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Earlier this year, I received an intriguing email. The subject line read: “ISTE/TED Invitation,” and my attention was immediately piqued. As I read on, I learned that as an ISTE PLN leader, I had been selected to pilot a new online course to help educators hone their ability to share their best ideas in a TED Talk similar to ones you can watch online at TED.com.
Right away, I was excited about the opportunity. TED talks from the likes of Aimee Mullins and Stella Young have played a key role in shaping my perspective as an educator and disability rights advocate who focuses on the needs of learners with disabilities. Now here I was getting the opportunity to follow in these giants’ footsteps.
Over a couple of months, I would complete 12 online modules showcasing the elements of an effective TED Talk, with examples from past talks and activities to help me apply what I was learning as I developed a script, created my visuals and finally recorded my talk so that it could be considered for the upcoming ISTE conference.
And there was a unique twist — I would be paired with another ISTE PLN leader so that we could provide each other feedback as we progressed through the course.
The vulnerability of working with a partner
I have to admit that I was at first a little apprehensive about sharing my “messy” process with someone else. Most of my previous preparation for presentations has taken place hidden from other people’s view. Yes, I sometimes shared my ideas with a colleague to get some feedback and to see whether a topic or my approach would work for the intended audience, but overall, most of my work involved me sitting at my computer alone. The process has been a mostly solitary activity and I only received feedback that the presentation or talk worked after the fact, when I had already done it.
As I got to know my partner Jessica Shupick, who at the time was the chair of ISTE’s STEM Network, my apprehension slowly faded away. In fact, working with a partner was the key ingredient that made the TED course such a powerful experience for me.
Throughout the course, Jessica was a “critical friend” who provided valuable feedback on my script as well as the final recording I submitted to ISTE and TED.
Jessica’s insights on what to take out of the talk were especially helpful, because with a TED-style talk, time is not your friend. You really have to take away any content that does not add to your through-line, that thread that runs through your talk and helps give it coherence.
It can be difficult to do this step when you are working on your own, but a critical partner can provide that second set of eyes that can make the decisions easier.
It's OK to let the tears flow
After exchanging a few emails, Jessica and I set up a time to meet virtually to discuss some of the activities we had completed. It did not take long during our first meeting for the tears to flow once Jessica and I started sharing the common work we do with students who have significant challenges.
As educators, we are often told to keep our emotions in check, to focus on the content and skills we are to teach. In the process, a lot of our humanity is taken out of teaching.
As Dr. David Rose, founder of CAST (where I now work) has said in the past, teaching is emotional work. Without the emotional investment, it is not possible to build the relationships and trust that is needed for some learners who have experienced trauma and other difficult situations to open up to us and actually learn.
Luis Perez give his TED Talk at ISTE 2018.
My experience with Jessica convinced me that I wanted to share a talk that would be raw, personal and authentic, even if it involved being vulnerable to a large group of people.
My choice was further validated shortly after I gave my TED Talk at the ISTE conference. Later that day, I was presenting a poster session when someone who had watched the talk approached. What started as a typical conversation soon became emotional for both of us.
She had recently been diagnosed with the same visual impairment that I have, and like me, she was unsure what came next. I tried my best to reassure her that things would work out fine, and encouraged her to focus on the things she can control and just let the rest take care of itself. I also shared a few tips that make my life easier. Before our conversation was over, we were both tearing up.
This experience was the reason I always wanted to do a TED Talk. Early on in the course, it was emphasized that the purpose of a good talk is to share a gift. For me that gift is connection. If I can connect to just one person who is going through what I went through after being diagnosed with my visual impairment, and give them hope to forge ahead and live a productive life, then my work is done.
As I mention in my talk, we educators are the light the world needs, not only for our students, but for each other. Let’s turn to that light and make it shine bright and strong — let’s lift each other up and support each other and yes, it’s OK to cry and let our humanity shine through.
Teaching is and should be emotional work. Each educator has “a story worth sharing,” and by telling those stories in a powerful and authentic way, we open the door to connection and community building.
Luis Perez, Ph. D., is a technical assistance specialist at the National Center on Accessible Educational Materials at CAST. He is the president of the ISTE Inclusive Learning Network and has published two books on inclusive learning and technology, Dive into UDL (ISTE, 2018) and Learning on the Go (CAST Publishing, 2018).