QUESTIONS + ANSWERS: Chelsea McCollum
It’s time for another round of 'Questions & Answers.’ This week we're thrilled to introduce you to a woman who is an all-around powerhouse of a teacher, artist, and person. Read below for Chelsea’s in-depth thoughts on the current state of education, and what it’s like to be a teacher in 2017.
Where are you from?
I’m Pacific Northwest, born and raised! I was born in Portland, Oregon, but have lived most of my life in and around the Seattle area.
How old are you?
I am 34. I think that makes me an Xennial, whatever that means.
What do you do for a living?
I teach art and STEAM at an all-girls middle school in Seattle, Washington. STEAM stands for Science Technology Engineering Art and Math, and it’s a ton of fun to teach. It’s a design based, applied math/science class with a strong engineering component. My kids tinker and build and create solutions to real world problems-- it’s the future in action!
What is your favorite color?
As an art teacher, I have a deep and abiding love for all colors, equally. (Just kidding, it’s orange.)
If you have a hobby, what is it?
The Pacific Northwest is one of the most fantastic places on earth, and I love to get out and explore and get weird whenever I can. I love live music, and get out to see as much as I can. In addition, I work on some art projects now and then, do some freelance building here and there, and picked up weaving a few years back after being inspired by a dear friend (cough Kara cough).
Do you identify with any of the political parties?
I’ve always identified as a Democrat. That being said, I honestly believe the two party system is failing us, and I’ve been pretty turned off by the corruption, vague ineptitude, and lack of transparency the Democratic party has exhibited in recent years.
Talking/learning about politics turns you off or on?
I’ve always loved learning about politics, watching shows about politics, (Josh Lyman, call me!) and listening to people talk about their views, differing or not. However, the current spirit of vitriol and spite in on both sides of modern politics really turns me off, and I don’t understand folks who refuse to speak with or associate with the other side. No one gains if we exist in a bubble, as the liberal media’s surprise at the outcome of this most recent election showed should have shown us.
How has that changed over your adulthood?
My political views haven’t changed all that much; although I think the way I interact with my beliefs has changed a great deal. I’m more of a listener now than I was in my rash and zealous youth.
What are your 3 biggest issues when it comes to politics? (i.e. education, health care, race relations, environment, immigration, etc.)
All the issues feel so present and tenuous and important in this political climate, but I’d say race relations, education, and healthcare are not only political issues but true human rights issues.
You have a pretty rad background in education, from being an art teacher to working for the Brooklyn Board of Education to teaching at an all girl’s school. Could you share with us how your path led you to where you are today?
I entered college as a fresh-faced 18-year old determined to become a musical theatre actress, but quickly fell in love with the backstage and design aspects of the theatre, and in particular scenic design and construction. I loved the set building and design process, and I took an art class to develop my drafting skills further. I was instantly hooked, and added an art major to the theatre major I was already working on. Slowly and surely, I began to entertain the idea of not just creating art myself but actually working to help others create, and I began to pursue a major in education as well as K-12 endorsements in both art and theatre.
My first teaching job was at a rural middle school about an hour outside of Seattle, (fun fact, I taught at the same middle school that I went to,) and I taught art to students in 6th, 7th, and 8th grade, as well as 6th grade social studies. In a brief stint living on the “other coast,” I started working for The New Teacher Project, and worked on a contract with the NYCDOE (that means - New York City Dept. of Education) that brought in new teachers through an alternative certification pipeline. Seeing how the rural school districts in my small town differed from those in Brooklyn and the Bronx was eye-opening, but the similarities were even more profound. However, the more I worked with teachers, the more I missed being in the classroom myself.
I returned home to the Pacific Northwest and quite literally stumbled into my dream job, teaching art and STEAM to middle school girls. If you’d have told fresh-faced 18-year old actress me that this is where I’d end up, she’d never believe you, but looking back now it makes perfect sense.
As a woman with experience on both sides of the chalkboard (is that metaphor even relevant in 2017? Do you even have a chalkboard?) what do you think is the biggest challenge in education today?
I actually have a whiteboard, thank god. The dust was killing me! The biggest issue in education is support, and I mean that in every sense of the word. Many teachers still exit the profession after just a few years, and everybody loses when the remaining teachers left are as overworked, underpaid, and unsupported as they currently are. Teacher preparation programs don’t prepare teachers for the challenges they will face, and the majority of professional development for educators is completely out of touch.
Every school district in this country is strapped for cash, and no one knows how to fix it. Work-life balance and teacher pay are ridiculous. State testing takes the place of relevant, real life experiences. Teacher tenure is valued more than teacher efficacy. People of color are extraordinarily underrepresented, as are female math and science teachers. Curriculum isn’t based in real-world skills, and our students are woefully underprepared for their future. None of these issues are without solutions, but it will take an incredible shift in mindset at the local, state, and federal levels. The current administration (and I would argue the country at large, on both sides of the aisle) simply does not value education the way they should, and I think that the lack of investment in the next generation is shameful. We need more support.
Also - what do you think is the biggest challenge for students, especially girls (including gender non-conforming/trans kids) today?
I don’t believe that the current education system is accurately preparing our kids successfully for the future. The world has changed so much in the past ten, twenty, fifty years, yet the education system has remained largely the same. The same subjects are taught, the same concepts and competencies are prized. However, the knowledge and skills required to exist in this new world our students will inhabit are not the same as they were ten, twenty, and fifty years ago. The world is moving so quickly that the jobs our students will have don’t even exist yet!
If the purpose of school is to provide students with a baseline to enter the working world as a productive, intelligent adult, then we are failing. This generation of learners needs to know how to innovate, how to think creatively, and how to develop solutions to issues that have gone unchecked by the generations before. That’s why I love teaching STEAM. A class like STEAM helps kids advance their critical thinking and problem solving skills using real world situations. In STEAM, they are taught to prototype and test multiple solutions until they find the one that solves the root of a problem. They collaborate with their peers. They develop creative confidence as they design objects that work and move and teach. They learn how the disciplines of science, technology, engineering, art, and math interact and influence each other, rather than the isolated disciplines themselves.
In the very near future our students will be asked to manipulate and develop technology in ways we don’t currently comprehend. They will be asked to create a world that can live in a new climate, with limited resources and less space. They will be asked to explain the unexplainable and build things that seem impossible to us now. Most of all, they will be asked to exhibit great compassion and empathy for the world at large. These skills are mostly neglected in modern education, and it’s to the detriment of our students. I think that the introduction of classes like STEAM into the curricular conversation go a long way towards this end, but there is still much work to be done.
In addition, in terms of girls, gender-non-conforming, trans and kids of color, I think there is an issue of value that adds even another layer to the current situation in education. When a student reads a history book and doesn’t hear about women or people of color in a way that values their experience, it affects them in ways they might not even understand. The majority of textbooks and even the common core are flagrantly sexist and the lack of representation in the current curricular “canon” embarrassing. We all find inspiration in those whose experience resonates with us, and it’s hard for a lot of kids to find that inspiration when the dialogue in their classes is so often one-sided. Additionally, the subliminal “otherness” that this lack of representation develops deep in the psyche of our female, gender-non-conforming, trans and kids of color is so damaging, and only serves to perpetuate the deep divides in modern society. We need to uproot the narrative of the status quo, and show all of our students that they have equal value.
Tell us more about what teaching at an all girls’ school feels like vs. traditional public school!
I never thought I would teach at an all-girls school, but now that I do, I can’t imagine doing anything else. It’s fascinating to teach young women, and this age is such a special time-- and I mean that in a completely un-sarcastic, un-ironic way! Firstly, middle school is huge for the development of social skills, and my school really embraces that aspect of adolescence. We have a huge focus on social-emotional learning, and every teacher in the building works really hard to help our girls navigate social situations in a way that lifts women up rather than tears them down.
The way women learn to treat each other in the middle school years is so damaging, and it’s truly awesome to be able to show girls that there is another way. In addition, middle school is a time when one’s interests really begin to develop, and I love being there as my students start to find themselves. In single-gender education, students have the opportunity to cultivate their interests in an environment where masculine and feminine roles don’t exist to the extent they do in schools where the genders are mixed. I taught a wood shop elective this past quarter and it was rad to watch my kids build stuff and use power tools and get covered in sawdust with their girlfriends-- that kind of thing unfortunately still doesn’t happen in a co-ed school.
Are there any issues or concerns you have related to how the average [adult] American citizen relates to and engages with education?
I don’t think the average adult American citizen is engaged with the educational system at all. Science, medicine, technology, industry-- every major field has experienced great change and innovation over the past few decades with the exception of education. We are still training teachers the same way we used to, we are still teaching the same books, we are still grossly underfunding education and we are still failing so many kids. The average American citizen engages with education as a means to end, a box to check off on the way to their future, but the actual experience could be so much richer than that if we applied just an ounce of the innovation that other industries have experienced in recent history to education. I’d love to see people become more creatively engaged with the education system.
Do you have a piece of advice you would give to someone just now diving into the educational field?
Stick to it. The first year is really hard, and it gets better painfully slowly, but the work is so important and so worthwhile. Be mindful of your influence. Find a way to not be a teacher for a couple hours every day so that you don’t lose yourself. Use your sick days. Find a mentor, and then find another mentor and then find a teacher buddy you can drink with. Stay relevant. Be creative and socially conscious in your content. Cultivate compassion for every student, especially for the ones for which it’s difficult to do so. Teach empathy. Was that too much advice?
How about a piece of advice for those wanting to become invested in the civic engagement (i.e. policy, activism, etc) side of education?
When I worked with TNTP and the NYCDOE I was struck by how few of my colleagues had actually spent significant time in the classroom. It’s one thing to study policy or teacher leadership, but it’s an entirely different animal once you are in the thick of it. The more time you can spend in the classroom, as a teacher or a para or a sub or at the very least a volunteer, the better prepared you will be to actually affect change. The actual experience of being a teacher is something that no amount of reading or lectures or coursework can accurately prepare you for, and I find it odd that so many of our policy makers haven’t spent significant time doing the actual work of being an educator. Along that same vein, I’d love to see more teachers become involved with policy as well. Too often experienced teachers become jaded with the inefficacy of the system and sort of give up the good fight, and I’d love for us to be able to figure out to support teachers in a way that doesn’t let that happen.
What would you like to see Good Support do or integrate moving forward?
Keep it up! We need more opportunities for women to form community and explore issues together in a way that promotes sisterhood. I’m so grateful to Good Support for that. Thank you!