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5-in-5: Q&A with Teacher Alejandro de la Peña

Most episodes of Future of School: The Podcast feature a “5-in-5” rapid-fire interview with an innovative teacher―five minutes, five questions, five perspectives direct from a practitioner. The podcast prioritizes hearing from every voice in education, from the association and district leaders driving purchasing and policy, to the teachers delivering instruction in the online or physical classroom, to the students and parents who have experienced the benefits of having meaningful choice in education.

This interview features a “5-in-5” with Alejandro de la Peña, a special education teacher at Parkland Middle School in El Paso, Texas. In addition to being a teacher, he’s also a grant writer, a social-emotional learning program innovator, and an inspirational educator.

Our 5-in-5 interview series highlights teachers’ perspectives on the future of school. Read below for an edited recap of my conversation with Alejandro de la Peña or listen to the full episode above to hear from Alejandro, as well as Nancy Conrad, founding chair of the Conrad Foundation and Oklahoma State University student and Future of School scholarship winner, Jackson Caves.

Amy Valentine: What was the first experience that opened your eyes to the potential of blended and online learning?

Alejandro de la Peña: The first time I took a blended class was back in high school in ’97 ─ a long, long time ago. I was able to finish three entire classes in about one month. So I’d love to be able to do that now. Back in college at Utah, some of my classes were blended, and I liked my freedom. I was even a TA for some online classes, too. It made things easy.

I’ve always been naturally inclined to use technology in the classroom. As a special education teacher, I get surprised reactions when they see how much tech I use with my students.

I think back when the iPad first came out, it was a game-changer for business and entertainment, but no one thought that iPads would be the staple of special education like they are now. The latest cutting-edge technology of today will likely end up in special ed classes of the future. 

Amy: What is the one thing most people, either inside or outside the special education profession, seem to misunderstand when it comes to the discussion about online learning?

Alejandro: This even surprised me when I was thinking about it ─ but I would say how natural it can feel to teach and how natural it can feel for students to learn online.

I’ve heard and felt that uneasiness that going virtual brought over the summer for many people, but I forced myself to be open about it and try to make it as engaging as in-person learning. I searched for new resources and presentations that would make my students feel comfortable. After the first week of school, I’m happy to report that my students are engaged in my classes like they were in person.

They are interacting and socializing and giving it their best effort. The students even joined our virtual meetings super early, ten minutes or more in the mornings, and they stay online for 10 minutes or more after 4 p.m. wanting to show me their work and talk some more.

Amy: What is one strategy that you think every teacher should use in their classroom?

Alejandro: I think the one that works best is to expand my repertoire of learning tools. I’ve got to use a mix of tried-and-true resources, but I must not be afraid to mix it up with new ones.

I think the more you try, the more you may fail, and that’s scary. But the more you try new things, the more chances you have to succeed, and that’s a good thing.

If you tell your students that you’re using something new and it fails, you’re modeling the behavior you want them to do. You’re building a relationship by creating a supportive learning environment where you, as the teacher, show them that you’re willing to learn new things. It’s a win-win all around even if you fail.

Amy: What do you think the future of school should look like for students?

Alejandro: I think snow days are over. I’m sorry to have to break it to you, kids and teachers. The current situation will show districts all over the country (and the world) that if inclement weather prevents you from going to school in person, you can still switch over to online learning at a moment’s notice.

Teachers are probably going to now be required to keep an emergency back-up lesson that we can use in case of a snow day. And not only that, but I can also envision that grade schools going the way toof higher ed, which has expanded its online options.

A few years ago, when people first heard of an online doctorate or a master’s degree from a faraway state, they would doubt the degree’s authenticity. Now, more and more top universities are offering online postgraduate degrees. 

I think K through 12 schools who are already online will gain support, which will lead to the brick-and-mortar districts having to consider providing the same option. The trickle of students leaving for online schools can turn into a flood of students leaving. It carries the sound of losing money and that’s scary. They either get with it or they lose it.

Amy: What is your one big dream about education that you would like to turn into a reality?

Alejandro: My one big dream would be to increase teacher salaries substantially. But that’s going to take more than just a pandemic. As strange as that sounds, I think it’s true.

At the beginning of the quarantine, teachers were placed on a public pedestal with huge outpourings of gratitude. Then it turned into a “Hunger Games Tribute” kind of thing to be a teacher. Many people were willing to have us, and the students try to go back to school in person and send us off with the “odds be ever in your favor” kind of a blessing.

I think we’re still in the window to pressure lawmakers to give us that boost in salaries that we deserve, but that window is closing. We have to show up and vote and let our voices be heard across the computer screens that we’re virtually teaching from right now.

Future of School thanks Alejandro de la Peña and all of our great guests for participating in our podcast. To hear all episodes of Future of School: The Podcast, visit https://anchor.fm/futureofschool

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