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Gregor Unplugged: The Student Became the Teacher at Summer Institute

gregor webA student stepped in as the teacher on day four of the Boettcher Teacher Residents’ and Stanley Teacher Prep Interns’ journey into teaching. Each day of Summer Institute, the new teachers learn from Instructors and tryout new practices. But when Gregor, a Junior from East High School led the discussion, the realities of the student experience inspired and challenged the class of Residents / Interns.

GG Johnston, Gregor’s mother and PEBC board member, and who also serves as Board Secretary, introduced her son to the audience of 100 eager new teachers. As his mother, GG is Gregor’s education advocate. During his preschool years, teachers told GG that her son was different from the other students. By third grade, Gregor sensed it as well. After countless tests, Gregor was designated as twice exceptional. As early as elementary school, Gregor questioned the real-life relevance of school work, challenged his teachers with tough questions and occasionally acted out. Sadly, several of his elementary and middle school teachers were not prepared for his student needs and gave up on him as a learner. Fortunately in high school, Gregor met more teachers that reached him as a student.

After an emotional – and  tear-jerking introduction, GG invited the audience of new teachers to ask her son about his student experience in a segment called, “Gregor Unplugged”. Over the next thirty minutes, this teenage boy answered questions with more poise, maturity, and authenticity than most twenty-five-year-old men. After every answer, three more hands shot into the air to inquire about Gregor’s life.  Gregor explained that he disengaged in class when it felt rigid and contrived with very little real life application. Instead, he became engaged during hands-on learning and rich classroom conversation that went deep into rabbit holes as students explored their thoughts and beliefs. Because of those conversations, he shared, “I realized that I can learn anything I want to, as long as I have the right people to talk to.”

Teachers that learned about their students as individuals reached Gregor. They truly knew and respected their students and were not afraid to show their own authentic personality. For Gregor, respect for students included an explanation of the subject matter relevance.  Relevant material and teachers that were real people as opposed to actors with scripts motivated Gregor. His classroom behavior often mirrored his teacher’s. Simply, if Gregor felt like he and his time were respected, he would show the teacher the same respect.

Gregor is not the only one who learns differently and he knows it. He acknowledges the challenge of teaching a class of students with unique learning styles. But he quickly challenged his audience to consider the idea that, “every person that thinks outside the box is going to think differently from one another.”

Gregor did not shy away from sharing his dark experiences as a learner. In middle school, Gregor was not allowed to attend a field trip for three years and it hurt. Gregor was forced to sit absently in a full math class and was not handed a single assignment. He explained how it felt as a learner to be ignored by a teacher. When he shared those experiences, the entire room immediately empathized with the hurt and isolation of a special needs student.

As students, the Boettcher Teacher Residents and Stanley Teacher Prep Interns received a gift from this young man. They will call upon his experience as they learn new techniques and concepts in their coursework. When the importance of relationship building is repeated over and over again, the new teachers will remember what is necessary to actually reach Gregor.  Very soon, the residents will learn to differentiate their instruction to meet the needs of all learners. As they plan a lesson, they will consider, “how would I teach Gregor this?” Soon after that, residents will learn the strategies to teach beyond the standards and instead teach for understanding. They will learn to lead the class that Gregor enjoys, the one that allocates time for hands-on learning and rabbit-hole conversations where students articulate their thinking and understanding.

Because of their class with Gregor, this group of new teachers will be better prepared to enter their Mentor’s classroom this fall.

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