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Suzy was my Educational Psychology and Instructional Media Professor at Utah Valley University. I taught high-school English for a brief period, and I owe my survival through that time to Suzy Cox. When I started teaching during the COVID pandemic, I returned to Suzy’s numerous videos, articles, and handouts as waypoints in crafting a student-friendly online class for the vast body of students who didn’t have the luxury to attend in-person. Suzy Cox drew the roadmap to pass unscathed through adversity.
Any learning that my two-hundred students experienced, Suzy Cox had influenced, and the same goes for the hundreds and hundreds of other teachers that she’s mentored, and their students too.
She taught me, my wife, and several of my close friends, most of whom are educators or work in a closely related field. My younger siblings knew Suzy Cox’s kids, who shared the same high school. Her family has roots in our community.
Suzy Cox is, undoubtedly, one of us. She exemplifies the good I see in Provo.
So, before I start the interview, I want to thank Suzy personally for her help throughout my career, and introduce her as the new Innovative Learning Director. Below is an interview I conducted with Suzy Cox. It outlines her plans to empower teachers, students, and families through Innovative Learning.
Q: Where did you grow up? What is your family like?
A: I was born and mostly raised in Eugene, Oregon, around the trees and mountains– not so different from Utah–and I feel most like myself there. My family then moved to Palm Desert, California, where I did NOT feel like myself! Coming from a lower-middle-class family and moving into this socioeconomically stratified area was uncomfortable. Palm Desert was the sort of place where one student might wreck their BMW, and they might pull in with a new BMW the next day. And on the other side of the city, ordinary families. I learned that students live very different lives.
Luckily, I’ve always had an incredible family life. Three siblings, two boys, and two girls. Life was underpinned with music– we had our first family stage show at four years old– a perfect four-part harmony. In college, my siblings and I belonged to a blue-grass band. In fact, my brother continued down the blue-grass road and still performs when he isn’t teaching at Provost Elementary. It was a beautiful way to grow up.
I was thrilled to move back to Eugene as a teenager. It was everything I wanted in my hometown. A community striving together, less stratified, close-knit.
Q: When did you realize that you were bound to work in education?
A: The first day of first grade. I walked into my classroom, saw the bulletin boards and the whiteboard, and it was like the lights dimmed and I heard angels singing. I was born for education; there was never a question.
School counselors asked me the same question they ask all students, “what do you want to grow up to be?” And I always said, “I’m going to be a teacher.” When they handed out the job-aptitude tests, I gamed the quizzes to get the answer I wanted– “you’re suited to be a teacher.”
But life took me in a different direction. I didn’t get to teach full-time for a few reasons– my local college didn’t have a program with a realistic timeframe to graduate as a teacher, then before I could move, my husband proposed, which kept me from moving to another college. It always made me sad, but I still made opportunities for myself.
I worked as a community educator in rural Mexico for a semester, teaching adults basic literacy and math in Spanish, and English at the local middle school. It was the most beautiful community I’ve lived in. The difference in resources, however, hit me hard. I was there in 1998, and I started to see the beginning of what the power of technology in schools could mean, and the disparities were evident in Mexico. The most significant piece of tech they had was the radio. The experience was impactful.
I then came back and chose to earn a Master’s degree in Instructional Design and work closely with educators, eventually turning to Teacher Education.
Q: Is there an experience that led to your decision to focus on infusing technology to support teaching?
A: My dad is a self-taught computer programmer. Even in the 80s, my dad saw that computers were the future. Whenever I had homework, my dad started hour-long lectures where he sermonized on the power of technology, which I didn’t find too compelling, then. But he was right– sitting as a freshman in my college dorm room, homesick, I knew I could turn on my computer, log on, and chat with my dad and friends online.
There was a wave where the flash and glamor of technology in education turned me off to technology in the classroom. Tech was flashy, it reeked of kidspeak; it was “how the kids of tomorrow will speak and communicate,” supposedly geared to meet the kids where they are. With my new background in adolescent psychology, I worried about screen time, and the use of technology on the adolescent mind was far less known.
It wasn’t until I went back to school and taught in middle schools in 2014, however, that I saw tech disparities in technology again in Downtown Orem. I worked with at-risk students– many who were academically gifted or on-par with standards but were marked as at-risk. I had many teachers tell me outright, “your kids can’t handle advanced learning technology.” Yeah. Their honor students were making videos, engaging in simulations, creating digital presentations, and my students were doing online quizzes.
When you extrapolate and see where this moment goes, my kids weren’t entitled to the same futures as these other students. The moment changed my answer to “why use technology” forever. It is not about using flashy tools. It’s about gearing students to envision the same futures.
From there, we have to ask, “what’s the pedagogy behind preparing students for whatever future they want, and what specific instances should tech actually be used for said skill?”
In 2015, I attended a workshop for Universal Design for Learning. Universal Design is a framework that looks at how we can make kids effective learners in any environment, regardless of the context they come from. Regardless of differences in advantages and disadvantages, or abilities in learning, regardless of circumstance, we as teachers should be able to offer tools, choices, and opportunities to self-learn.
If students are offered a choice in what they learn or are given multiple opportunities, that experience teaches them to teach themselves. My focus is empowering kids to empower themselves, both now and in their future lives.
Q: How will the current strategy stay transparent while gathering information and creating new Innovative Learning plans?
A: Teachers deserve the respect of knowing why decisions are made. Those decisions should be made with their input. Having teacher representation in choosing the applications we want to use is essential. Sending out communications before anything is put into motion matters, too– teachers need much more than a term for massive change, and we need to give them the space they need.
I want teachers to know that they will be the ultimate arbiter of what happens in their classrooms. The idea is to give teachers freedom and flexibility in teaching within some simple shared tools and structures.
Q: I’m sure there are families nervous about the idea of more technology, and how the tech might be used. Does your current strategy support members of the community worried about equity?
A: We want to be particularly transparent and equitable for families.
The pandemic forced a fast pivot for our teachers. Now is the time for informed long-term support by hearing student and teacher needs and being choosy with our tools. If we can cut down on the tools required to teach, we can use them more effectively for teaching, and the Professional Development we offer can be more specific and more useful. We’ll have a shared language– if we all use and structure Canvas similarly, we can create more consistency and training for families, too.
Q: For the uninitiated, how would you describe something as broad as Innovative Learning, and what are the primary values of Innovative Learning?
A: Innovative learning looks at our kids’ futures and asks what skills and opportunities they will need. If we keep those criteria, we’ll notice that they need digital literacy skills, computational thinking, and problem-based skills. It is a broad term, but part of my job is helping pick and choose according to the needs of our students, teachers, and families, and it’s also my job to make sure that every single person is adequately heard.
People automatically think of technology, but technology is simply one of the tools in a learning environment– the goal is to use technology when required to build robust digital literacy skills, not to use technology as the end-all-be-all solution. I want parents and teachers to know I’m here to pin down specifically when technology will be effective, just as when it wouldn’t be appropriate. Students need time with peers, away from screens.
I know how hard the last couple of years teaching has been with the digital teaching rush these past two years. My goal is not to make sweeping changes and ask you to catch up or revise all of your planned coursework on the fly. My goal right now is to listen.
I’d like to extend an invitation to all teachers to share their experiences with me. Over the next couple of months, I’ll be visiting all schools all over the district to hear your needs and feedback. I want to talk to teachers, parents, and students through parent and teacher evenings to share on how well they think Provo has innovated over the last few years, or what more we need to prepare students for their futures.
The first six months are an opportunity to listen and draw the roadmap for future plans. I know our teachers need more support for the technology they’re already being asked to use right now. I’m not asking for anyone to make any changes directly. I don’t want to rush the planning process; we need to hear where issues are before hoping to support our community.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to say to teachers, families, and Provo City School District teachers and employees?
A: Provo is my home. I’ve lived here forever. I was a professor to many of the district’s teachers (including the author of this article), and I helped create the district’s Professional Development. My kids have gone to Provo schools since day one. I’ve lived in the same house here in Provo. I’ve had a chance to see struggles, successes, and innovative teachers that make up the brick and mortar of our city. Fundamentally, I believe every child should choose their futures, and we should give them the opportunities and tools they need to make their envisioned futures a reality.
Spencer Tuinei, Communications Specialist, Provo City School District