classroom technology, I was an early adopter. I drank the Kool-Aid and started visualizing my lesson plans as interactive whiteboard slide decks with hooks, interactive activities, and closing checks for understanding. The downside was that we had to use the SMART software, which made sharing lessons and collaborating with others difficult. If you didn’t have a SMARTboard, you couldn’t even open the file.

One of my first lessons on a SMARTboard

It soon became clear how this new technology was going to play out in the classroom. I witnessed teachers scanning hundreds of PDF worksheets so that they could display them on the board. Instead of redefining how to teach, many teachers were using these boards as very expensive overhead projectors. When there were inevitable glitches with the boards, teachers panicked and restored to their old workbooks and skill packets (and yes, even old transparencies).

As an early adopter, I was often called to other classrooms to help troubleshoot SMARTboards. Most of the calls were asking how I could transfer an old lesson onto the SMARTboard. Teachers were not looking to augment or modify their lesson plans; they were using the boards as glorified projection screens.

Within three years, SMARTboards were installed in classrooms all over our district. Within five years, SMARTboards were hanging on walls, unplugged from computers, and being used to display overhead transparencies.

Interactive whiteboards were the first example I experienced of silver bullet education reform. I sat in dozens of workshops listening to how these products would revolutionize education. Nope. Even for those of us who used interactive whiteboards, flat screen televisions were a much cheaper option for teachers. Instead of having students come up to the board one or two at a time it was more effective giving students individual devices that could display to the flat screen TV. In fact, the failure of SMARTboards to revolutionize my classroom was actually a precursor to a major shift in how I viewed educational technology.

11. Common Core Standards — 2010

When the Common Core Standards were released in 2010, there was a sense of optimism. Finally, teachers were going to get what some freedom in teaching what they wanted as long as it hit core standards. Our school district adopted them almost immediately and I remember trying to sell parents on the new standards in my Back-to-School presentation. Within a few years, however, it became clear that Common Core was a financial drain on our school district and once again, encouraged teachers to teach to the state’s standardized test. Instead of being mere guidelines, these recommended standards became mandates that fragmented the learning process for students.

12. Textbooks to apps — 2010

“iPad creates and defines an entirely new category of devices that will connect users with their apps and content in a much more intimate, intuitive and fun way than ever before.” — Steve Jobs

When the first generation of Steve Job’s iPad was introduced, it was all about the app. Apps made everything more accessible. You could just click and be instantly connected to a website, game or video. Before the 2000s, how did you learn new skills or improve your existing ones? You probably invested in formal or informal education. You may have signed up for a class or workshop, read a book or listened to a neighbor in your driveway or guest speaker in your staff meeting. In the classroom, teachers relied on textbooks, articles and books from the library to supplement their instruction. Textbooks became synonymous with content. What are you teaching for Social Studies? [Insert textbook company name here]

Once the iPhone and iPad were invented content quickly became accessible online. Digitized learning was now connected to a specific website, app or product. For example, if I wanted to learn a new language, I could download DuoLingo. If I wanted to improve my grade in Pre-Algebra, I would visit Khan Academy and take a few lessons. As a teacher I could create digital flashcards on Brainscape and review games on Kahoot! With learning migrating more and more online every year, I began noticing that I was using technology more in my classroom. It didn’t take long for textbook companies to digitize their products so that students could read them online.

Students no longer needed the teacher to answer their questions; they could ask Google. Today, it’s interesting to observe students’ relationships with their devices versus teachers. Unfortunately, the infinity pool nature of streaming content and notifications pulls students’ attention in so many different directions. I often see fifth-grade students with 20–30 tabs open, only 3 of which are for school. Most are background noise that makes focusing difficult.

Quick PSA: I have always hated mass market, standardized textbooks. They are expensive, incredibly biased and in the case of history textbooks, horribly whitewashed. They almost always are linked to a new curriculum that promises to be more engaging than all the other options. Digitizing a textbook does not change these things.

However, I do love digitizing access to information. Once content is digitized, it becomes more accessible to students. They no longer have to wait until we go to the library to check out a book. They don’t have to wait for their teacher to finish helping another student before they can answer their questions.

What are the side effects of this?

Some of the unintended consequences I have observed these last ten years include:

Shortened student (and teacher) attention spans

Impatience or irritability with not knowing something

Not seeing a point in corroborating facts found online. Just get the answer and move onto the next task or return to your game in another tab

Difficulty with critically thinking about information found online

Inability to sit in cognitive dissonance

I could write an entire blog post about each of these. I’ll just say here that technology in of itself is neither good nor bad; but our relationship to our devices has some real implications for not only public education, but our society as a whole. As Nicholas Carr states in The Glass Cage, we are a “ward of our phones.” We become victims of automation and this prevents all of us from exercising some very important skills. Students need practice with mental mapping, critical thinking, imagination and creativity, storytelling, active listening, impulse control. If we don’t address these issues as a society, I worry what life will be like in another ten years.

13. Computer carts to 1:1 Computers — 2014

During the pandemic, our school district dismantled all of our computer carts in order to give students access to remote learning. This was a huge undertaking with 55,000 students, but it was necessary that students could learn from home.

Post pandemic (or at least post-acknowledgement of the pandemic), many states have received funding to provide each student with a laptop. These laptops usually follow the student as they progress from one grade to the next. For example, sixth grade students receive a laptop that will last them until they are a freshman in high school, where they will trade it in and receive a new one. It is exciting for students to walk into a classroom and unbox a brand new laptop.

I remember passing out the laptops to students on the first day of school. They were so excited! They got to keep this computer, take it home with them, and use it for everything.

That was the first problem. Quickly, students started downloading extension games and VPNs in order to bypass the district’s firewall. My job quickly shifted to technology manager while still trying to teach. Keeping students in one browser tab felt like trying to sweep the tide back into the ocean. They would begrudgingly comply, only to reopen the tab as soon as I turned to another student.

It’s a strange feeling for me to be nostalgic over certain things in my teaching career. I try to check myself from sounding like a cynical curmudgeon who longs for the days when “students used to respect their teachers!” Still, here I am regretting giving up my laptop cart and giving the students ownership of their school laptops.

Before, when the teacher controlled the laptops, they lived on a cart in the corner of the room and only came out when needed. Now, the laptops live in students’ desks and come out as needed (or not!). To be fair, I do use technology a lot in my classroom. I design all of our learning experiences in our learning management system, Schoology. I utilize most of the Google suite of apps (Docs, Slides, Jamboard), YouTube, as well as various other sites/apps like Kahoot!, PearDeck, and other Web 2.0 tools.

There is a compelling argument that students will need to learn how to responsibly use technology in their lives, and since technology is such a huge part of the classroom, the lessons should start there. In the upper grades, teachers are battling against their students’ cell phones. In Elementary school, we have that, too, but most students comply by leaving them in their backpacks. It’s the laptops, which are supposed to be school devices, that are causing such disruption. Apps, extensions and games like Roblox and Minecraft are designed to keep users in the game. This infinity pool of entertainment makes it near-impossible for students to disengage from their games and reengage in their learning. Vying for their attention is a losing battle when competing with Snapchat and TikTok.

So, yes, I do find myself missing the laptop cart a bit. This is Year #2 with 1:1 devices and, as always, I plan to do things differently next year. Will I ever win against the distracting tech? Probably not. But at least I can design opportunities for students to be more mindful throughout the day and in their learning experiences.

14. Gamification — 2015

I eagerly jumped onto this bandwagon. While pursuing my Master’s degree, I had taken a Games and Learning course and fell in love with the idea that games have more to offer than just recreation. I think learning can and should be made fun. Why not gamify it? Truth be told, I am also a huge fan of earning stars at Starbucks, reward points at retail stores and badges for the books I read on Audible. Gamification motivates me to mediate, journal each day and read more!

I dove into gamification research, reading books by Karl Kapp, Jane McGonigal, James Macanufo, James Gee, Raph Koster and Yu-Kai Chou. As a teacher, I tried to gamify everything in my classroom. I incorporated tons of learning games and apps into my instruction. I even ran professional development workshops for other teachers on the basic elements of games and how gamification works. I gamified my classroom management system by using apps like ClassDojo. I wanted to harness the energy and motivation of game-play and direct it toward designing engaging learning experiences.

Lately, I have stopped using ClassDojo in class. Students still love their monsters and hearing that little “ping” when they earn a point for behavior. However, I feel a bit uneasy with how much Class Dojo encourages me to micromanage student behaviors. I want students to focus more on their learning experiences and less on the outward motivators that make them comply. This gamified behavioral modification just doesn’t feel right to me.

15. Microcredentials — 2015

The microcredential movement first became popular as a way to support adult learning for the workforce. One of the earliest Micro-credentialing organizations was a group called Open Badges, created by Mozilla Foundation in 2013 with funding from the MacArthur Foundation.


I first learned about microcredentials and digital badges in 2015 when presenting at a national conference for educators and administrators. At the time, I had left the classroom and was working with teachers to improve their classroom practice using technology. I had just read Dan Pink’s book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us and was using what I had learned to better promote deeper learning in adults.

I was a boy scout and loved collecting badges for the various skills I learned. It made sense to me that offering digital badges could motivate adults and kids to learn concepts or improve in certain skills.

I used gamification elements to provide teachers the autonomy and flexibility to choose which topic they wanted to pursue for their professional development. I created learning strands that publicly recognized the work teachers were doing to master content and improve their practice. Digital badges helped me rethink instructional design as a whole by scaffolding learning and embedding badges throughout the learning process.

It’s interesting that less than ten years later, micro-credentialing did not take hold as much as I assumed it would. Many educational institutions and school districts are still hesitant to adopt a digital badge-based learning system. Whereas digital badges may work to motivate learners to learn new skills, post K-12 employers lack an alternative micro-credentials or qualifications framework. I think the main issue is language; when we use terms like “alternative” or “digital stickers”, we are devaluing the idea of autonomous and continuous learning.

I don’t think we have heard the end of digital badges.

16. PBL and STEM focus — 2015

When I first learned about project-based learning, I thought, Hey! That’s what I do in my classroom! I never called it PBL, but each year, I tried to be more interdisciplinary. I tried to tie what we were learning with the real world.

As a classroom teacher, I always strove to try new things; constantly redesigning my lesson plans, my classroom layout and my delivery of instruction. Although I never labeled what I did as STEM or PBL, I now see that I was working hard to show my students the transdisciplinary nature of learning. Part of this was my daily use of technology in our classroom. I blended my instruction so that I could better facilitate and inspire my students’ creativity using digital tools and resources. I wanted my students to understand that learning didn’t just stop when the bell rang; they could learn at any time, anywhere!

When I became a STEM and Innovation coach, my job was to help teachers understand the interdisciplinary nature of STEM, and how STEM-foundational thinking belongs in every classroom. A classroom that promotes and facilitates STEM-foundational thinking and instructional activities is one that promotes innovation, creativity, positive classroom behavior and a shared determination to achieve. I believed this so much, that my doctoral research focused on STEM equity and access to STEM content.

Our district leaned heavily into PBL. We hosted workshops facilitated by the Buck Institute for Education (now called PBLWorks). At one point, the goal was to have every teacher in the district participate in a PBL workshop. As an instructional coach, at best, I saw pockets of creativity and innovation through project-based learning units. I helped a lot of teachers take their existing lesson plans and transform them into PBL units.

Still, seven years later, I wonder how much impact these workshops had on the culture of teaching and learning in our district. If you were to ask the right administrators, they would undoubtedly state that we are a PBL partner district with lots of PBL schools. In truth, PBL became another education buzzword instead of a paradigm shift. District leaders sold PBL as a “silver-bullet” answer to reforming schooling. Many teachers endorsed the idea of project based learning, however, over time, without continual professional development and, more importantly, a reevaluation of our shared educational values, PBL quietly disappeared.

PBL is not the solution to the problems in public education. STEM is not the answer to changing the inequitable systems and structures continuing to hold our marginalized students back and propelling our privileged students forward.

The answer lies in redesigning the purpose of public education.

17. Design Thinking — 2016


I first learned about design thinking well after most people. IDEO is often credited with inventing the term “design thinking” and its practice, but in fact, the concept of human-centered design has been used frequently in the design industry since the late 70s. As soon as I learned about the elements of design thinking: empathy, optimism, iteration, creative confidence, experimentation and an embrace of ambiguity and failure, I knew that I had to incorporate them into my work with teachers and students.

Being a teacher today is vastly different than being a teacher 20+ years ago. Today, we have more access to learning, resources, and materials in comparison to world leaders just two decades ago. We need to do school differently. That was clear in 2006 when Sir Ken Robinson extolled the virtues of creativity in public education. It is even more true today. In order to bring out the best in our students (and ourselves as educators), we need to design powerful learning experiences that prepare students to innovate and create a just and equitable world. When I worked with teachers I wanted them to see that using human-centered design thinking with their students is being student-centered.

Both teaching and design thinking have evolved quite a bit over the years. I have learned so much from institutions like Stanford’s d.school, organizations like IDEOU, and experts in the field such as Dr. Tina Seelig, Astro Teller, Susie Wise, David Kelley, and Laura McBain. I have transformed my mindset from being a teacher to being a designer of student learning experiences.

Design thinking is the most influential concept I’ve learned about in my 20-year career as an educator.

18. Increased class sizes — 2001–present

My 2015 classroom

Each school year, on average, the number of students in my classroom increases. This year, I have 26 students. In the past, I have had upwards of 30 fifth graders crammed into my classroom. Enrollment continues to increase from year to year, while teacher retention continues to be a challenge. More students and fewer teachers means huge classes.

This changes how I run my classroom. My free-flowing classroom management, where students are working independently or collaboratively in small groups, becomes unwieldy at times when there are over 25 students in a room. Student noise has never bothered me, but keeping students on task when there are a lot of distractions is difficult when you have more students.

Some things are just easier with smaller numbers of students: reading groups, one-on-one support, building relationships, class discussions, etc. I recently listened to the Education Minister Ghana, Yaw Adutwum, discuss his views on how best to innovate the Ghanaian school system. He states, “in all my encounters in Ghanaian classrooms we have tamed the children. We just want them to write down what we tell them on the day of exams. They should put down what we have told them. We say you are the best student the country has ever known. That kind of education system will not transform Ghana.”

As a classroom teacher, I struggle with classroom management.

And then I remind myself that my job is not to tame students. My job is to empower students to challenge the status quo.

Can I do this effectively with 30+ students in my classroom? I’m not sure, but I sure as hell try!

19. Active shooter drills — 2020

This has been the hardest part of teaching these last twenty years. I remember watching the news coverage of the Columbine shooting while a freshman in college. When I entered the profession, there were twenty deaths resulting from school shootings in the U.S. Today, over 300,000 children at 346 schools have experienced gun violence.


Every year, we are retrained on our comprehensive Safe Schools Plan that addresses the physical safety/security of students. The Standard Response Protocol (SRP) trains teachers in what to do within each school to address a variety of incidents, including natural disasters. I don’t fear a natural disaster. I am scared that I might be shot while teaching, especially now that there are first-graders who are intentionally shooting their teachers.

I’ve never spoken with any veteran teachers about what the school climate was like before Columbine. My guess is that teachers still struggled to engage all of their students. They didn’t have to worry about standardized testing, but they did have things that took away from teaching (think Tech Decks and Tamagotchis). I don’t think classroom windows were made of shatterproof “safety glass” and you didn’t need to scan your way into the building. I bet most Elementary buildings had their front doors open during the school day.

Today is much different. I have spent my entire teaching career preparing for an active shooter event. In the years just after the Columbine shooting, when we practiced an active shooter drill, students were scared. It was relatively easy to keep them silent while we hid in a corner of my classroom. It was sad to see their faces try and register what a potential threat to the school would look like. They took it seriously.

In 2022, active shooter drills are the same, but the student culture has changed. We are all so desensitized to school violence. There seems to be another school shooting in the news every week. Now, students just go through the motions, practicing their active-shooter drills.

Gun violence has become ubiquitous to school life. It makes sense that students giggle and play games while sitting in the corner of the room. I am no longer cowering because of a potential threat, I am sitting, trying to keep my bored students quiet, waiting for the police officer to release us back to our desks.

Teaching today feels odd. I don’t have a visceral fear about going to work. I don’t freeze each time there is an announcement on the school PA system like I used to after Columbine. I do believe that I have a deep stress that lies dormant in my body. It’s like an undercurrent of anxiety that I know is there because I can focus on it and feel it (like I’m doing right now while writing this paragraph). Most days, I don’t feel it, but I know it contributes to my overall health and wellness as a teacher. I believe that I am more stressed now than I was as a first-year probationary teacher. I don’t know how this low-level stress and anxiety affects my teaching, but I am sure that it does.

20. Post-COVID — 2020

My 2020 classroom

I’ve written quite a bit about teaching during a global pandemic. It sucked. The pandemic took a toll on my mental and physical well-being. I suffered from daily stress headaches. My particular habits around germs and cleanliness flared into obsessive-compulsive, germaphobic tendencies. I resented students who wouldn’t keep their mask covering their faces. I struggled connecting with my colleagues and students. During that first year, I tried just to survive. I hated teaching.

It was the most challenging, frustrating, scary, life-threatening school year in my 20-year career in public education. I put more of myself into my students than I ever had before. I was more vulnerable than ever. I was more scared. I felt helpless. I felt defeated and exhausted every day. In hindsight, I know that I did the best I could with the tools I had.

I spent a lot of time reflecting on those two pandemic years. It took me a long time to realize that I am still a good teacher, even if I wasn’t during the pandemic. Teaching during the pandemic almost broke me.

I realize that I am a different teacher than I was in 2019. I hope that I haven’t become contemptuous. I swore that I would never allow myself to turn into the cranky, veteran teacher who spoke of “better” bygone days. I realize that my anxiety is higher than usual. It feels like I struggle to engage my students more than I used to. However, my values have not changed. I believe that public education is our best hope for creating the inclusive future we want.

I still work to buck the system, dismantle oppressive systemic structures, and disrupt the status quo. I have felt demoralized and frustrated; I have felt helpless; I have felt defeated and confused as to my next step; but, within all of these negative feelings, I still gravitate toward what matters most: my students.

Post-pandemic students — 2022

How do I feel about today’s students?” I love my students. I care about them deeply. They drive me crazy sometimes AND I love seeing their smiling faces when the bell rings in the morning.

Let me try to share some observations about my current students without sounding derisive, pessimistic, or hopeless.

I think the Covid-19 pandemic changed everyone, especially kids. I can only speak to my experience working with ten-year-olds, but it is clear that all students are struggling more than ever. The pandemic exposed a lot of cracks in public education; cracks that many teachers have been screaming about for years: inequitable resources, too many initiatives, not enough time, prejudiced and racist policies that harm already vulnerable students.

My current group of fifth graders were seven years old when the pandemic hit. They finished their second-grade year online and then either participated in remote learning or strained face-to-face learning, or both. I don’t think it hyperbolic to say that students have experienced schooling trauma, especially our students of color who have been experiencing traumatic learning experiences since they entered school.

My observations are just that. This is what I see. I can’t help but attribute at least some explanation to the global pandemic. I know that there are pundits and researchers that have analyzed our post-pandemic society and how public education has been affected. I’ll rely on them to offer answers.

Instead of answers, here are my noticings that might spark conversations.

Bored students

Sometimes I feel like my students are taking the guided tour through their academic careers. Some days, I can’t seem to break through their fog of indifference. They are so bored!

I try creating engaging learning experiences, but they often get rejected before I finish explaining the directions. I was shocked when students voted to have free computer time over a hands-on maker project with cardboard, duct tape and straws!

I mentioned above how the pull of technology is strong. I’ve noticed that I am either the same age as my students’ parents or slightly older. Many of my students are children of millennial parents who played Oregon Trail in Elementary school and signed up for Facebook in college.

My Generation Z or Gen Alpha students have grown up with pervasive technology at their fingertips since they were toddlers. When they entered my classroom, I handed them a laptop on the first day of school. Students are struggling to balance technology for entertainment and technology as a tool for learning. If they are not building or exploring or destroying in Minecraft, they are bored. If they are not allowed to use their technology, bored ten-year-olds do what bored kids have done for generations: talk to each other.

I don’t mind students socializing. In fact, I encourage them to socialize with each other during down times while I am transitioning to another learning experience. What is different about my post-pandemic students is that they never stop talking. They talk to each other during the morning announcements. During direct instruction. During silent reading. During videos. While walking in the hallway. They talk during assemblies. They talk to each other while I am talking to them. It’s infuriating! I have yet to get my students to remain completely silent for more than 10 seconds. I’ve timed them. The longest they lasted was 9.34 seconds before someone started whispering to another classmate.

As hard as I try, I can’t make everything engaging and entertaining. There will be some times when students are bored. I don’t expect every student to hang on every word I say or see the value in every activity as much as I do. I don’t want complacent students. I don’t want them to just sit there and never participate in a discussion or push back on something I have said. I don’t want blind obedience.

It feels like it has been a greater challenge than it used to, to get my students’ attention and keep it for more than ninety seconds.

Immature students

Maybe it’s a maturity thing? I have noticed that my last two years’ students have acted way younger than fifth graders. At times, it feels like they are more like big third graders! This school year, I have seen more meltdowns than usual. I’ve mediated more conflicts than usual. I’ve seen students act in ways that are more analogous to toddlers than adolescents (Yes, I realize that adolescents can, and often, act like toddlers)! Something is different.

A lot of the school day is filled with oppressive expectations. Walking in a perfectly straight and silent line, transitioning at the sound of a bell, never getting up out of their seats, only speaking when spoken to; all of these are more compatible with the penal system than public education. I hate seeing completely silent students afraid to slouch in their chair for fear of getting in trouble. I hate seeing students’ spirits broken in the name of classroom management.

Learning doesn’t have to be like this. Learning can be noisy and messy. The teacher is not always right; sometimes (oftentimes!) my students have a better understanding of what I am trying to explain than I do. I appreciate when my students call me out on something that I do, which is unfair. Or when I say something inaccurate.

I can’t seem to get a word in at all! How might this be related to pandemic? Perhaps students became used to half-listening to their teachers on Zoom while simultaneously playing Call of Duty. Perhaps students have been given too much latitude with their behavioral expectations that they forgot how to be in social settings? I don’t know.

High anxiety

I have noticed a lot of anxiety in my classroom these past two years. If I’m being honest, I’m more anxious than I used to be. Covid-19 really messed up my sense of germs and cleanliness. Many times during the pandemic, I became scared that my students would get me sick. I have since become used to post-pandemic teaching life. Schools have germs and kids get sick, but I am not as afraid of getting Covid as I used to be. I’m fully vaccinated and I try to stay healthy.

I have also given up trying to “get through” any prescribed curriculum or amount of teaching in a given week. Things just take longer than they used to. Transitions take longer. Understanding takes longer. Lining up takes longer. Quieting down takes longer.

It also takes longer to help my students manage their own anxiety. My students seem more stressed than usual, and my classroom isn’t a stressful place! I strive to create a learning environment where my students feel comfortable and safe and are not punished or penalized for making mistakes or not understanding. Still, I see many students taking a small issue and spinning out into a huge storm of emotions. There have been lots of tears shed these last two years, and I anticipate a lot more one-on-one conversations with my students helping them process their emotions at school.

I often say that in an argument, there is usually something deeper. For example, when a student cuts another student in line and there is an outburst of anger, it is rarely about actually being cut in line. It is usually about something else. I wonder if this pandemic has stunted our students’ abilities to process their emotions, including stress and anxiety. I worry that they are carrying around so much that they are just one more annoyance away from a total meltdown.

Low emotional intelligence

My students struggling with emotional intelligence. Student outbursts are over seemingly small matters (e.g.: cutting in line, stealing a fidget, etc). Self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills all seem to be lacking on some level. I have many students who struggle with controlling their impulses. For example, I’ve witnessed students blatantly interrupt other adults so that they can ask their question. I will be working with a student (or helping them process an emotional outburst) and students will step in between me and the other student in order to tell me that someone took their pencil. Instead of raising their hands, they will walk to the front of the classroom and ask to use the restroom in the middle of directions or direct instruction.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

I want to end on a positive note. These last twenty years have been an incredible gift. I love teaching. I love working with students. I love helping children grow into amazing human beings. I love helping students learn and seeing their faces light up when they understand something. I love connecting with my students. Whenever I worry about the state of our world, I think about my students and believe that we might be okay. They question EVERYTHING! If something isn’t equitable or just, young people today feel an incredible amount of agency to change it. They have no patience for “deliberate speed.” They want a more inclusive world, and they wanted it yesterday and I feel great pride in helping.

Being an educator these twenty years has not jaded me. I still believe in the power of public education and I believe in my students. I believe that I have a civic and moral responsibility to be an educator. Forming caring relationships with my students is at the center of my pedagogy. I hope that I have had a positive impact on the lives of my students. I hope that I have created strong and positive learning communities within my classrooms over the years.

I’m not going anywhere. I don’t know what the world will look like in another twenty years, or how technology or other world events will continue to impact our society. I do know that I will continue to work with students so that they are inspired to change the world. Teaching is hard and I teach because despite of everything, I still believe that my students matter. I show up every single day for my students. It is always and only about them.




Adrian Neibauer

I am a learning experience designer. I’m an intellectual thinker. I push the boundaries of what’s possible. I have lots stories to tell and change to make.