“You have a gift, a talent, a skill that the world needs – be fearless and share it with the world,” she says. “Things will change in your life – don’t let change scare you. Use your love of learning to work through any and every challenge.”
Tammy Dunbar’s advice is meant to accompany students as they leave her California classroom, but it feels appropriate for just about anyone in life – and many adults would identify that as a sign of good advice. Having earned her teaching credentials after turning 40, Tammy turned from professional stints through marketing and music to a new challenge: teaching. Her charisma and font of optimism brought her some of the way, but not before she followed her own advice first. She’s here to share a skill the world needs, and to share it without fear.
It’s only appropriate that Tammy is emblematic of this year’s Hack the Classroom event, a live, online forum designed to inspire educators, ignite new ideas, and showcase how technology can support today‘s schools and classrooms. Broadcast live last weekend on October 14th, Hack the Classroom brought together the latest teaching methods, tools, and technologies to spark creativity and curiosity in students and educators alike. And with Tammy’s help, it unearthed inspiring tips, tricks and stories from other educators with a love for learning.
To learn more about Tammy’s journey, see our discussion with her below:
You aren’t afraid to try new things and you speak about failure being valuable to succeeding – what would you say to other teachers that are having a hard time trying new things?
What more would our students learn if we were fearless?
Many teachers are uncomfortable teaching something they don’t know frontwards and backwards, which is why teaching technology has gotten a slow start. Teachers have long considered themselves the sage on the stage. But if we want students to stretch those 4C muscles and learn to exercise their communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking skills, we’ve got to become guides on the side – crafting questions and projects that are challenging but attainable.
I’ve talked to many teachers who are unhappy with how their classrooms are running, but don’t know how to recraft and retool. Don’t fret: you CAN change things now! There is nothing wrong with realizing things aren’t working, creating a new strategy and then starting it the next day in class. We’ve got to model the scientific method for our students: we think something will work so we try it, and when it doesn’t, we use the data we have from what didn’t work to craft something that MAY work, and then try it out.
What if we all stopped worrying and embraced positive uncertainty – the ability to accept and even be positive about the uncertainty of the future? If we want our students to become problem-solvers, we need to let them practice it without worrying about grades or assessments occasionally. We need to be comfortable with them discussing ideas and trying them out. We need to push them to try new things rather than punish them when they fail. We need to practice that on ourselves, too.
Teachers must be focused and flexible, setting reasonable goals. We must feel free to adjust those goals as we learn more about our world, ourselves and our students. We all need to be both realistic and optimistic so that we reflect honestly on our strengths and challenges and see their positive potential. We need to stop being afraid and take that first step forward. And then the next. And the next.
When did you get into teaching? Was there something in particular that drew you to the vocation?
I am late to the profession – I got my teaching credential when I was 40. But in retrospect, everything I did leading up to becoming a teacher prepared me to be a better teacher. I was always an overachiever, wanting the highest grade, the loudest accolades, the most gold stars. After several jobs in marketing and music, I began substitute teaching and really enjoyed crafting learning experiences for my students, but when I saw the faces of students at the moment when things finally made sense, I truly felt the calling.
It was in high school that I met two people who helped me understand that learning isn’t about being first or the best, it’s about being inspired.
I thank Mr. Cardoza and Mrs. Topp for that revelation. More than inspiring my love of learning, they have become the models for how I have tried to live my life: encouraging people to keep trying, no matter what; acting with integrity; and always being present and available when students fail or succeed.
What tools do you typically use in the classroom?
PowerPoint is one of my favorite tools – I did a classroom hack last on it two years ago! Plus, I use PowerPoint to create a daily lesson plan to guide my students, acting as a reminder of their assignments throughout the day. We’re doing a Mirror School Project this year with Emma Nääs and her class in Sweden, and we are using Sway to collaborate and share our ideas and projects. Emma Skyped with my class on the first day, and we Swayed our first day of school and shared it with her class. I’ve Skyped with her class and they Swayed their first day and share it with The Room Nine Kids.
What are some project-based learning activities you use in class?
Since we’ve gotten Minecraft in the classroom, I’m enjoying crafting Tech Challenges for the class. We started with Dream Home, then each table group did their Dream School, and now each student is creating his/her best Minecraft Tip or Trick for their newbie teacher. We’re going to pair up with the 7th grade teacher next door to us (whom I’m mentoring for the next two years through our district’s Induction program) for some Minecraft projects – we’ve just established a Lincoln YouTube Channel for our best Minecraft tips and tricks!
My heart is also in global projects like The Human Differences Project and with my new Mirror Classroom Project (in conjunction with The Wallenberg Cube Project). I love being able to break down the classroom walls and get my students to understand that they are a vital part of our world.
And how have you seen technology impact the classroom?
What I notice most in my students is an increase in their confidence in themselves. They show a willingness to open themselves up to helping others out, speaking up when necessary, and finding joy in learning and each other.
Last year, the entire student council at our school – all six elected members – were Room Nine Kids. The lead roles in the school musical were Room Nine Kids. The ones who inspired our administration to host a winter dinner for our school’s homeless students (10% of our school) were the Room Nine Kids.
They BELIEVE they can make a difference.
You point out a lot of meaningful quotes in your blog. Who is your hero, who inspires you and why?
My amazing Master Teacher, who was also my high school speech coach, Mr. John A. Cardoza. John spent long hours with us during the first year of our team. He stayed late after school so we could practice, practice and practice our speeches some more. He got up ridiculously early to drive us in his enormous 9-person van to every speech tournament in the county. He showed us new ways of looking at current events and published works so we could bring new life to them when we competed. He built a team and showed us how to take care of each other and push each other so we could achieve more.
After college, I began working in public relations, which is basically teaching people by giving them good information and motivating them to take action. My focus shifted to community relations, where I found myself working with community groups and helping them find new ways to accomplish their goals. When I married and started a family, I worked as a musician and liturgy director at my church, nurturing and supporting people in their roles as readers, singers, musicians, and all the other participants in services. When our children were both old enough to enter school, my husband encouraged me to try teaching.
Through all of this John had become a close and important family friend, being there at our wedding, for the birth of our two children and even coaching both of them to gold medals in the speech portion of the San Joaquin County Academic Decathlon (in separate years).
Since I was so late to the profession, I went to John to talk about the possibility of my going into education. John encouraged me to pursue my passion, but cautioned that I take to heart one thing very clearly: teaching is a vocation, not merely a job. He told me if I wanted to teach, it was a lifetime commitment; I had to really believe in the calling to “teach and advise in all wisdom.”
He finally became a principal in the fall of 2015, but then got the devastating news that he had stage 4 cancer. His strength and dignity through it all taught me new lessons and gave me new courage. He was my Master Teacher to the end.