Photo: Rachel and Steven Lamb met each other at an education conference before coming up with the idea for Virtual Team Teaching.
Welcome back to Teachers in America, where we celebrate teachers and their lasting impact on students' learning journeys and lives.
Today's podcast guests are Rachel and Steven Lamb, an educator couple based out of Denver, CO. Rachel is a second grade teacher at Inspire Elementary in Colorado, part of the Denver Public Schools District. Steven works as an EdTech instructor for both students and teachers at the International School of Denver. You can learn more about their work with Virtual Team Teaching on their website. You can also find them on Twitter and Facebook.
A full transcript of the episode appears below; it has been edited for clarity.
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The views expressed in this podcast are those of the guest and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.
Noelle Morris: Welcome to Teachers in America, a production of HMH, where we celebrate teachers and recognize their triumphs, challenges, sacrifices, and dedication to students. We see you. We want our listeners to feel not only inspired by the practice, but to also have a renewed sense of community.
I am the Senior Director of Community Engagement, Noelle Morris. Each episode, I meet a new teacher friend and learn about the latest lessons and innovations from the classroom.
Today we are joined by Rachel and Steven Lamb, an educator couple that bonded over their love of classroom technology, innovations, and positive learning experiences that redefine the classroom. Rachel currently teaches second grade at Inspire Elementary in Colorado, part of the Denver Public Schools District. Steven works as an EdTech instructor for both students and teachers at the International School of Denver.
Together, Rachel and Steven created Virtual Team Teaching, a method in which teachers who work at two different schools combine instruction to create one virtual, collaborative environment. By blending two groups of students, the Lambs introduced curiosity and engagement into their virtually joined classes even before the pandemic began in 2020.
Rachel and Steven have been recognized Henry Ford Teacher Innovators. They have also had the opportunity to speak at several TEDx Education events. Rachel is a National Board Certified Teacher of the Navajo Nation and Steven is an Education Foundation Innovation Award winner. They recently joined us on the Teacher's Corner Facebook community for a panel discussion on “Kids Talking to Kids: Across Online vs. in Classroom.”
I loved talking to this couple so much and look forward to the next time we meet. Knowing them, it will probably be at an education conference.
Now, let’s get to the episode.
I'm excited, you guys. Everyone, this is our first married couple coming to Teachers in America, so we get two interviews in one. We get to just have a lot of great conversations, double the interest and what we all love, which is everything teaching. Welcome, Rachel and Steven. How are y'all?
Rachel Lamb: I'm doing well.
Steven Lamb: We're doing very well. Thank you for having us on.
Noelle: Oh, awesome. I'm just going to jump right to it, y'all. I'm not going to sugarcoat or anything. I want to know how y'all met and just give us the teacher journey of yourselves together. Then we'll talk about your individual paths and what you're currently working on.
Rachel: Well, we actually met at an educational technology conference. Giant nerds. Steve was actually presenting at the time and at the end of the conference I went and harassed him because I was very interested in some of the things he had brought up and his ideas. We just struck up a very basic conversation and decided we were really attracted to the ideas that we had in each other's classrooms. We brainstormed how could we connect even though we were not in the same grade level. We weren't in the same school. We came across this idea of why don't we teach from our two different locations and just connect over Zoom and pretend like we're in the same room. From there, we started creating content together and teaching together and have been ever since.
Noelle: Wow. Steve, do you agree that y'all are nerds?
Steven: Oh, absolutely. I think it was 2013. I think the iPads had been out for two years. The district still didn't have a PD. Nobody really had a lot of ideas of how to implement. Then you'd come to these conferences wanting to learn more and how can I leverage them, and you'd meet like-minded people. Then from there you would just nerd out, and you'd be like, "Yeah, this is what we can do." It was quite the meeting.
Noelle: It sounds like it. I appreciate that, Rachel, because I was the one that waited in the audience to be like, "I am going to stand in line to talk to the presenter." If I've connected, I had to make sure the presenter knew I was listening. And 2013 seems so long ago because I'm thinking, okay, 2013, that's only a seven-year difference to 2020. When all of a sudden video conferencing, Zoom, you had to know it, or you had to learn it. What did y'all feel from how you approached your instruction? It seems like 2020 would've been like no sweat, except for the obvious. How did y'all approach that, and how did you support other teachers making that transition?
Steven: Well, it was kind of funny. We kind of started it off as more of a cool community thing. We're like, all right, we're going to meet once a week. Our kids are going to introduce themselves to the other class. I think I had my teacher laptop, and I think I had five iPads at the time. Rachel, what'd you have?
Rachel: It was just a laptop at that point.
Steven: Yeah. So, we thought, "What is the tech tool that can apply to everything and our laptop," and this teleconferencing was one of them because you'd set it up on the little stand. You'd dial into the other teacher, and then you'd have the kids step up one at a time. "Hi, I'm so and so, and I like the color yellow." Then the other class would step up and say the same thing. It was the kids that took it to that next level. They started asking each other questions. "Hey, I see that your classroom looks like this." Or "what does your school do? Or "where are you?" They'd say, "Oh, I'm on this side of town." "Oh, I've never been there." Their introduction, all of the sudden, became questioning each other and interest in each other, and it just kept growing from there.
Rachel: I was just thinking that I think one thing we were really excited about, if anything, of course, when everything shut down for the pandemic was we had had conversations about how we felt our students were really well-prepared to be able to do remote learning. They were able to carry themselves really well. They were able to be respectful. They understood how to navigate a variety of screens and tabs open and fluently were able to operate their device in a really meaningful and effective way. Even though we are no longer in Albuquerque, I would have loved to see how my kids just flourished through that and were able to lead. I think that was probably something that we were the most excited about coming out of remote teaching and learning.
This is what we had as our mindset when we began. This is something that students are going to need. They're going to be able to have these digital skills to be successful in what we thought would be in their future career pursuits. But it turns out just a few years down the line, that they'd be able to complete high school. That was something that was really encouraging to say this is what we envisioned. It came a lot sooner than we thought it would, and hoping that our students were able to model that not only for their peers but for their teachers as well.
Noelle: Right. Do you keep in touch with any of the students, or because now you y'all have moved from Albuquerque to Denver, that has not been as easy?
Steven: The funny part is I have heard from a few of those students, and they absolutely acknowledge, "Oh, my goodness, we can't believe you knew this was coming." Which, of course, we didn't. But they were prepared more so, and they were teaching their teachers how to do this. They were teaching their peers how to do this. So, the experience they had way back in 2013, 2014, 2015, it really paid off now. That is what warmed our hearts, knowing that all of that experience, all of that hard work, paid off in a way that none of us could have seen. Although we didn't see the pandemic coming, we did see that this was going to be a major way to communicate and to learn in the future. We just didn't know this was going to happen.
Noelle: What did you know this would benefit for students in Albuquerque? Geographically, do you experience some of the same things in other cities where one part of the city never gets to the other part? I'm always curious about the geography and the demographics that support wanting to help broaden students' experiences.
Rachel: Well, it's incredibly diverse in Albuquerque. The school where I was even at the end of our time there, it was a 100% Title 1 school. A lot of the students there had never left the South Valley area of Albuquerque, and so they didn't know what else was in their city. Albuquerque itself, it is large in terms of land area, but it's not heavily populated. It was really interesting talking to Steve's school, which is on the complete opposite end of the city, and they're like, "Oh, you live over there. I've never been."
What was really great about that is that at the end of the year, we always brought our students together for one field trip to one or the other school. So being able to take the students over there, letting them sightsee in their own city, and then being able to better understand where their like-minded peers were in regards to where they lived was actually just really exciting for them to see.
Steven: We traded off who would go where, and it was that perfect example of now that we've done the digital, here's the physical aspect of it. Of course, the children were quiet at first. They were shy. Then, boom, they would explode and remember everything that they had done this year, and they would run from there. It was that perfect blend that we're all trying to reach now. The pandemic has made a lot of things just straight digital for that whole year. A lot of research has [been] done. This is hurting children and, absolutely, it was.
But, at the same time, there were also growth parts. People did enjoy some of the digital tools. Finding that blend of a physical education environment and a digital education environment and meeting right there in the middle. That's that perfect hybrid, and we captured that when we would bring them together. We hope that same knowledge can be applied to what's going on today.
Noelle: Rachel, one of my questions is you were part of creating an app, and you're also a National Board Certified Teacher of the Navajo Nation. I'd love to just get a little bit more about the process that you went through to become National Board Certified. Then, I'm very intrigued to think about and hear about the Teacher Innovator Award.
Rachel: Yes, actually, National Board Certification was heavily supported in Albuquerque. They were able to give you stipends and support for you to be able to pursue it. Once you were able to achieve and be able to pass all of the exams, Albuquerque actually gave you a very substantial stipend for having gone through that. I know not all states or cities or districts do that. That was really quite wonderful, and, oddly enough, Steve was there to help me. Even though he wasn't going through it himself, he was able to mentor and ask really deep, hard questions about writing and what was going on in the classroom, so that was really beneficial.
In regards to the app, it's very interesting that you bring it up because it goes back to the idea of conferences. Steve and I were actually attending ISTE a few years back, and we happened to run across this gentleman who created an app that Steve was very familiar with. What it is, there's a series of different scientific apps involved under this one umbrella, and the one we were talking about was the human body. The CEO of this company said, "I built this app with a global mindset, and so I'm really passionate about having it translated into a variety of different languages."
Being slightly pushy, we asked if we could possibly put together an event where we could translate the app into Navajo. He was very excited. He said, "Absolutely. Here is all the information." Steve and I went about creating this event for Navajo speakers to come. We invited elders. We invited all the way through kindergarten, family members, whomever could come and be a part of it. Essentially, we had this list of medical terms. All of these individuals came, and it was this beautiful environment where you saw elders teaching the younger students how to say certain things in Navajo. Then you had the younger students being able to show the elders [that] this is how you operate the technology. It was such a beautiful blend of old and new and everyone teaching and learning from each other.
It was just such an eye-opening experience, even for me being Navajo, where one of the elders there said there isn't a term for the amygdala because, in Navajo, you just say your brain is your thinking. There's not much else you can describe other than it's your thinking, and I love how Navajo's able to describe certain aspects of the body because it's very contrary to what we practice every day. This is my arm. This is my brain. It was just a really wonderful experience for everyone.
Even just hearing different individuals start calling their family, who might have been on the reservation, saying, I can't remember how to say leg. I can't remember how to say this. Even though they weren't in the room, they were involving the larger community to be a part of it. Even for those who may have known the words before, they were able to revisit a lot of that vocabulary. It was just really wonderful. We were able to partner with the local science center, so it was able to be one spot where we could meet. Had food donated from local restaurants, and it was just really an incredible experience.
Noelle: How long did this take? What was the process, and did you have to build that immediate buy-in, or when you began this, you had volunteers and it was just an immediate connection?
Rachel: Steve, you could probably help me with the timing, but it was very intensive. It was the two of us doing as much research as we could, looking at the schools in Albuquerque that might have Navajo programs or large Navajo populations. We were sending it out on social media.
Noelle: What took y'all from Albuquerque to Denver? That's not just district to district in the same state, but making a decision to move from one state to another as educators?
Steven: Go ahead.
Rachel: No, go ahead. Steve, I think you probably can say this more eloquently than I.
Steven: Please, I'm not eloquent. Well, okay. Truly, it was just a different venue. We had spent the majority of our teaching career in New Mexico. We heard great things about Denver. I had family up in Denver, and it was time for a move. It was time to take our message to a different area because Albuquerque had gotten to know us. They were supporting us. They were part of it. It was wonderful. We've always had ideas that we want to spread the message and change education, or at least add to it, put a dent in it. It's worked out. It really has. Coming to Colorado, a much bigger market, a much bigger area, a bit bigger school districts, and a lot more opportunities.
I will say this. Starting from scratch after you've been doing it for a little while, it gets a little muddled because then you're trying to find your way, and how can you convey what you've been doing to other people and say, this works, are you willing to give it a try, too? Do you want to join us? Do you want to be a part of this?
We have met a few allies here that do want to participate. Then the pandemic hit right after that. Then virtual team teaching, which is what we call the teaching over the teleconferencing, all of the sudden, sparked again because of the remote learning aspect. People reached out to us and said, "Hey, I remember you guys were doing this. What did you do, or how did it go?" It's back [on] our radar again. We never stopped doing it, but there was an element that people were like, yeah, we've seen it. We've done it. There [are] other things. But once this happened, all of the sudden, it stepped back in.
While we've been in Colorado, we've been talking to a bunch of peers and saying, give this a try. Have you tried this little way? Have you tried this tool to have the kids collaborate while they're doing the teleconferencing? It sparked again, and now we find ourselves in the Colorado market trying to say remote learning doesn't have to be so sterile or negative. In the beginning, it was extremely sterile. It was everybody sitting in front of the camera, everybody talking. Some people would turn on the camera. Some people wouldn't. You'd look at the screen, and you'd see the content, and then you'd go off and work.
Well, that's the classroom model that we all tried to get away from for how many years. But now here we were again, but just in a digital format. So to take it to that next level, you needed to find or hoped to find tools that would allow children to collaborate. We need that. We need that in order to keep the classroom going. There [were] also ways for teachers to present their information in engaging ways, rather than just a camera pointed at their face or rather than just the YouTube video that might or might not work, depending on who had a filter. Then what was the video that followed after that?
Noelle: Right. Exactly.
Steven: Exactly. We wanted to make sure that we could also share the creative aspect to make it more interesting. What were some creative tools that we could use to make that remote teaching? And one of them was bring in another classroom. Don't just have the teacher and her students. Bring in that other classroom. Bring in the parents. I know some were sitting right there next to their student, listening to the class. But there were some at work, or maybe there were some who were deployed overseas, or maybe there were some who were experts in their field that you could easily bring into your classroom that maybe you couldn't do in person just a few months ago. You needed to start thinking, what else can I add to this experience to make it much more engaging and less sterile?
When people would reach out to us, we'd start listing some of the things. Well, maybe do this. Maybe when you do the polling, maybe do musical chair writing. Maybe when they're in their room, the musical chair is which screen is going to write this part of the story next, and which screen is going to write this part of the story? You'd keep them engaged and keep them looking at the screen.
Also, why not bring in sock puppets. If students didn't want to put their faces on the camera. They were shy, and they kept turning their camera off for whatever reason, and we weren't going to hammer them on that. Of course not. But if you were going to participate, what if you made your own sock puppet at home and then talked to us through that sock puppet? Of course, that was really good for the young ones. The older ones, they would go with it, but sometimes. Can you think of any more, Rachel?
Rachel: Well, I think the biggest thing is I think one large misconception is that remote teaching and learning had to look just like the classroom. But it was such an incredible opportunity to innovate and evolve education. How can we change it to make it better? If you know all these worksheets aren't working remotely, maybe they shouldn't be working in the classroom whenever we go back. How can we really change our teaching practices? How can we really draw on what students are interested in? How can we really change what teaching looks like to evolve with our students?
Even if you're looking at now, my students are so much different than they would've been three years ago. I mean, if you think about attention spans, if you think about stamina, everything is so much different, even their handwriting. How can we evolve with the students and support them where they are because teaching is no longer the same. I think that's part of the sterile part is let's keep moving, let's improve, let's change. I think that's really hard in education, not even just as a broad term, but even when you boil it down to just individual teachers.
Noelle: That was just such a great wealth of information. Great visual. How would each of you [define] your why? Then also, being married and having this passion for education, how do you balance and sometimes turn it off to just be Rachel and Steve?
Steven: That's where it does get weird.
Noelle: Just to be honest, yeah.
Steven: Let's be honest here. Our why, it evolves every year. But there's still that strand that runs through the whole thing. The why is the students. The why making a difference with education that, hopefully, evolves. We talk about this at work all the time when we do communicate. Then the hard part is how do you not talk about it at home because now you're at home. We have a daughter, and she doesn't want to sit there and listen to us talk about, "Hey, Zoom does this. Let's go into the breakout room." She of course wants to talk to Mom and Dad about regular stuff. We also need to decompress because teaching is 24/7, or it can be 24/7. It's on your mind all the time.
The personal connection that keeps us driving forward is our daughter. Even though I just told you we try to separate it, when we talk to her and when we watch her and when we see the work that she's doing, we both look at each other and say, "Oh, there's another thing we can do. There's another thing we can further. There's another thing we can talk about. Hey, we should consider this just by watching our daughter." We get more from watching her than we do talking to each other sometimes. That marriage aspect actually helps. I think I rambled, and I went off case. I'll let Rachel take it from there because she's much more eloquent.
Rachel: Well, aren't kids great because they will tell you honestly how they feel. We'll ask her, "Well, what do you think of this?" She'll be like, "No, that doesn't sound like very much fun. I wouldn't want to do that." All right. Maybe we should change what we were going to do or, say, that does seem interesting, or just even asking her, "What are you interested in? What are other kids in your class interested in?" I think that's really important. We do try and get all the information we can from our students to inform our teaching. But even that really honest, blunt, "Yeah, you're old, and this is boring. You should probably change it," is really helpful to help inform our practice because we don't want to be ancient and not relatable to students.
Noelle: Exactly. As long as you stay and allow yourself not to be crushed by the bluntness, you'll keep making your way through. Have either of you ever been at a point where you're just like, "Do I need to still stay being a teacher? Maybe there's a different career," because I know, in my first year of teaching, I counted down the days until I was allowed to quit. I was like, "I probably should have become the pharmacist that my mother expected me to become," versus year three. Somehow I had an intervention with a mentor and a coach in that first year. Then really found my groove and my passion and the reason why teaching was a calling for me in years two and three. But I often wonder is that every teacher has that experience, or is it just circumstance?
Steven: Rachel, do you want to go because I know your kids are going to be walking in soon.
Rachel: I know. I think they're actually banging on my door. I don't know what's happening over here. I've come to that point, I think, many times. At one point, I had made the decision that I needed to leave education because I needed to restore my faith in humanity. I was working at a really difficult school at the time and, as fate would have it, right after that, I met Steve. We were able to go through this adventure together and develop virtual team teaching. That's really what helped me keep going. I know that if I didn't have him and have this thought partner and someone that I could have really difficult conversations with in a safe space, I probably would not be able to keep teaching. I think that's really important for everyone is to have someone that they can have these really difficult conversations with and to just be reflective and sometimes realize that we're failing, and there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Steven: This is going to get a little dicey, I'm sure. But I have stepped away from the classroom this year. It's a fantastic new position. I am still teaching students, but I'm also teaching teachers. I'm an educational technology integrationist this year. I'm over here at the International School of Denver. I love this position because it's doing what we did, and I'm trying to encourage other teachers to partake. I go into their room. We go over tech tools. How can this benefit certain lessons? What are your choices? Would you like help implementing it for the first time? At the same time, I'm teaching the students to do so.
I'll be transparent and honest and say [that] I needed to step away this year. I wanted to try something new and different and more along what we've been working toward. I do miss my own classroom and having my students, of course. But I think it was healthy to step back and say the system is getting a little nutty right now, especially because of the pandemic. So are the responses of administration or the responses of some parent groups. Maybe I just need to stop before things get negative because I love what I do. I would hate to have this profession or my own career become dark because of certain circumstances. I want to keep it going. So, in full transparency, I have stepped away this year to a point.
Noelle: But it's a balance, right? You're still in a classroom. You just don't have your own. You're in this, seems like a newer position. Am I hearing you say integrationist?
Noelle: That's super cool. I even find the great conversation and collaboration of let's look at a lesson and what can we do? It's bringing that development in. What's the MVP? What's the most viable product of this lesson and iterating on it. When you think about the future, as you think about where you're going next, what you want to do, what do you want to make sure teachers really think about and know, and how can they connect with you and find some of your great advice?
Rachel: Well, for me, the one thing I want to say is, teachers, you're doing an amazing job. I know that it's not said enough. I think that we're criticized more than we're praised. I think we're held to a completely unrealistic and unhealthy standard. But if you're showing up every day and you're doing your best for kids, you are crushing it already. I think that's the most important thing. Just integrate what you love. I know we keep being told what we're supposed to teach, but you know what, find something that you're really passionate about, and then being able to incorporate that into your classroom and enjoy it with your students. Enjoy as much time as you can until you come to be observed or administrators come in.
Noelle: They're like, "Ms. Morris, why aren't we doing this today?" I'm like, "I don't know what y'all are talking about," right?
Steven: She basically took what I was going to say, but it's the same thing. I just want teachers to know that if you're showing up and you're doing the work, and you know your why, then you're killing it. You're crushing it and continue to do so. If you feel like you need to step away, then do it. If you're just beyond that moment, just keep remembering that you can come back, that you can come back from being stressed as well. You need to really think hard and long about what that next step is. But, in the end, your why will still be the same.
I also want to plug really quick. I still believe that when all of this has evolved further, I don't think it'll ever be over. But when this has evolved further, I do believe that a hybrid of tech tools, connections with the global community, using the skills that we've learned now, and leveraging our physical classroom is probably going to be a good step forward for our future of education.
Noelle: I concur. I definitely even see that this generation, what they're learning now, I can foresee people not wanting to wait till they're in their career, but, even now, what can we learn with students in real-time?
One of the questions I ask every one of our guests is, what is your walk-up song? What I mean by that is, so you're about to walk onto the court, you're about to walk into your classroom, [and] there's a playlist. There's a song playing as you come on stage. My last question for each of you is, what is your walk-up song?
Rachel: Oh, my goodness. It'd probably be something Jack White. Steve, which one?
Steven: Definitely. If we're going to walk up together, we're going to have the White Stripes, "We're Going to Be Friends."
Rachel: That's a good tune.
Noelle: I love that song. That's on every playlist, Steve, of mine. I can justify "We're Going to Be Friends" to be in every playlist.
Noelle: Love it. Okay. If y'all are coming up separate.
Rachel: Oh, my goodness. Honestly, actually, it's probably music from The Halluci Nation. They used to be called A Tribe Called Red, but what they do is they take a lot of native chanting and songs, and they put it to more like house music. That's probably what I would pick is one of their songs.
Noelle: Okay. My producer is freaking out because when everybody tells me something that I haven't heard before, I pull out my phone. Then she's, "Just don't play anything out loud." So, I turn my volume down. But I put in A Tribe Called Red so that I can find it.
Noelle: Oh. Yes, there it is. Okay. It'll be on my playlist. All right. What's yours, Steve?
Steven: It would be probably The Dead Weather, and "I Feel Love (Every Million Miles)."
Noelle: Okay. I feel like I'm going to be honest. I've never heard of that song, so hold on. I got to like this. I got to like A Tribe Called Red, and then, okay. So, Steve, how do you find your music? I've never heard of The Dead Weather, but now I feel like I need to.
Steven: I'm just a huge fan. Jack White is one of my favorites, so all his variations and all his bands. I just like that alternative, that gritty blues-rock, just a lot of that. Just my favorite.
Noelle: Y'all have inspired me. I'm sure our listeners are going to play and mark places in here, especially for some of that great advice on virtual teaching and bringing technology into the classroom. Thank y'all so much.
Steven: Thank you for having us so much.
Rachel: This was amazing. Truly. Thank you.
Noelle: Thank you. Y'all have a great day.
Rachel: You, too. Thank you.
Steven: You, too.
Noelle: If you or someone you know would like to be a guest on the Teachers in America podcast, please email us at email@example.com. Be the first to hear new episodes of Teachers in America, by subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. If you enjoy today's show, please rate, review, and share it with your network. You can find the transcript of this episode on our Shaped blog by visiting hmhco.com/shaped. The link is in the show notes. Teachers in America is produced by HMH. Thanks again for listening.
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