Kent City — Ten years ago, as School News Network was just getting started, Amber Powell was wrapping up her first year as a teacher in Kent City Community Schools. She launched her career as a part-time middle school reading interventionist, later took on a full-time role in reading intervention, and now works as a special education teacher at Kent City High School.
“The fact that it was my first-ever, big adult job, and I didn’t have to go anywhere else until I found the right fit, that feels kind of lucky,” she said of her career in Kent City. “I don’t think everybody has that experience, but it’s given me a good perspective and I really appreciate that.”
In conjunction with SNN’s first decade of education reporting, we sat down with Powell to talk about her first 10 years in education: the changes she’s seen, the new perspectives she’s gained, the challenges she’s faced and the dreams she has for the future. (Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)
What is the first thing that comes to mind when you consider how education has changed in the past 10 years? “The immediate answer for me is that technology is vastly different. When I started, we didn’t have one-to-one Chromebook devices; you had to (use) a computer lab to do assignments. I was lucky because early on, I had six computers and a printer in my room, and people were jealous because I had some technology in my room. Looking back, that seems crazy that those things were so coveted. Now, every student has a Chromebook and I would say 80 to 90% of their assignments are online in Google Classroom, so they have access to their assignments whether they’re absent or present.
“At the same time, I still have students who don’t have internet at home. … Yes, we are a little more of a rural district, but I think you probably could find (students without internet access) almost anywhere. So teachers do need to keep that in mind — there’s only so much outside of class that we can ask or require of them. Maybe they can’t get to the public library or can’t stay after school where they have internet access.”
Powell also lamented the “negative attitudes” she said have crept into society and the ways she’s seen those affect both the students and the education landscape in the past 10 years.
“I think that these kids are going to do great things. It’s maybe going to be different than previous generations, but they have such bright futures ahead of them and things to look forward to. … Focusing on the things that are going well and trying to replicate that in the classroom just makes for a much more positive learning environment.”
‘What can we learn from this next generation of learners? I know there’s a lot (to learn).’— teacher Amber Powell
How has your approach to teaching changed or evolved? “I think the partnership with parents has changed quite a bit. When I started, I was very scared of parents, whereas now I really value the parents and their unique perspective on their kids, no matter what relationship they have with them. They’ve known (the child) their whole life, and they have a perspective, and that perspective has value. So any time I’m able to connect with parents and be on the same page with them, that’s something I really appreciate. They can help me understand something about that student that I didn’t previously know.”
How have you seen students change in the past decade? “I’d definitely say post-pandemic apathy is a huge thing that we are battling. I’ll (have a) conference with a kid and tell them, ‘You’re failing this class,’ and for them, that’s that — they just accept it as their fate. Whereas I’m saying (to them), ‘How about we problem-solve and fix this before it gets worse?’ But they’re really OK with just failing, or maybe taking the course again if they need it for credit. And I’m like, ‘What in the world? I want to help you!’”
Ready access to technology has also impacted students’ learning styles and potentially helped boost that feeling of apathy, she noted.
“Kids are used to finding answers quickly now, so when there is a question that requires some deeper thinking, there’s definitely a population of students that don’t want to think that hard. … I see more students falling into that kind of apathy, where they don’t want to put forth the effort and aren’t used to working that hard to find an answer that they need. They’re OK with getting a surface-level answer instead of going deeper. So as teachers, I think we need to find how we can help them re-learn these problem-solving and thinking skills. … I already know they can problem-solve when it comes to technology — they’re way better at that than I am — so I know they can work hard and they’ll get it eventually.”
What is something you do as an educator that you never would have dreamed 10 years ago? “A lot of days, I feel like a counselor or a social worker. I see things on a day-to-day basis: students struggling to manage stress, struggling to know how to navigate family problems, struggling the first time they fail a test and not knowing how to navigate those emotions. … But for some of these kids, I am their safe place; they do trust me with those things, and I get a chance to mostly listen, but also connect (them) with a resource if that’s appropriate.”
What does being that “safe place” for students mean to you? “It feels very personal. It feels very sacred and special and honoring. … I just know that my kids — my kiddos here in school — are counting on me, and maybe I’m even the only person they can count on.”
Powell said her teaching experience has given her “a perspective shift” in understanding that, for some students, school is that safe place in their life.
“Not everyone’s excited at the end of the (school) day. They’d rather be here, and that’s their reality. … There are questions I don’t ask in my room anymore, like, ‘What was your favorite Christmas gift? What grand vacation did you take during the break?’ We might share highlights, but we’re not going to have an extensive conversation about how awesome your break was when maybe other people’s (breaks) weren’t.”
What do you hope for in the next decade of education? For Powell, it’s asking, “‘How can we adapt teaching and education to suit this generation of learners and the ones that are to come?’ The world is changing; we don’t want to stay stagnant; we want to help create students that are ready to launch into the world and improve it. So that means that (educators) have to continuously change.
“I would hope that society would start to see the potential in this generation of learners and get excited about what they have to offer the world. I really can’t wait to see what they do.”