Educator Spotlight: Andi McNair
Digital innovation specialist advocates for passion-based learning in Texas
This story is part of a weekly series that celebrates outstanding teachers in our Flipgrid community. Stories by Angela Tewalt.
Years ago, on a bright and sunny school day in good ol’ Waco, Texas, a fourth-grade student approached her teacher, the warm and enchanting Mrs. Andi McNair.
The student was writing a book about dolphins and pollution in the ocean, and she wanted to call SeaWorld.
Now, Andi was on a personal adventure at the time, literally in the middle of her own ocean converting her comforting and traditional elementary classroom into a new, innovative space of student-driven learning – a liberating environment with fewer worksheets and more projects, less reciting and more doing. More experience and opportunity. Just more.
So, of course, she had to say yes.
“Everything in me as a traditional teacher was like, ‘Yeah, she can’t really think about SeaWorld, that is just not going to work,’ ” says Andi, who taught elementary for over 15 years. “Instead, I found a random email address on the internet, emailed SeaWorld over my lunch hour, and they emailed me back. Two weeks later, that student was sitting in front of an old, junky teacher computer with a $20 webcam, and SeaWorld called us.”
Andi says they took their iPad out to the Dolphin Cove and not only answered any questions her student had but also had the dolphins do whatever they needed to do to answer her questions and make her smile. Not only did her student lean in and watch that day with complete joy and awe, Andi felt conviction in the meaningful classroom she was creating. And she hasn’t looked back since.
“I was a super traditional teacher for a really long time,” says Andi, who works as a digital innovation specialist for teachers in her district today. “My kids got good test scores, I had good relationships with them, and I played the game really well. But then one day, I looked out at the class, and they either had their heads down on their desk or they were talking to their neighbor. They had a compliant look in their eyes, and I decided right then and there I didn’t want to play the game anymore.
“I look back on those days and realize that, for me, if I were still in that place, I would have missed so many opportunities to see my learners for who they wanted to be. They used to just come in, sit down and play my game. Now, they drive the learning, and that has changed my mindset and absolutely everything for me.”
Implementing Autonomy, Passion in the Learning
When Andi started making changes to her curriculum, she named her transformation “genius hour,” which is essentially an opportunity for students to pursue their passions during the school day. Just like her fourth-grade student wanting to know more about dolphins, her kids settled into an extremely intentional process that included freewill ideation, planning, exploring and even presenting to their peers. However, the evolution was not immediately met with thanks.
“It was hard at first, because I had kids who were like, ‘Ok, but I’m not passionate about anything,’ ” Andi says. “But that’s because no one had ever asked them, right? They only knew what they knew, and they didn’t know how to think beyond that.
“It drives me crazy when people say this generation is spoon-fed and coddled,” Andi continues. “First of all, I believe in this generation with everything in me. But second of all, those are things that are being done to them. If we don’t want our children to be spoon-fed and coddled, then we need to start having those conversations about choice.
“When I did, I expected them to be like, ‘Oh, we’ve been waiting for this! You’re the best teacher!’ Instead, they quickly realized, ‘Wait a second, this means we need to have some ownership, and this might not be as easy as it sounds.’ But, oh, my gosh, when we pushed through that, it was no longer me just teaching them. I was learning along with them, we had a why behind everything, and the learning was real.”
Today, through her blog and her books and that sweet charm that warms you right up like a freshly baked pie from Magnolia down the road, Andi inspires teachers to experience that same kind of utopia with their own students. But she doesn’t push research or resources or tips to be less traditional, she just talks with a genuine twinkle in her eye about how great kids are. She raves about their willingness, their desire and their appetite to not only learn something new, but to participate in however that learning can evolve over time.
“I always think about how, when I was younger, and whenever I did something really well, my parents would hang my work on the refrigerator,” Andi says. “And if somebody came over and saw that work, that was great. But now, we have these kids who are able to share their work with the world. Through whatever they are passionate about, they can so easily have an impact or do something that creates real change.
“To stop that because it makes us uncomfortable is not a good thing. We as educators need to continue listening to both our learners and our fellow educators about what they need from their educational experience, and now’s a great time to change it all! This is it, let’s do it! We have to move into a new place of being uncomfortable so we can give those kids the great opportunities they deserve.”