A little over 4 years ago I made a decision. My daughter was just a few months old and I was working at a job I hated in a career that I knew would send me to a life of misery and an early grave. I was sitting at my computer (an iMac that is still sitting to my right as I type this) and I had an epiphany.
My wife and I had talked many times about me going back to college but I'd never really given it any real consideration. I'd get all misty-eyed about the idea of getting my degree and starting a career, then the reality of my current situation would set in and I'd go right back to being defeated and depressed by what was going on around me.
I'm not sure what the exact trigger was that day when I was sitting at the computer but I'd say it would have to be the sleeping baby that was right behind me in her crib. My job forced me into working all sorts of weird hours and there were time, sadly, where I would go for 2 or 3 days and not see my daughter because I'd leave home before she got up and get home after she went to bed.
My dad worked a lot when I was a kid. He had his own business and worked long hours and every Saturday. But he always managed to make it home every night for dinner. I wanted that for my daughter. So I had to make a change.
Believe me when I tell you the change did not come easy. I decided to go back to college and get my degree about 3 months before I actually did anything about it. I had no idea where to start and, frankly, I wasn't sure what I would ever get my degree in. I'd been a computer science major once upon a time in the early 2000s but that plan flamed out as my first marriage was ending and wasn't an option any longer since there were so many classes I would have to take on the main campus of Western Kentucky University, a not-so-short two hour drive from my house.
I looked at what classes I did have and realized that in the midst of all those computer science classes I had also amassed a great many math classes.
That's it. I was going to go back to school and become a math teacher. I had no idea the door I was about to open and the land of opportunity that lay just beyond the threshold.
Fast forward to the fall of 2012. I was enrolled in something called SKyTeach at WKU. Declared an innovative program for developing science & mathematics teachers, I soon discovered that I would be in a classroom to teach my first lesson within the first 6 weeks of the class.
I was terrible. Worse than terrible. I broke out in cold sweats. I couldn't talk. I stumbled over my words. I was terrible. I barely made it through that first semester. Were it not for the encouragement of my mentor teacher, Lee Ann Smith (all of this is her fault, BTW), I'm quite confident I would have changed my degree and possibly even quit school altogether.
Help me Jesus, I'm so glad I didn't.
Fast forward to March of 2013. People told me about this technology conference in Kentucky called KySTE. Technically, the organization is KySTE and they hold a HUGE tech conference every year in Louisville, KY. I decided I would go and check things out. Allegedly, they did some cool things.
Two things happened during that conference: I found my passion and I discovered a fella by the name of Donnie Piercey. I'll get back to my passion in a minute…
I went to a session about something Google something something. Donnie was the presenter. I had only recently been introduced to Google Apps when I went back to school by Lee Ann. Again, this is really all her fault. Whether he remembers this or not (and I'm quite certain he doesn't), I sat through his session and saw some pretty incredible things that you could do with Google Apps in the classroom. So incredible, in fact, that Donnie gave this presentation even though he was still recovering from a pretty major sickness and had to sit down to give the presentation.
That's commitment, folks.
While at KySTE, I sat in on another presentation. Facilitated by 2 students from Eminence Independent Schools in KY.
I was blown away. I had no words. Only tears. I saw possibilities unfold before my eyes that showed me, right then and there, sitting in a meeting room in the Galt House in Louisville, KY, that I knew what I had to from here on out. I found my passion.
At my next teaching session for class, something had changed. I found myself and what I was meant to do in a classroom. My lesson was on factoring polynomials which is, if you're not familiar, an incredibly boring task. I had the students play a little game called, “Factor Frenzy” and printed up some worksheets that had a picture of Frenzy, one of the Decepticons from Transformers, in the top right corner.
Innovative? Not really. Fun? A little. Did I slay the lesson? Yes. Did the kids learn and have fun?
Without a doubt.
When I found my purpose, I became a different teacher. I didn't use any tech in the classroom that day, but I did something different. I went from wondering whether or not I was meant to be a teacher to knowing that it was the career I was made for and only had to step into it to make magic happen.
I was able to put some of that magic to work with my fellow SKyTeach teachers during our capstone project-based instruction unit. Here's the intro video for that project:
Later that year, I would present at my first conference, TeachMeet KY. I will forever owe a debt of gratitude to Will King for letting me present. He had no business letting a pre-service teacher with no classroom experience present, yet he did. Thanks, Will.
Enter the Scooby Gang
I make no claims that I've been able to do all the things I've done in my VERY short career in education all by myself. I've met and made some wonderful friends who are all rock stars in their own right. They inspire me to do more and be more every time we're together.
After KySTE in 2013, I followed Donnie on Twitter. Early in the summer, he decided to start a Twitter chat for educators in Kentucky. Simply called #kyedchat, I somehow got the idea that it would be cool to help him host this chat. Another fine example of what has become my motto, stolen blatantly from Iron Man, “Sometimes you gotta run, before you can walk.”
My first time co-hosting was with Donnie and Marty Park. Marty just happens to be the Chief Digital Officer for the Kentucky Department of Education.
What in the HELL was I doing, a pre-service teacher with ZERO experience in education, hosting a chat with people from around the state MUCH more qualified than me AND co-hosting with one of the big cheeses from the state education department?
Many more #kyedchats would follow and my circle of friends would continue to grow. I met James Allen, the best teacher librarian in the world (and fellow #TOR16 Innovator); Brooke Whitlow, who is a FIREBALL of creativity and the poster child for “move fast, break things” (and a #COL16 Innovator); Heather Warrell, the slayer of any and all FOM (you have to ask her what it means); and so many more. Sometime in here I also connected with Jeremy Shultz, who has become one of my closest friends and teaches just 50 feet from me every day. He tells me all the time that it's great to be my sidekick but what he doesn't know is that I'm really his sidekick (he's SUCH a better teacher than me!)
This awesome group of crazies, whom I affectionately call the Scooby Gang (shout-out to Buffy fans everywhere), culminated our collective innovative spirit when we decided to create Edcamp Kentucky. Donnie and I talked about it briefly after KySTE 2014 and more plans were made at ISTE 2014 (sorry I wasn't there but I was still walking in Donnie's shadow from 5:30-7:30). I bought the edcampky.org domain and in October of 2014, we had our first Edcamp. And it was awesome. It only got more awesome this year when we had a Star Wars theme and we had Stormtroopers.
More friends have joined my circle and each one of them adds their own distinct personality to the group and makes me better. From fellow geek king Adam Watson to the always happy and creative Jamie Chenault, plus so many others, I am blessed to be surrounded by my betters and glean (steal) from them as often as I can.
The Impossible Dream
Ever since I heard of the Google Certified Innovator (formerly Teacher) program from Donnie, I wanted in. However, it always seemed like some far off goal I had to wait to achieve. Remember, even when we held the first Edcamp KY I hadn't even graduated with a teaching degree yet. I told myself to just wait until you're done with school and then apply.
Then, I started my first full year of teaching. Things are pretty crazy that first year and I had much to keep my busy with my internship process. I put off Innovator again. I put off doing Certified Educator and Trainer as well, thinking I would never get them done during my first year. Life Lesson: don't put things off. When you see something you want, go for it. I waited when I didn't need to wait.
My first year wrapped up and I had new ideas for a new year. Plus, I'd also been asked to serve on the school leadership team, been voted to a position on our SBDM, and I was going to start my Master's degree in the fall. Yet again, I wanted to put off trying for any Google Certifications.
Until my beautiful wife and best friend, Amanda, told me to quit putting it off. She told me, “What are you afraid of? If you don't get them, what have you lost? Nothing! Quit being scared of failing and go get what you want!”
Truer words were never spoken. I know that I am a VERY new educator and I get to do things that many seasoned veterans don't and I worry that I overstep my bounds from time to time. I was not just scared but terrified of not becoming a Google Educator, Innovator, or Trainer. It ate at my soul.
Until I had enough. Within a month, I had Level 1 and Level 2 wrapped up. I held off on Trainer because I knew the program was changing (but I'm applying during the next window) and I began to get things in order to apply for Innovator.
Yet, the window to apply opened and I stalled. I let time pass and did nothing. I filled out the application but never made a video. 4 days before the submission deadline, Donnie steps into my life again.
He simply said, “You applying? How's your video?”
I told him, “Not done.”
“GET IT DONE! APPLY!”
He offered great feedback on my ideas and I recruited some friends to help with my Innovation Project video.
I've had this idea for a long time about making a video training site for teachers, sort of like the Khan Academy of professional development. Called TeachFlip, this is the basis for my Innovation Project.
With about 24 hours left in the application window, I submitted my application and waited. I did my best not to think about it for the next week. Thankfully, Labor Day weekend happened and I was able to take my mind off of Innovator until the day they would announce the cohort members.
Tuesday, September 6, 2016
A day that will live in infamy (maybe not). I spent the day checking my email in between teaching. I warned my students that I might be a little distracted. They were rooting for me, mostly because they wanted me to take them to Toronto. They're middle schoolers. They're sweet, but they're selfish 😉
I talked with Brooke to see if there was a timeline on when they announced. She didn't know. Donnie couldn't help. I was a wreck.
At home that night, I was not a good person to be around. I was tense, moody, and anxious. I laid on our couch and Amanda tried to talk me down. No good. She reached for my phone a few minutes after 8 and asked, “what do we need to check? Twitter? Email?”
Before I could respond, she saw the screen of my phone. And smiled. She turned the phone toward me and there was a Google Plus notification inviting me to the Toronto Innovator Community.
I cried. Like a baby. Dreams come true.
I'm not done yet. I still have to complete the #GoogleSuperfecta (I'm from Kentucky. We race horses) by becoming a Google Certified Trainer. My goal, once I decided to do it, was to get all 4 certifications before the end of 2016. I've still got time.
My goal when I began teaching was to create a very different math classroom. I think my students can testify to that difference.
My goal when I began teaching was to integrate technology as much as possible, not just in my room but throughout the entire school I work in. The fine folks at Bardstown Middle School (and the rest of the district) can testify to that.
My goal when I began teaching was to do things others didn't and blaze a trail for others to follow. Becoming an Innovator was my own validation that I was on the right path.
My goal when I began teaching was to be an example to my students of someone who could turn their life around and build the life they always wanted even after making many mistakes and not taking advantage of opportunities the first time around. I'm well on my way to inspiring even more students to build the life of their dreams.
I wrote this post as a reflection on my journey from returning, middle-aged college student (I was 35 when I started back to school) to Google Certified Innovator. My hope is that, after reading this, I've inspired you to chase after your dreams, whatever they may be.
It's never too late. You're never too old. You're already smart enough. You're already worth it. You already have everything inside of you that you need to accomplish your goals and reach your dreams.
All you need to do is quit talking about it and start doing it.
I'm rooting for you. I can't wait to read about your story and see how you inspire your own circle and make your own dent in the universe.
Be committed, be fearless, but most of all…
Also published on Medium.