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Inspiring Conversations with Tedd Wakeman of The Sycamore School

Today we’d like to introduce you to Tedd Wakeman.

Hi Tedd, it’s an honor to have you on the platform. Thanks for taking the time to share your story with us – to start maybe you can share some of your backstory with our readers?
As a native of LA and a product of LA public schools, I am the son of two dedicated educators. I began working with kids as a camp counselor/director for LA City Parks and Recreation in 1989 and later began my teaching career with LAUSD in inner-ciy LA in 1996. After many years in public education, I took my career on the road, teaching in the Republic of the Maldives, Indonesia (Bali), and Costa Rica. Having experienced education through the lens of public, private, and charter schools, local and abroad, children and adults…it was time to return to the City of Angels (my lifelong home) to impact change and re-imagine what education could be. I was part of an amazing two-year program at a private middle school in Santa Monica. It was called the PlayMaker School and we implemented all kinds of wild and wonderful curricular ideas intended to prepare kids for 21st Century success. That led me to found The Sycamore School in 2015. We are in our 6th year of revolutionizing the approach to thinking and learning. It’s a magical place and we’re doing great work as we create an approach that is engaging, continuous, and future-focused.

I’m sure you wouldn’t say it’s been obstacle free, but so far would you say the journey have been a fairly smooth road?
We’re up against a traditional model of school that is deeply ingrained in US society. We have a shared experience that school should be boring and irrelevant and filled with drudgery. That shared understanding allows us to dismiss new ideas in education because “what was good for me, is good for my kid”. There’s a weird feeling that surviving school is like some rite of passage for kids. “You just have to knuckle down and suck it up.” So where does this leave us?We find ourselves selling courage to parents on a daily basis. Many people return to the school scene as parents and recognize, “Oh, it looks just like it did when I was a kid.” There is comfort there for many parents. For others, there is a tremendous amount of skepticism and curiosity. That’s the more reasonable response. The world has drastically evolved and education still looks the same? How is that possible?. How could school look the same as it did 130 years ago??? People still feel a comfort in broken metrics. Testing and grading have negative effects on deep learning as they reduce creativity and risk-taking. It’s a huge challenge to overcome as we make the case for educational change.

However, the data is on our side. We’re preparing kids for a world we can barely imagine. Over 1500 four-year universities in the US no longer require the SAT or ACT for admissions. Push button jobs are disappearing by the day. A fourth industrial revolution is in process and requires an entirely different set of skills from our students. This pandemic is highlighting the idea that we need skills (adaptability, collaboration, communication, critical thinking, problem-solving, etc…) over content. It’s not the area of a trapezoid or details of the French Indian War that are getting you through quarantine. Besides, if you needed them, you can access that kind of information in 20 seconds in the palm of your hand. We continue to fight an old, out of touch, chalky institution that is resisting change because it simply can’t (or won’t) rethink what it means to be truly educated in the current world.

Great, so let’s talk business. Can you tell our readers more about what you do and what you think sets you apart from others?
I am most proud of the school I’ve created with my two partners and the work we’re doing there. Having been in education for over 25 years, this is the most exciting thing I’ve done. It’s hard as hell, but I feel like we’re making a serious impact each day…changing lives…changing minds. Students have done everything from designing their own shoes to creating cereal companies. We believe that exhibition is the way to allow students to show growth mindsets, reflect on their processes, and better hone the skills necessary to thrive in the 21st century. We develop systems thinking and design thinking and a much broader approach to communication literacy that stretches far beyond 5-paragraph essays and book reports. What sets us apart is the curriculum for sure. We are taking a big stand against a system that’s broken and outdated. We’re making the idea of education sexy and relevant and fun and cutting edge. We’re infusing tech along the way. Kindergartners are 3-D printing pieces for the games they’ve created. It’s good stuff. I look forward to discussing more with you in person. Our approach is not about boxing up some fancy program. It’s about common sense and reflective thinking. We depressurize the system everyday so that students can access learning authentically.

Do you have any advice for those looking to network or find a mentor?
The best advice is just to really dig into whatever your passions might be. The deeper you dig, the more you will connect with people who wish to make waves with you. Be clear about what you’re after and why you’re after it. Work on your messaging, your goals. How are you inspiring people to want to listen so when you have an audience, you truly have something to say. Be authentic and passionate about what you do and the impacts you wish to make. Don’t be ambitious about money or fame…be ambitious about change and impact. The rest will fall into place.

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