The math teacher I wish I had. Microsoft Innovative Educator Profile: Tom Gaffey, Math Educator, School of the Future

In my last post I featured the teachers and projects that were accepted in Round 1 of the Partners in Learning 2011 U.S. Innovative Education Forum (IEF), Microsoft’s worldwide, premier teacher recognition program. It was exciting to see this first set of projects for this summer’s forum which we will host on Microsoft’s main campus in Redmond, WA. We look forward to seeing the next round of applications prior to the final May 15th deadline.

As we move forward with this year’s IEF I was prompted to reflect on last year’s event. One educator who applied was Tom Gaffey, a math educator at the High School of the Future in Philadelphia. The School of the Future opened five years ago by the School District of Philadelphia in partnership with Microsoft. The goal was to create a continuous, relevant and adaptive learning environment with technology playing a key supporting role.

I first met Tom when visiting the school last year and it was evident in our first meeting that Tom was a focused and engaged teacher. He displayed the kind of intensity and goal-oriented focus often associated with high-performing athletes and an artist or writer on the vanguard of their profession. Determined, yet willing to engage with this random guy from Microsoft taking him away from his primary job --teaching students about math-- but not really wanting to spend too much time chit-chatting as he had work to do and I was a bit of a distraction to his day. This noted, Tom was polite and engaging and we’ve worked together over the past year or so.

The High School of the Future sits in a west Philadelphia inner-city neighborhood. As many reading may know, working in an urban school with a diverse socio-economic mix coupled with challenging outside school dynamics requires a different kind of teacher. Or perhaps better stated, a different kind of teacher to do it well. That is not to say Tom could not thrive at another school, but he certainly has the right personality and presence necessary to address the challenges embedded in this environment. Moreover, Tom is able to not only address these challenges, he is able to move beyond them engaging students in math as a collaborator, educator and facilitator in the classroom, along the way using technology with his students to support and engage them in the classroom. This article captures the essence of his classroom.

For Tom, technology is a tool and part of his “teacher system,” and one of many he (and many other educators) choose to use, similar to how we might use a Socratic seminar to encourage students to synthesize their thinking, a cooperative group assignment to practice working together as a team, or another teaching strategy to support the learning outcome sought. This is the kind of math teacher I wish I had (Full disclosure: I was never very good in math and though I fault myself, I often found how I was taught math through years didn’t mesh with how I learned best.)

Tom applied to the U.S. Innovative Education Forum last year and his “Project 100” application reflected his overall approach to using technology in the classroom by familiarizing 9th graders with project-based and technology-driven learning with a heavy focus on mathematics and technology and asking them to tackle real-world problems and find the answers to questions they pose themselves. Though Tom’s penchant for Microsoft OneNote, his tool of choice, certainly comes through when we get to “talking tech,” it is still just another tool in his instructional arsenal, albeit one he and his students rely on daily.

Further, as many exceptional teachers often are, he is asked to lead professional development activities at his school with teachers whose first question to him often is: why would I use technology anyway? (Heard that one before?) Tom often begins by asking them what it is they want to achieve in their classroom and showing how OneNote can be used as means for differentiating instruction. Incidentally, for the OneNote newbies, OneNote is often accurately described as a digital 3-ring binder, though I tend to prefer Bionic Trapper Keeper.

Tom went on to be selected as one of three from the U.S. IEF to represent the United States at the 2010 Worldwide Innovative Education Forum in Cape Town, South Africa last fall, which brought together 200 educators from 65 countries all passionate about the impact technology can have in the classroom and at the worldwide event he became a semi-finalist in the content category.

We asked Tom to sit for this video, first and foremost, to acknowledge his passion and showcase him as an innovative educator. We know there are many examples of innovation happening in classrooms around the country (and the world) and Microsoft’s Partners in Learning Innovative Education Forum’s primary objective is to recognize, acknowledge and highlight these educators. So please take a look (sorry about the black frame – video still works fine – still troubleshooting):

Tom Gaffey, Educator, School of the Future

With just over two weeks left to the final application deadline for the 2011 U.S. Innovative Education Forum we are extremely inspired by the applications we’ve seen to-date and look forward to reading the next round applications (by the way, if your application is accepted, Microsoft picks up the tab for the trip).

If you would like to share what you’re doing in the classroom and collaborate with other like-minded educators, please take a look at the application and consider submitting it. We hope to see you there!



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