Today on Author Hour, I sit down with Tanya Sheckley, the author of Rebel Educator: Create Classrooms where Impact and Imagination Meet, and here’s a brief description of the book that we’re about to dive into. As a caring, dedicated teacher, parent, or educational professional, are you feeling more and more frustrated by the confines of today’s educational environment?
Rebel Educator takes a tough, honest look at our modern educational system while providing actionable insights and ideas to fill the classroom with imagination and curiosity. Anyone who works with children will feel the possibilities and excitement as they learn how to shift their approach and the mindset of their students.
From traditional memorization to active inquiry, problem-solving, and collaboration through interdisciplinary project-based learning. Grounded in neuroscience yet presented without academic jargon, making it inviting and accessible to parents and teachers alike, Rebel Educator makes a strong compelling argument for a new educational model for our children.
One that teaches them to enjoy learning bolsters their confidence and prepares them with a teamwork skill that are vital to long-term life success. All right, with that as the backdrop, let’s jump into this conversation.
Welcome to The Author Hour Podcast, I’m your host Benji Block and today, I am honored to be joined by Tanya Sheckley, who has just come out with a new book titled, Rebel Educator: Create Classrooms where Impact and Imagination Meet. Tanya, welcome into Author Hour.
Tanya Sheckley: Thanks Benji, it’s great to be here. I’m excited to talk about the book.
Benji Block: Yes, I am too and I know, kind of want to start to catch up our listeners on a bit of your story, and in the reading, I was realizing like, man, you’re an entrepreneur at heart, didn’t always kind of have this maybe level of care for education so talk a little bit about your background and what led to you to found Up Academy and some of the work you’re doing now?
Tanya Sheckley: Sure. Yeah, well, I’ve looked at starting several different businesses in the past and have always kind of been trying to figure out what the thing is that I was being called to do, and after the birth of my children, it became really clear, a big piece of what was lacking in education.
So my oldest daughter was born with cerebral palsy and finding the right educational fit for her where she could get the therapeutic she needed to be independent and get the academic she need to be successful and get the collaboration and the friendships of peers wasn’t something that schools near us did very well.
So I started researching a lot more about learning, and development neuroplasticity and education, that’s what really led to founding, what is now Up Academy, but looking into all of the ways that children learn best and then looking to create a new method.
Benji Block: Well, as someone who has struggled with ADHD and did not love school and with a wife that’s a 7th grade English teacher, I got to say, I’m very invested in this topic. I am interested and intrigued by your book and I am really happy to get to chat with you on this. So talk a little bit about what led to the writing of this because it’s one thing to go, “All right, I’m going to go out there and do this thing and make this my cause,” it’s a different thing to say, “I need to write this down.” So what leads you to write this book?
Tanya Sheckley: Yeah, that’s a great question and if ‘I’m going to be totally 100 percent honest, I didn’t intend to write a book. I sat down at the beginning of the pandemic, Tucker Max ran a couple of writers like a two-day, how to write a book thing and so I signed up for it, going, I don’t really have two days to spend on this, I’m going to take a couple of hours, jump in and see what it’s all about, right? Well, six hours in, I’ve realized how many stories I have and how differently we’re doing education and I have a full outline for a book and I’m excited to go back the next day and so –
Benji Block: Now, you have time for it.
Tanya Sheckley: So this is Tucker’s fault, actually. But yeah, now suddenly, we’re in a pandemic, right? I’m not commuting back and for the way it was laid out, you know, take an hour a day, write down your stories, kind of see what happens, and I have this outline created and it’s always been, founding the school was always with the vision of how we can share what we learn in our education methodology to help other schools and other students around the world.
So writing the book seemed like one more way that we could reach out and share some of our ideas, some of our stories, some other educators that we worked with who maybe aren’t in our school, there’s also their stories in the book. Just giving some new ideas and a fresh lens to so many of the things that were happening in education.
Benji Block: Which is also a wild time to take on a topic like this, right? Because you have all these stories and then also COVID is happening, which sped up so much change within schools. So those things kind of colliding I’m sure made for an interesting experience to try to write this in this time of mass change.
Tanya Sheckley: Absolutely and also, just made for a really great time because suddenly, you know, being a rebel is all about challenging the status quo and suddenly, there was no status quo. Everybody had to find a new way of doing things, of connecting, of building relationships with their students, of sharing information and knowledge.
So for us to share the way that we’ve done that within the classroom at a time when everybody’s trying to figure out how to do that in so many different modalities, it was really interesting but also, you know, this time period has brought up so many conversations about how do we redesign, how do we re-engineer, why were we doing it the way it’s always been done and how can we do it better?
So hopefully, we’ve come up with some great ideas and some great opportunities for educators to try in their classroom through the Rebel Educator.
Benji Block: Yeah. So clearly, you want teachers to read this, you want educators read this, are there other people that you’re writing this for? Is there anyone who’s maybe interested in different forms of learning or who do you hope picks this book up?
Tanya Sheckley: Yeah, I think its primary target is educators and people interested in education which you know, pretty much as anyone who has any proximity to a child or has ever learned anything in their life. So that covers most of us.
Benji Block: That’s not broad at all.
Tanya Sheckley: Right but yeah, its target and its correlation is really to educators, but I think it would find a wide interest in those who have gone to school, those who have gone to a traditional school, those who have gone to different alternative schools. You know, there’s so many different ideas out there and different ways of doing things, and for anybody who is interested in looking at that this presents another opportunity.
Challenges Today’s Teachers Face
Benji Block: Well, let’s dive into some of the content here and I want to start with actually a stat. You talk about how you surveyed almost a hundred teachers from around the country when you were writing this and only 14 of them said that they had never considered leaving the profession which means, 80 percent of teachers at any given school are thinking of quitting, which I know firsthand that conversation, what it’s like and so I just wonder, for those that maybe don’t have purview in the school and education and what teachers are facing.
What leads to such high of a number, Tanya, what have you found to be some of those recurring themes that come up as struggles for teachers and what they’re facing?
Tanya Sheckley: Yeah, and it’s interesting because that survey and those teachers that I spoke with, was all pre-pandemic. That was done back in 2019.
Benji Block: Yeah, the number’s got to be even higher.
Tanya Sheckley: You know, it’s a small sample size so I will say that. It is a small sample size and it’s people, it’s educators who have at least given it a thought. Like you said, you’ve had that conversation, right? It doesn’t mean you’re ready to leave, it doesn’t mean you’re making a change but you had this thought of you know, “What if I did something else, what would that look like? What would it be like to not be in the classroom?”
But teachers are faced with so many challenges and so many pressures from the school and the curriculum they need to teach, the curriculum they want to teach, new curricular initiatives, new parent initiatives that come through, working with their students, and all of the personalities and the relationships and the challenges and the strengths that their each individual students have and the challenges of how to best support them, best educate them, best challenge them so that they’re getting what they can out of school.
At the same time, working with the parents and the families and helping them to understand the teacher’s methodology and the teacher’s philosophy and the how and the why of the things they’re doing in the classroom and why it’s important to be consistent with those things at home as well and then, all of the outside pressure of society, right? Because especially right now, everybody’s talking about education.
Everybody has an opinion about what teachers should do or schools should do or what students should be doing or how to address learning loss or how to make sure that our gifted students are challenged, right? There’s all of these different issues and things that everybody has an opinion about and as an educator, everybody likes to share those opinions with you.
So there’s that society pressure, there’s families and parents, there’s the actual students, there’s the administration, all of these things consistently competing in a job that’s, let’s face it, is really undervalued and underpaid in our society for raising our next generation of children.
Benji Block: Yeah, there’s a lot of stakeholders, there’s a lot of different factors in it and I know, when you talk to a teacher and you ask like, “What’s the hardest part of your job?” from the outside looking in. I think a lot of people think, “Okay, well, you know, they’re dealing with these kids all day, the kids have to really stress them out” and in reality, like that’s what got a lot of these teachers in the first place is they love these kids and they want to invest in their future but it’s all the other stuff that gets in the way, right?
Tanya Sheckley: Absolutely. Yeah, teachers are in it for the kids and the kids are the joy and the fun and the art of teaching, so many educators got into their careers so that they could make a difference in someone’s life. So that they could help, so that they could educate, so they could support and that’s where their passion lies and that’s where the art of teaching lies. How do you connect with each and every one of those students in a different way? How do you challenge them in the areas that need to be challenged? How do you challenge them in the areas they need to be challenged and how do you support them in the areas where they need to be supported?
And that’s different for every student and when you have a classroom of between 20 and 30 students, that by itself is a big enough challenge without all of the other things but yeah, they’re in it to make a difference and they’re in it to really support the next generation and to create and to teach.
A Brief History of Education
Benji Block: I mean, let’s go to history class for a second, take us through a bit of how we’ve ended up where we are because yes, there’s all these complexities but I mean, you point out essentially, it’s been about a century of passive learning, a system that kind of echoes a bit of a bygone era. So how have we ended up where we are and in this conversation around education, Tanya?
Tanya Sheckley: Yeah, that’s a really good and nuanced question. I do cover kind of the short version of it. You know, if we look back in history, back as far as the 1600s, students were learning at home with their families. By the 1700s, we’re starting to see the groundwork of public schooling and of bringing people into school but it wasn’t until the early 1800s that we started to see public schools opening that were free for all students.
At the time, you know, parents were really skeptical. They thought they could teach their children better at home and I’m sure that their kids all had chores to do and you know, learning was interspersed with all of the other pieces and things that made a family run. So, it wasn’t ‘till the mid-1800s that we opened the first kindergartens and the department of education was formed.
Now, the thing that’s interesting is that we very much still have that same type of education. Where students are going into a classroom and they’re learning, reading, writing and arithmetic and they’re sitting and listening to a teacher who is teaching them things and then, they’re asked to repeat these things back to them and so our education methodology hasn’t really changed since the mid-1800s.
But, if you think about what the world was like then, there weren’t cars, there wasn’t – there were no TVs, there was no internet and so –
Benji Block: And you point out even like how the way that we educate, in fact, the way that the classroom is set up was designed really to produce like factory workers.
Tanya Sheckley: Yeah, very much, as it built and as we got into the early 1900s and the factory was started as a way of manufacturing anything, right? I picture vehicles and the Ford plant and them putting together Model Ts and that was designed to be efficient and because that worked in business, we also started doing that in schools and how can we just teach everybody the same thing so that they get through and we can produce workers who can work in these factories that can produce, in that case cars, and turn a profit.
Very much, we still have that type of education method and that’s part of what we talk about in the book but part of a larger conversation as well is, how do we really shift from that factory model of education or of producing workers or of production even into what is the future where we’re right now, we’re in more of a gig economy and you’ve got to be really flexible and moving between jobs or having multiple things going on and looking for the next idea and people are so much more creative and there are so many more opportunities, combined with the fact that we literally have an encyclopedia in our pocket.
So, all of the memorization of facts and figures that I know, I did as a kid, which I still have to ask Siri because I don’t remember them, even though I was tested on them and I was a straight-A student, you know, it’s still – and your teacher’s reasoning at that point was like, “Well, you can’t always go grab an encyclopedia” and you know, I had the big set of them at home if I needed to go look at something but now it’s literally in our pocket and so, how do we move from that just giving content as knowledge to giving skills and ways to utilize that content as wisdom and information to be able to transfer it into other parts of our lives?
Benji Block: Wow, well, I want to get to that from history and kind of jumping than to actually a question that I thought was so wonderful that you pose in the book, I kind of want to hear you just riff on it here for a second but you asked and posed this question, how do we make changes in our classrooms that will have a positive influence on the next generation?
It sounds like maybe a straightforward question but then in reality, when you look at what you just outlined with all the red tape, with all the history I think one of the overwhelming feelings many can experience when they see where we are and maybe this hope for the future that it will change is like how do we actually get there?
How do we make that positive influence and do it fast enough to really impact the next generation? So riff on that like, what are you excited about how do we start to make changes in the classroom that are going to have a positive influence?
Tanya Sheckley: I mean, my gut reaction is that we start by being rebels in challenging, literally challenging just the things that we do in the classroom, why do we do this, what is it for, what is its purpose and with those answers, is that something that’s still necessary for us to be learning and is it useful in the future? So, boiling down the things that we are doing into smaller pieces and then making just simple small changes.
You know, it is not a matter of every educator completely changing their classroom from the way they teach now to a full chaotic project-based, student-led classroom, right? Not everybody is going to be comfortable with that but making one simple change, you know adding a time for reflection, adding student assessment to teacher assessment, adding one little piece, or changing one little part of the way we do things.
One idea, especially for science educators or STEM educators, instead of holding on to all of the pieces and the parts and then demonstrating for the students and showing them what we are going to do and then having them do it, instead giving them all of the pieces and parts and letting them tinker and try and work on figuring it out with the guiding question, letting them mess around with it.
Letting them make a mess, letting them fail at it, and then giving them the idea of, “This is how it was meant to be built” or “Here’s one of the ways that this could be answered” then when they go back and rebuild it or incorporate some of those things into what they built, now they really learned how to do it because they tried something, they tinkered with it, they gave it a try, maybe it failed or maybe it succeeded.
Then they saw another way of doing it that they could incorporate into the way that they created it. So just that simple flipping, you know it is the same time period, it is the same lesson, it is the same materials but let them have the materials first and show them the answer later instead of vice-versa and there’s going to be a lot of teachers cringing hearing me say that because it goes against everything that every educator was taught about classroom management.
But those little things like that that don’t have to be a huge change all at once but making incremental changes will really make a difference in how the students are learning and what they’re retaining and how they can take it into the world.
Core Values of a Rebel Educator
Benji Block: Yeah, I love that idea as a starting place, it’s these simple changes being a why asker that sets us apart as rebel educators. I wonder, what are the core values in your mind beyond that? Are there any for a rebel educator, what are those core values, core competencies that you would define as a rebel educator?
Tanya Sheckley: Yeah and I don’t think I have really defined any core value specifically in the book. I can share our core values as a school are innovation, strength, and empathy and so that’s an understanding of people and building relationships and a self-awareness, how is our inner and outer vibrancy in the world around us, both physically and mentally and emotionally as far as our strength is concerned and innovation.
To use your words, being that why asker and creating new ways and challenging the way it’s always been done and being an innovator in the classroom, in schools, in lesson plans, in everything that we do.
Benji Block: I love the tagline for this book, Create a Classroom Where Impact and Imagination Meet, walk me through when you think of a rebel educator in creating that type of classroom, what in your mind is this mix of impact and imagination like do you try to measure those things or are those just kind of words that you feel like really resonate with what we should be doing in schools and the types of classrooms we should be trying to create?
Tanya Sheckley: Yeah, a little bit of both. So anytime we can create a project and a lesson that connects to the real world for our students and they can make an impact on something around them, they’re going to remember that and they’re going to remember what they did and they are going to remember how it felt to make a change. You know, to do that, requires imagination.
It requires creativity, it requires looking at the world around us and noticing what might need to be changed or what could be better and it could be as simple as an art project around town that paint those ugly green utility boxes and turns them into works of art, right? This is something that students may have noticed, they like to see changed. You’ve got to talk to city hall, you have to get permits.
You have to get your artwork approved, right? You are learning how to work through all of those systems to change something that changes the world around you. We did a changemakers project in our school where our students took on a project and took on a theme that they want to see change in and even our five-year-olds wrote small speeches about why they thought it should change or why they thought we should protect the climate.
We happen to be two blocks from City Hall, so we did a mock protest march to City Hall and the kids sat outside and gave their mini speeches about what they thought needed to change in the world, and then we came back, and our upper-level class wrote letters to people of influence. So, whether they were in government or in local policymakers, or people within our community but they use their voice and wrote letters about their opinions and the things they’d like to see changed.
So yeah, there’s so many ways, that even the youngest learners can make an impact on their world and by helping them to notice by using their creativity and by imagining what’s possible, it opens up so many ideas.
Benji Block: That popped back to mind a word you used several times throughout this book, which the word agency and it made me think of what you were saying earlier as well on this idea of tinkering first before you give answers and give solutions. You really feel like agency is a big thing that school can help provide, talk a bit about how agency ends up setting students up for life after education and how maybe in the past that hasn’t been on the forefront of what we’re thinking about when we think of school.
Tanya Sheckley: Yeah. Well, I think in its simplest term, it’s giving value to student ideas and student work. So it is not necessarily placing a grade on the final product but it is placing value on the process we took to get there. So instead of having a test score that we’re testing that’s either right or wrong and somebody is going home because they got them all right and they’re happy and somebody is going home because they didn’t study or they just don’t really understand the material or something happened at home and there is other trauma going on, right?
So they didn’t get a good grade and so now, they’re feeling back about that and it doesn’t mean that their ideas aren’t valid and it doesn’t mean that they can’t do great things in the world but I feel like often when we give this pass-fail, you did well or you didn’t do well, it can create that dichotomy for a student and for many students that’s like one more thing in their life that they’re not doing well.
When we can look at it from a project-based perspective and when we can look at the process and when we can give students opportunity to really engage their ideas and try things out, sometimes they’re going to work and sometimes they’re not but students start to get that understanding that their ideas are worth something and that if they have an idea and they can create something from it, that that has value.
So instead of just having this dichotomy of right or wrong, there’s this process of, “How do I have an idea, how do I see it through? How do I create something from that and how do I show what worked or what didn’t work and that I can go back and change the things that don’t work?” or if somebody is challenging my ideas, I can go back and do more research or try to learn more about that thing.
But it is really instilling this process and this love of learning that allows every student to understand that their ideas have value and have worth not just that they were able to say something was correct or incorrect on a piece of paper.
Benji Block: Yep, I love that. I know one thing I admire is that you go to great lengths to give examples and to show what a classroom like this could look like, where you are really creating a love of learning. Do you have maybe one or two stories that you’d want to highlight here for our audience of what this can look like in practical terms or what people are trying and doing?
Tanya Sheckley: Ooh, that’s a great question. I talked a little about the change-makers project, which is one of my favorites. There is another one that comes to mind, and this was when I was actually teaching esteem camp at an after-school program that I ran before we started the elementary school and I had given the students a whole bunch of materials. They had cardboard boxes and tubes and tape and stickers and paint and they needed to create a house.
Any kind of house, they were really no guidelines. It didn’t have to necessarily be a house, it could be any kind of building or creation. They created all sorts of different things and the boxes that I had given them were folded up pre-fab boxes, right? So they were like flattened boxes, you had to open them up, fold in a couple of places and it became a box and I demonstrated how to do it, I showed how to do it.
I had my box sitting there that it was all set up, all of the other students have built their boxes and were moving on and I had one little student who is just staring at her box, her flattened box on the table and I came over and I asked her what was wrong, what happened and she couldn’t answer me. She just looked up with me with little tears in her eyes and I had had her for a whole week and so I knew she was doing well.
So I just kind of sat down next to her and I said, “You know, I know that you can do this. Do you want me to walk through how to do it again so you can see it” and she didn’t look at me. She just had her head facing down and was a little teary eyes and so I brought the box over and I demonstrated again for her and she looked at me and I said, “Okay, I am going to give you some time to work on this” and I walked away.
I came back a few minutes later and she was still sitting there, her box was still flattened. She had little tears running down her face and I told her that I knew she could do it that I wasn’t going to do it for her but that I believed in her and with everything that I had seen that week, I knew that she could create an amazing house and I told her I was going to give her some more time and I walked away.
So I came back a few minutes later and she had picked up her box, hadn’t started to fold it yet and I told her she was doing a great job and that she could do it. At this point, the rest of the students in the group are two-thirds through finishing their houses, they’ve got them glued onto platforms, they are decorating them with stickers and with paint. They are jovial and laughing as they are creating little neighborhoods now and she still has a flattened box.
So finally she has picked it up, she looks at it, she starts to manipulate it a little bit, she turns it into a box, she starts to decorate it and this little girl’s face lit up and was so excited. She was the one at the end of the day that went skipping out with her box and with her house, sorry, it wasn’t a box, it was a house at this point, with her house and talking to her parents and all excited and animated about the thing she had created and the thing she built and the little mailbox that was with it and the stickers that were windows and all the decorations that she put with it, which just like she could not have experienced that level of satisfaction and success if I would have folded her box for her.
Now, it’s way harder as an adult and an educator to not do that and there definitely are situations where it’s warranted and you can and you should. I knew I had been working with her for a little while, I knew what she was capable of and I knew that she could do it and so I let her have that struggle and so the story is called The House of Perseverance, it’s in the book and talks about how when we allow students to find that struggle, that’s where growth occurs.
Benji Block: Great example and I think you do a great job of showcasing several of these ways we can be doing that throughout the book. I really encourage people to go pick this up and check it out. It’s timely and it is a much-needed conversation. As we start to wrap up here, when a reader finishes this book, Tanya, what are you hoping sort of the main takeaway is? Is it a move towards being a rebel or what do you want to teach her to feel as they conclude reading it?
Tanya Sheckley: I want them to feel excited and empowered to try even just one small thing in the classroom that’s new and different and one of the things I say at the end is talking about a revolution because a revolution begins not with one person leading the way for change but instead when many people see the need for change and everyone begins to take small steps individually and together towards that change and so that is my hope.
If we can all take small steps to make sure that our students know how valued their ideas are to give agency to their interest in the classroom, to change one small thing, and maybe allow some of that struggle so that we can support all of the growth that comes with it.
Benji Block: Well, this has been a fascinating conversation. Thank you for the hard work you have put in on the book. I know you also have a podcast, Rebel Educator Podcast that people can check out. Where can people stay connected to you, the school, your work, what’s the best way for people to do that?
Tanya Sheckley: Yeah, you mentioned the podcast. There is a website along that too, rebeleducator.com is a place to get in touch. You can reach out through my LinkedIn profile, Tanya Sheckley on LinkedIn, I am quite active out there and our school website is upacademysf.com if you want to check out our model.
Benji Block: Love it. Again, the book is called, Rebel Educator: Create Classrooms where Impact and Imagination Meet. We would love for all of you to go pick up the book on Amazon. I know it is going to be a great resource for so many educators. Tanya, thank you so much for taking time and stopping by Author Hour today.
Tanya Sheckley: Thank you, this has been a great conversation.