Lilian Angelone ’19 sat down with Pre-K to 8 Learning Technologies Coordinator and Elementary School Math Coordinator Mr. Tim Venchus, who has done much to advance the use of technology in the classroom since he started at TASIS in 2010.
When did you start at TASIS, and what are your primary responsibilities?
I began teaching at TASIS in the 2010–2011 school year, and this is my first international school, which was exciting. When I started, I was just working in the Elementary School as a technology coordinator, so primarily I worked with teachers to help them learn how to use technology in their classrooms and would also teach students how to use computers as a learning tool.
At that time, we only had access to 6 MacBooks (the white polycarbonate ones!) and a computer lab with 11 iMacs where the teachers would bring their students. So part of my job was to decide whether or not to keep that going or take a different approach. I decided that every student should have a computer, and so that's what we did—we found some money through the Lighthouse Project Grants Program and bought iPads for our 3rd-grade students and teachers. My job quickly turned to shepherding the program through and expanding it to a 1:1 iPad program.
After a few years, my role expanded into the Middle School, so I now work with the teachers and students there as well. In addition to managing iPads, I make sure all the teachers and students have the equipment they need to do their jobs well, and I teach students about digital citizenship and how to be safe online. It’s a continual process to figure out what the best use of technology is and how to help the teachers and students use it well, especially as we prepare students for high school.
Also, this year I started teaching a 5th-grade math class and coordinating the math program for the Elementary School. My primary job regarding math coordination is helping the teachers get the materials they need and working with them if they have specific issues with students or problems to troubleshoot.
What else are you involved in at TASIS?
Besides the main coordination parts of the job, this year I started a Minecraft Club as part of the Elementary School’s After-School Program. Our main goal is to have the students build a virtual version of the TASIS campus. Having second through fifth graders working together to build out the campus has been a challenge, however. Last semester we got most of the Elementary School done, but then a student placed some lava flow and water blocks that were impossible to destroy completely (due to a glitch in the server), so they are starting over this semester and hopefully will make more progress. It was a lot of fun, and I hope to see a finished campus in the next year or two. In addition, I help with the Robotics Club, which is another after-school activity in the Elementary School.
I am a dorm parent in the De Nobili Boys dorm, which provides a great opportunity to see how the teenagers are doing, and I've learned so much working with them. I also meet once a month with a group of High School teachers called the HS Technology Academy. The Tech Academy is made up of teachers who give up their personal time to learn more about using technology with their students. We are currently working through the Google Certified Educator training to learn all about Google’s suite of tools for education.
I should also add that for the past five years I’ve been an active participant in the TASIS Movember Challenge in support of my colleague Danny Schiff’s mission to raise money and awareness for important men’s health issues.
Each November, Mr. Venchus grows one of the finest mustaches on campus.
What made you want to work with students at the elementary level, and how did you choose math?
I started at the elementary level initially because that was the job that was open. I had just finished my master’s and earned my teaching certification, so I went to a job fair in Iowa that a teacher friend of mine told me about. Luckily, TASIS was hiring, though not for what I had expected: they had an opening for a technology coordinator position in the Elementary School.
I never thought I would want to work in elementary, but now that I have been here for more than seven years, I love it! Kids bring a lot of joy. Teenagers and middle school students...they bring a different type of joy. When I was growing up, my mom ran a daycare out of her home, so I was always around young children. I think in some ways that stuck with me.
In regard to math, as a student I was always strong in it, and it was something I gravitated toward and enjoyed. I ended up with a B.S. in Mathematics from Illinois State University and an M.A. in Teaching for Middle and High School Mathematics, which is originally where I thought I wanted to be. However, as I started working here, I realized that working with younger kids is where I should be.
|“I really believe that if we can get out of our students’ way and let them do the hard work, let them do the thinking, and let them talk to each other and learn from each other, they are going to get much more out of it than if we are just talking at them.”|
Before I came to TASIS, I was working in the IT Department for a school district, so I wasn't doing any teaching. But I was working every day with teachers and students, helping them fix their technology issues. It was a rather large school district, so I got to work with a variety of teachers and different types of students. I really enjoyed that job, and it is what led me to want to become a teacher. Before that, however, I was not in education at all. I’ve worked at a bookstore and an electronics retailer, managed a coffee shop, done lots of temporary office work, and even painted houses in the summer. I've had a lot of jobs, but education is an important part of my life right now.
Can you briefly describe your teaching philosophy?
My philosophy is constantly evolving. This being my first teaching job, I still feel relatively new as a teacher. So much of what I learned in college has shown not to be what real life is like, especially in the field of technology where things are changing so quickly. As a teacher, one of the most concise lines that sums up the way I feel about teaching comes from this incredible math teacher named Dan Meyer. The tagline on his website is three words: "Be less helpful." This might seem like a strange thing to hear a teacher say, but I really believe that if we can get out of our students’ way and let them do the hard work, let them do the thinking, and let them talk to each other and learn from each other, they are going to get much more out of it than if we are just talking at them.
I still find it essential that students have a teacher because there are going to be things that they do not know how to do that we need to introduce or we need to correct. I also think it becomes our job as teachers to provide an environment where students can think, where they can collaborate and struggle with thoughts and problems and make mistakes. Mistakes are becoming an important part of my philosophy as well. If we can put our students into positions of making mistakes and struggling with something, I feel like they are going to learn more. However, putting all of this philosophy into practice is difficult, to say the least.
What do you like most about working at TASIS?
For me, coming from the suburbs of Chicago and growing up in the public school system, TASIS is a real change. What I really love about it is the diversity and internationalism. There was not much diversity where I grew up—maybe more so than in smaller towns, but it is no comparison to TASIS. To hear people’s stories and perspectives on where they come from and why they think a certain way about something, I find it to be an important part in making me who I am. I believe that today it is more important than ever that we can understand people from all over and develop empathy for others.
What interests do you pursue outside of the classroom?
When I was in eighth grade, I started to learn guitar, and I played until the end of college. After that, work got in the way. Just in the last year, I decided I needed to start playing music again. Instead of guitar, I decided I would rather learn to play the bass and have been studying it since.
Being a technology person, one of the things I regret not learning in school is computer science. I learned a lot about computers on my own and from my brother and dad, who are both quite computer savvy, but right now I am going back and learning the Swift programming language.
In addition to that, I love photography and movies. My wife Kerry and I also recently got a puppy, which has brought quite a bit of joy (and messes to clean up!) into our lives. I try my best to spread out my time to all the things I enjoy.
What personal strengths do you find especially helpful in your teaching?
I like to think that I am a pretty logical thinker. I think about things systematically a lot of times, and for me that has become really helpful in teaching because often students ask the "why" question. Being able to explain, in a step-by-step fashion, how to do things has made it easier for other people to understand. It works well with adults, as they often have questions about how to do something with their computers. Being able to explain it to them and figuring out new ways to teach these concepts is something I really enjoy. If I can enable the teachers to use technology, then they are going to be able to teach their students, which extends the help I offer.
|“I think about things systematically a lot of times, and for me that has become really helpful in teaching because often students ask the 'why' question.”|
I also believe that humor plays a significant role in teaching. Everybody has tough days, and sprinkling a little bit of humor into the lessons can make a difference between a kid who is going to pay attention and one who is going to be staring off into space. Humor can bring them back into the conversation and help them learn.
What is the greatest success you have had in teaching?
It is hard for me to say what my greatest success is—not because I have had so many successes that I can’t choose just one but because it is tough to know what is really meaningful. Coming from an IT background, I had immediate gratification when I helped someone solve their problem. When you are teaching, however, and you are teaching people who are growing and learning—and learning is a journey that should not have an end—you don't always see the effects of your work.
A recent example of a little success that I had was when I met with the parent of one of my math students. She was telling me that before this year her daughter had always struggled with math. She was good at it, but her teachers throughout her life had sent messages that she was bad and that she would never be a “math person.” (By the way, I despise the message that there are people born with a “math brain” or there are natural “math people.” It’s so discouraging to students who just need a little more time or a different approach to learning math.) Anyway, the student’s mom told me that she loves math this year. She doesn't always understand everything, but she is trying her best and has a positive view of math. After all those times we’ve talked about sticking with a challenge, and how making mistakes is good for the brain, I could see that it was working. So for me, that was a tiny personal victory.
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