A Paradise for Teachers – Google Teacher Academy Sydney 2014

‘We will not be daunted by the things people say’ – Tom Barrett, NoTosh

In many ways the Google Teacher Academy (GTA) is a blissful paradise for teachers. When does one get the opportunity to meet with 50+ amazing educators and spend two days discussing educational issues? When does one get the opportunity to talk about ideas, make suggestions and feel that whatever you say matters? The GTA, that’s where! This year I was lucky enough to attend, along with 49 other Australian and New Zealand educators, the GTA in Google’s Sydney offices. I heard that this GTA was unlike any of its predecessors. This GTA was all about looking at education’s bigger picture – what issues are educators and school communities facing? How can these issues be resolved? While it was called the Google Teacher Academy and was held at Google’s headquarters, it actually had very little to do with Google as Rob pointed out here.

Pre GTA Activities

The lead up to the GTA was paved with excitement. NoTosh, a global company which challenges the status quo in schools, public services and creative companies, was to facilitate the GTA. I heard many wonderful things about them and was more than a little excited to be learning with them. In addition, knowing that I would finally get to meet so many of the educators I follow on Twitter was a wonderful feeling. I was placed in a team with a mentor, Chris Betcher, and five other members, Aaron Davies, Jordan Grant, Narissa Leung, Kim Martin and Juliet Revell. In the month leading up to the GTA, we were tasked with ‘immersion’ activities that would provide us with greater insight into our community’s issues. I chose to interview some staff members and students at my school. We also participated in Google Hangouts to discuss our findings each week.

At the GTA! Design Thinking ‘We want this world to be different by the time we leave GTASYD’ – Tom Barrett

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The magical day had finally arrived to arrive at the GTA! The weather was absolutely gorgeous, which must have been a sign of the wonderful things to come. I felt instantly inspired by Tom Barrett’s introduction where he stated simply ‘we will not be daunted. We must not be daunted by things people say. We want this world to be different by the time we leave GTASYD.’

Over the next two days, we engaged in ‘Design Thinking’, which is a ‘framework onto which we hang specific thinking skills to achieve specific learning tasks’ (retrieved from NoTosh, http://notosh.com/what-we-do/the-design-thinking-school/). The process involves: immersion; synthesis; ideation, prototyping and feedback; and implementation or display. See here for more details on this process.

For the GTA, it was all about really thinking deep and delving into the issues facing education. We went into focus groups looking at the educational issues that were specific or suited to our particular context. Some issues included: changing teacher mindsets, changing student mindsets, change beyond the classroom, curriculum development and change leadership just to name a few. In each focus group, we spent time engaging in hexagonal thinking. This is literally using hexagons to map out each issue that comprises the overarching issue.

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We then framed the issue our school context was facing into a question by using a ‘how might we… ‘ statement. This proved to be quite challenging because the question needed to be specific enough to know where to start, yet general enough so it wouldn’t dictate the solution. Initially my question was ‘How might we empower teachers to connect in order to create meaning learning tasks for students?’ however, this proved too specific. With a bit of tweaking and help from my other teachers and my mentor, I framed the issues as ‘How might we empower teachers to create learning tasks that connect with students?’

Next, we had 10 minutes to generate as many ideas that could help to solve our issue (as part of the ideation process). It was stressed that generating ideas is different to filtering ideas, which comes later. It was an intense hands on experience and after 10 minutes, we (all 50 of us) generated 1538 ideas to solve education’s issues! From our ideas, we sorted out which ones were the moonshots, which ones were our darlings (something we hold dear to our heart) and which ones were the safe bets (ideas that were achievable). With regard to our moonshots, this is something that is the combination of a huge problem, a radical solution and breakthrough technology. This is a fantastic video about what moonshot thinking is all about:

I think all our moonshots could be considered huge and are pushing the envelope ideas. However, this is a good thing as Einstein says, ‘if at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.’

The rest of the design process involved brainstorming and getting feedback from other teachers and mentors about how to proceed with our educational issue and bring our moonshots to fruition. I have a clearer idea on how to approach this question thanks to the top minds I had to bounce ideas from.

At the GTA: Great learning from fantastic people

Whilst being exposed to Design Thinking was a truly exciting experience, I think one of the most powerful things for me was to hear the stories and experiences of other people.

Annie Parker from muru-D

Annie Parker is the co-founder of muru-D, a start up accelerator backed by Telstra. She has reviewed thousands of applications and grants $40K to support brand new start-up companies. It was really interesting hearing from Annie, a non-educator, talk about the successful traits of entrepreneurs, as ultimately these are the skills I wish to instil in my students. A few key take away points for me were:

  • Collaboration is paramount. It is important to share your thinking and receive feedback from others. Do not be shackled by your fear of feedback.

  • Don’t take things personally.

  • Passion and tenacity are key. You will hit many roadblocks and at times question why you are pursuing this path. But you must keep going.

I also loved the quote she used:

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Brett Morgan developer relations manager from Google

Brett Morgan, who works on Google maps, spoke to us about the design process and how this is all about focusing on the problem and making it go away with a simple solution. Successful designers (such as himself) seemed to have many things in common with successful entrepreneurs including prototyping and testing. Testing on a colleague, a team and the rest of the company.

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Mentors

Our mentors were fantastic and I feel so privileged to have worked with such outstanding educators. They were not only amazing in how they helped us work on our questions, the fact that they are still so passionate about providing the best possible learning experiences and outcomes for students is truly inspirational.

Other teachers

I will never forget talking, collaborating, laughing, joking, working, eating, walking and learning with these 49 teaching comrades. I think this is the perfect quote to sum up how I feel about them:

“A key to growing as a teacher is to keep company mainly with teachers who uplift you, whose presence inspire you and whose dedication drives you.” – Robert John Meehan.

It seems that something extraordinary happens when 50 enthusiastic, passionate and ‘never settle for less’ people meet and work together. These are the type of people I wish I could keep company with everyday.

Google itself

Okay, okay whilst the GTA did have little to do with Google, I simply can’t talk about the GTA without mentioning a little bit about the headquarters. I was simply blown away by Google, which seems to be the blueprint for workplace bliss. The Sydney office is not exactly like the movie The Internship, but it’s pretty close. There was a nap room and a games room. There was a treadmill that you could also use whilst writing your notes at the same time. There were 4 cafes, with chefs and kitchen staff, each with a different menu every day. And goodness me the food was awesome. Butter chicken and white chocolate slice for lunch anyone? Fresh juice made with whatever fresh fruit and vegetables you want in the juicer to accompany it?  Oh and did I mention that you could eat breakfast, lunch and dinner there? Apparently one of Google’s policies is to not have food more than 100 feet (30.48 metres) away from its staff. That is just my kind of policy, where lollies, muesli bars, chips, a whole fridge of soft drinks and gelati are all within arm’s reach. There were also scooters to get you across to the other Google buildings.

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Oh, and there was one downside to the GTA. It went too quickly. Far too quickly.

To Apply or Not Apply? The Google Teacher Academy Application process

A year ago if you asked me what the Google Teacher Academy (GTA) was, I would have had no idea. Now, I am a fully fledged Google Certified Teacher (GCT). So how exactly did I make this jump?

Like many teachers, I am fairly active on Twitter and more recently, Google+ Communities.  Mention of the GTA first appeared through these mediums.

So what exactly is the GTA? This is from the website:

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Meeting with 50 other awesome educators eh? Creating a strong professional community of educators who support each other eh? This sounded more than awesome! However, I saw this:

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I proceeded to look at the training on the website and information for sitting the Google exams and then felt daunted. It would take me weeks and weeks to watch the videos and study up. Oh and the exams cost about $60 (and you only have a set period of time to take these exams as well). I thought to myself, okay maybe I can do this.

When I saw that the application to the GTA required me to not only submit a written application, but a public 1 minute video that would be submitted to Youtube (yes, for the whole world to see!) I was like, forget it! No free professional development, no matter how awesome, is worth humiliating myself!

However, two main things in 2014 made me change my mind. Firstly, I began to use a great deal more Google tools. Google Docs, Sheets, Forms and Slides are amazing inventions. Some of the great features of these tools are no need to save, up to 50 collaborators on the one document and huge cloud storage are just some of the perks. I suppose it is accurate to say I was seeing how valuable Google tools were becoming in my classroom and was more than a little excited about seeing the Australian Headquarters. Secondly, I have a classroom blog for my Year 2 students and by pure coincidence, another Year 2 teacher (Kate Cooper) came across this blog and started to reply to my class. As teachers, we started to email one another and met up in person at a Google Educators Group meetup. She told me how she was applying to the GTA and I thought to myself if such fantastic educators are applying, what do I have to lose?

Thus began my application to the GTA. Google certainly doesn’t make it easy to be a GCT. Whilst the application process involved both a written and video submission, I don’t know their exact weighting. I am by no means an expert on the process but these are some of the things I think helped me get a spot:

  • Be proud of your student learning achievements. You are in this profession to help your students. Show how you have helped them. Show how you have motivated them. Show how you have facilitated meaningful learning experiences. Show how you have used technology as a tool to empower students.

  • Be proud of your learning. Show the extra professional development you engage in. Do you attend Teach Meets, engage in Twitter chats or attend and present at conferences? Put that in. Applying for the GTA demonstrates a real passion for learning.

  • Be sincere. You don’t have to show how awesome Google tools are. For me, applying to the GTA was not about talking up Google or reiterating how I use Google in the classroom. In fact, I didn’t mention Google at all in my application video.

  • Use Google’s tools. I feel that there needs to be at least some awareness of Google’s products.

Unlike some of the other blog posts on the GTA that recommend you read up about it or give you tips about making the video, I didn’t heed this advice. Partly because I didn’t have time and partly because I didn’t want to feel more overwhelmed than I already was. It was only after I submitted my application, I looked at the calibre of applicants’ videos and read up on people’s experiences of the GTA (which then proceeded to freak me out as the quality of applications was staggering).

At the end of the day, I was very lucky to be accepted on my first attempt. There were many teachers out there who were more experienced, more innovative and more creative than me who missed out. I heard from some amazing educators that they had applied twice and been accepted on their third attempt.

So my last tip is apply and just go for it! And as the saying goes: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”