Spotlight: 10 Questions for Dan Adler (MA '17)March 12, 2018
When students tell Dan Adler (MA ‘17) they’re interested in teaching, his first reaction is unbridled joy: “That means they see something they love in their day-to-day school experience, and my colleagues and I are doing something good for them.” Dan won Massachusetts’ Milken Educator Award at UP Academy Leonard on November 1, 2017.
1. What went through your mind when you heard your name called at your surprise notification?
Dan Adler: I was in complete and total shock. To be honest, I have no memory of standing up and making my way to the stage. I had no idea that I was even being considered! Now, months later, I feel honored and proud to have received the Award. But at the time, "flabbergasted" seems like the right word. I don't consider myself the best teacher within my own school building. I was 100% sure Jane [Foley, senior vice president of the Milken Educator Awards] was not going to say my name, and I feel humbled that she did.
2. How did your students respond to your Milken Award? What impact has it had on them?
Dan: My students were so wonderful! I remember my first class after the assembly. I was ready to get back to phase changes and business as normal. But my students were smiling, and so proud, and so curious. They asked how it felt to be the best teacher in Massachusetts; I told them I wasn't, but that if I was being recognized, it was because I was working hard at something important every day. I let them know that they were a huge part of my Award, and so were their other teachers, because the team at our school is amazing.
Lawrence Public Schools went into state receivership in 2012 due to persistent poor results. The city itself was in a dire place, with a 50% high school dropout rate, drug issues, and a superintendent who was later indicted for embezzlement. Some of our families don't let their children walk home. Our families used to want their children to go anywhere else other than the Leonard. Now, many of our families are proud to be part of the UP Academy Leonard community, and I'd like to think my Award played some small role in that. Just after I won the Award, we had parent-teacher conferences. Several parents congratulated me and added that it seemed right that our school and Lawrence would get this kind of recognition. I feel proud that our families and scholars think more of their school and Lawrence because of my Award.
3. How did you end up in education?
Dan: When I graduated from college, I became a management consultant in New York. It wasn't a good fit. I didn't have a passion for the work, and I learned that if I lack passion for work, I find it hard to do my best work.
Ultimately, I left and moved to Boston to work for an education and workforce development nonprofit called Year Up. It's an unbelievable organization that supports young adults who have been disconnected from access to higher education and workplace opportunities, and I was lucky enough to have an amazing role assisting in the creation of the organization's five-year strategic plan. Over time, however, I found myself spending more and more time with students, first mentoring, then participating in what's called a learning community, and eventually tutoring math and writing. I found my time with students both important and immensely gratifying, so I applied to Teach For America in 2011 to give a full-time classroom role a try. It's been working out pretty well!
4. Who are your role models as an educator?
Dan: I had some phenomenal teachers growing up, teachers whose instruction inspires me and provides me with models to this day. Mr. Hess was my fifth-grade science teacher, and he was the consummate mad scientist. His room just felt like science, from the various organisms in tanks to the Apple IIe computers he had collected to help us learn ecosystems and food chains through early computer games. I'll never forget Mr. Houser, my European History teacher, pretending to have a phone call with Martin Luther. And Mr. Goodman's warning to "do as you oughta, pour acid into water" is still stuck in my head—along with images of him lighting bubbles full of methane on fire. These teachers and others made learning so fun and engaging for me. That's what I want to do for my scholars.
5. What memories stand out from your first year of teaching?
Dan: I still remember a day in May when I had first period off, after homeroom. I walked outside after my homeroom had left for their first period class and just started crying, because I was so stressed and tired. I didn't know if I had what it took to be a good teacher. It's not a story I tell often, but I think about that day every time someone observes me and doubts they can learn to do something I can do in the classroom. I very much remember what it was like to struggle as a new teacher, and to work hard to remedy my skill gaps.
I also remember the glimmers of hope that made me realize teaching might be something I'd succeed at and enjoy for a long time. I remember learning to manage a full-class discussion, and to hear my students respond to each other like scholars to defend their assertions regarding the most important organelle. I remember building relationships with students like Thais, who came to my room to hang out during lunch. And I remember dressing in all green to match the plant cells we were studying—something I do to this day.
6. What are students most likely to remember about their time in your class?
Dan: Students often tell me how much fun they remember having in my class. We do a lot of call-and-response, chanting, and moving. I make a big deal out of lab days, and I love seeing how excited they get for experiments. I hope they remember how excited they were to get their hands dirty and solve problems, just like real scientists and engineers. Some students tell me they remember all of my horrible science puns. My favorite, though, might be the scholars who remember how hard they worked. A former scholar told me at the beginning of this year that she valued me as a teacher because I always pushed her to do her best, to get her ready for college. Every year my course gets more and more rigorous; I hope more scholars remember how hard the work felt at times, and how they learned the skills of true scientists and engineers through their perseverance.
7. What’s your biggest challenge in the classroom?
Dan: Every class, I say, "Science is not just facts." Students reply, "Science is skills!" The Next Generation Science Standards do a great job of identifying the practices our scholars must use year-over-year in their quests to become scientists and engineers, but I am just scratching the surface of what it means to support scholars in their mastery of those skills, as opposed to content. For example, we focus a lot on modeling and argumentation in my course, but I can be inconsistent in how much scaffolding I provide to students at various points of the year. Over time, I'd like to develop a scope and sequence for the myriad skills my scholars must master, so that I have a better plan for getting my students ready for seventh-grade science and beyond.
8. How do you think you’ll use your $25,000 Award?
Dan: Honestly, I'm not sure yet. I might want to go back to graduate school at some point to get another master’s, or even a Ph.D. I've thought about using some of the Award for causes important to my scholars and their families. Also, I'm getting married next year, and as it turns out, getting married is expensive.
9. What would you say to a student who expresses interest in a career in education?
Dan: First, every time a student tells me that they're thinking of becoming a teacher, I get overjoyed. That means they see something they love in their day-to-day school experience, and my colleagues and I are doing something good for that student.
I tell students who express interest in education that there are few jobs more important. I share that while I used to work in labs, doing science, now I get to help create 100 scientists every year, scientists who could go on to invent new space shuttles, cure cancer, and try to reverse some of the damage we're doing to the planet. I explain that even if my students don't want to go into science and engineering, I hope I make them love learning, and motivate them to continue all the way through college. I add that a good education can build both mind and character, and that as a teacher, you can help students become the kinds of people who are going to become leaders and fight for what's right within their communities and the world. I usually warn that teaching can be hard and tiring, but that it is worth it, every single day.
10. What’s your definition of success?
Dan: I try to keep the long view of student success in mind as often as possible. Success means my students will graduate college, find meaningful careers, and ensure happy and healthy lives for their families, free of prejudice and hate. Alternative pathways may benefit some of my scholars, but I want all of them to have the opportunity to earn a college degree. If my students get to college, they are more likely to have higher incomes, find more stable employment, and continue to build their knowledge and skills, both for vocation and in their lives at home and within their communities. My scholars need to become critical consumers of the world around them, and to be able to advocate for ideas and policies in the best interests of themselves, their families, and their communities.
To achieve those ends, in sixth grade, success looks like mastery of skills and knowledge associated with the sixth-grade science standards. If my students can master the body systems, they might become physicians. If my students can master sixth-grade physical science, they might become chemical engineers. If my students know how cells work, they can understand news on cancer and stem cells. If my students can make good observations, they might make good detectives. If my students can engage in arguments using scientific data, they might make good attorneys.
Lastly, success in sixth-grade looks like my scholars developing the traits and mindsets of successful people. Academic intelligence is all well and good, but can my students persevere through a challenging task? Will they respect teammates and peers, in the search for both allies and audiences? Will they maintain the trust of others through good choices, honesty, and transparency? Will they have the discipline to stay focused in the face of distraction? And will they face the world with energy and zeal, always ready to tackle the next challenge? The path to college graduation is long and challenging for my students, with obstacles born of family income, zip code, and skin color. My students are more likely to come out the other end holding a diploma if the answers to the questions are a resounding “Yes.”
To summarize in hypothesis terms: If I provide my scholars with an authentic scientific experience, one that uses application of skills and practices to reach newfound knowledge, as well as instruction in widely applicable academic skills and character development, then I am putting my scholars on a path to long-term success, first in middle school, then high school, then college, and finally as a citizen.
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