This September, for the first time in 14 years, Joe Jamison didn’t walk into his classroom excited for the new school year.
However, it’s not yet another disillusioned public school teacher story: Joe’s so fired up about education that he’s prepared to step way outside his comfort zone.
So much so that he’s done something he vowed he would never do – get an office job. Although granted it’s a little different from the norm: they’ve just put him on plane to West Africa.
“I saw Sugata’s talk and was blown away. I thought ‘Oh man, I have to find out how to do that in my classroom’,” he says. “So I took it, tweaked it and played with it a little and in the first week of the new school year in 2013 I just hit the ground running with my 5th graders. I was fortunate to have a lot of admin support behind me and the kids took to it very quickly – it just took off.”
Joe has worked closely with the School in the Cloud team at Newcastle University ever since and when it came to selecting a class to feature as part of the Work Wonders Project collaboration between Sugata, Microsoft and PoP, his was an obvious choice.
Once they’d see him in action running a SOLE with students at Lawrence Intermediate School in New Jersey, USA the PoP team wanted Joe onboard to help set up SOLEs (self organised learning environments) in their schools in Ghana.
When I spoke to him last week he was about to embark on his first trip outside of North America, to West Africa. He left last Saturday on a six-day trip to the Volta region, where he will be visiting new build sites and running teacher training sessions as well as SOLEs. There are two schools in Ghana – in Toklokpo and Agorhome – where SOLEs have been piloted with 5th and 6th graders since January 2014.
“I’ve tried Googling the places I’m visiting but they’re so remote they don’t show up,” says Joe. “It just hasn’t sunk in yet that I’m going as it’s so far removed from anything I’ve ever experienced. Pencils of Promise is doing some pretty innovative work there and I’m just excited to get my feet on the ground and get my hands dirty.”
Joe’s school district has given him a year of absence to take up the position. “They’ve been so supportive and generous about letting me go and work for someone else because they knew I had to do this,” he says. “I knew in my heart of hearts this was something I couldn’t pass up and I feel so blessed to be here and have this opportunity. Here I am working on something so awesome that I feel so passionate about – it’s certainly not an everyday office job.”
But it wasn’t a decision he took lightly. Joe told me the contract sat on his desk for over a week before he signed it. He knew it would mean a long daily commute between his home in Pennsylvania and New York (a journey made more bearable as his wife works for Amtrak, the national US passenger train service, so he can be door to door in about one and a half hours) as well as time abroad away from his wife and young family.
“In the end it was my wife who said ‘What is that still doing on your desk? Just sign it, you have to do this – we’ll find a way to work it out,” says Joe. “She’s been unbelievably supportive. One thing the SOLE process has taught me more than anything is that no meaningful learning ever takes place inside of your comfort zone. I saw this as an opportunity for me to learn and grow both as a person and a professional. I want my kids to be able to look at what their Dad’s doing and give them a more global view of the world.”
Joe says the work in Ghana is going to ‘change the way they think about education forever’. He explained how it is opening teachers up to resources they didn’t even know existed. “I’m used to being able to drop everything and do a SOLE whenever I feel like it,” he says. “In Ghana, we turn up with tablets and hotspots on a schedule, so that will take some of the spontaneity out of it, but it is still workable. As they know when we’re coming, they can work it into teaching the curriculum.”
Although teaching methods in West Africa are more traditional than Joe is used to, he’s not phased by the prospect. “I don’t think teaching culture is so different across the world,” he says. “I’ve worked with some pretty old-school teachers in the US who wonder what on earth I’m doing. I’ve always thought the biggest obstacle to SOLE working is the teachers themselves.”
Joe concedes it’s hard for any teacher to step back and let the kids take the lead and that many feel threatened by someone like Sugata coming along. “It’s not his plan to replace teachers as some think – he’s said they are 100% necessary to steer the process,” says Joe. “What is needed, is for teachers to change how they do things. When something like SOLE comes along it really does raise the bar in a good way and shakes it up. I’ve seen the results and I think teachers just have to be excited.”
While out in Ghana, Joe will also be seeing the results of PoP’s e-reader pilots to improve English acquisition at primary schools, which is now being expanded to serve 3,000 students at 28 PoP schools. Children are measured using the standard EGRA(Early Grade Reading Assessment) indicator and will also be tested on how much they later retain of the concepts they are taught, with SOLE methods now being integrated into the learning.
One thing Joe is making sure is definitely in his carry-on is his laptop, so he can Skype his family. He says being apart from them will be the hardest part, but that he realises he’s a man on a mission. “Ever since high school I’ve wanted to make an impact,” he says. “I don’t care if people remember me. I just want the impact I made to be remembered.”
Follow Joe on Twitter @josephmjamison
Main photo credit: Natasha Scripture, TED.