Still Curious S2E12 - Maria Fernanda Puertas

Maria Fernanda Puertas00:00

The hardest part about leaving teaching is that emotional backlog you have, and the feeling that you have betrayed the community, and that is imprinted in your personality and who you are when you are a teacher.

The guilt is terrible. When you make that decision, and this is something that after connecting with many teachers that had also transitioned into the edtech industry in diverse roles, they all quote the same thing.

Danu Poyner00:26

You're listening to the Still Curious Podcast with me, Danu Poyner. My guest today is Maria Fernanda Puertas, who describes herself as a Latina tea lover and cat lady who is passionate about the science of learning and community building. Today's conversation is all about what happens when a mingling of interests meets a sudden change in priorities.

It's about the moments where you change from being one kind of thing into another, how that happens and how you update your self understanding along the way. It's about teaching moments and learning moments, the beating heart of education that enables each of us to reflect on our experiences and capitalize on those reflections in ways we can put into practice and that move us forward.

Maria Fernanda Puertas01:09

Basically it was retrospective saying maybe I have always been this, but I'm just realizing that this is a thing to be.

Danu Poyner01:17

Maria had been a teacher and a head teacher in Argentina for 10 years when she suddenly found herself in the hot seat at the start of the pandemic.

Maria Fernanda Puertas01:25

The academic year started on March the 11th. On March 13, we stopped attending schools and we never came back. I went home and spent, seven, eight hours, just writing an email because in that email, we had to communicate clearly reassuring the entire community that we knew what we were doing when actually we had absolutely no idea

Danu Poyner01:48

. It was a heady time and brought into focus for Maria, the importance of being part of support networks and communities of practice, what student wellbeing really means, and discovering the challenges of dealing with parents who ultimately needed something that the school was not really there to provide.

The whole experience caused Maria to reflect on what was no longer working for her about the school system and how she could leverage her strengths and interests to reconnect with what you loved about education by making the transition to learning design and operations.

Maria Fernanda Puertas02:20

I just knew that I wanted to work in tech creating, or supporting learning platforms or learning resources online because there was a huge lack of those. If I can support my 200 teachers with a training session on how to manage a video call, imagine what I can do by designing a resource that can support 1 million teachers.

Danu Poyner02:39

As usual, this is a conversation that goes on all sorts of tangents while being packed full of surprising substance throughout. We talk about why it's fun to argue with teenagers, maria's research in learning science and student wellbeing, what it's like to carry around the mission of education on your shoulders and the complexities of translating concepts from Spanish into English. Enjoy, it's Maria Fernanda Puertas coming up after the music on today's episode of the Still Curious Podcast.

Main Episode

Hi Maria, welcome to the podcast. How are you?

Maria Fernanda Puertas03:36

Hi fine. It's lovely to be here. Thank you for having me.

Danu Poyner03:40

Oh, you're very welcome. Lovely to have you here.

You are a self described Latina tea lover and cat lady. You are passionate about the science of learning and community building. After being a teacher and head teacher for over a decade, you made the decision to move into tech, to pursue the mission of reaching a much wider audience with amazing learning experiences and hopefully help people find what they're looking for.

You're now an education lead at Atom Learning, which is an online adaptive teaching and learning platform for ages seven to 13. That's won some awards. What's the most important thing for someone to understand about what you do?

Maria Fernanda Puertas04:17

What I would say is that we believe that there's nothing behind teaching and learning. There is just very charismatic person sharing their knowledge, but actually there's a lot that happens behind the scenes. And that's what I do to make sure that learning experiences are great and are strong and powerful independently of who is delivering it.

Danu Poyner04:42

Thank you. That's very clear and sets us up nicely for a conversation about why we think teaching and learning is not so complicated at its core and also what's going on behind the scenes. But I guess let's go back a bit.

You started out teaching in Argentina in 2006. Was being a teacher, always plan a for you?

Maria Fernanda Puertas05:02

Absolutely. And not only being a teacher, but being a head teacher when I was four years old is I organize my Teddy bears and I'm an only child. So I have many, many teddy bears. Organize them in different classrooms. And they went classroom by classroom checking that everything was all right. Even when I was four years old, I knew I wanted to work in education and I wanted to be head teacher rather than a teacher.

So I built my career and I built my personality, my definition of myself through that.

Danu Poyner05:35

I have a lot of, I guess, chewy questions for you about your journey through education, but before we go there, I guess I'd like to make space for a moment to talk about the magic of teaching and the power of those small human interactions, because that's what this is really all about and why we care.

So would you like to share a couple of your favorite teaching moments? Ones that still stick with you?

Maria Fernanda Puertas05:58

Yeah, I have many, many of them. I struggle to finish my secondary education myself, primarily mainly with numbers subjects.

I had a lovely math teacher, so I sat down with him and said, listen, I'm about to graduate. I'm going to be a teacher. I'm not going to teach maths. So please, grant me this so I can move on and this will not be an obstacle. He was amazing. So he agreed. Fast forward seven years later, I had his son in my classroom.

I was teaching research methods, nothing to do with numbers, and social sciences. And I actually was the one giving him his diploma when he graduated. I had this fantastic moment when he was on the stage, the three of us. And he looked at me, my teacher and said, now I can tell you were right. That was amazing in terms of the magic of his teaching and beyond the walls of the classroom. The second one I've chosen, I used to work with senior year students. So they were about to graduate and we held a workshop on job interviewing, building resume.

We rehearsed a mock job interview. They have to dress up to kill, bring the resume, prepared questions. I had one student who was, he's actually a rockstar. He is really famous. He's a musician.

He couldn't care about formal job and formal education. He couldn't care less, but he dressed up amazingly. And came with a briefcase and he asked me, do you know why I have a briefcase? Because I carry a lots of money. I'm going to be a millionaire. So he didn't know how he was going to get there, but he came prepped.

He really didn't care about the formal part of it, but he sees the opportunity to rehearse and to picture himself doing whatever he wanted, being a rockstar and being a millionaire. And that was his dream. So that was teaching for him. And it was for me as well.

The third one was a tricky one I had as a head teacher. I always specialized in high school, in secondary school students, but for nice couple of years I was head teacher at primary school, and those kids are not my strength. One day I had one first grader, six years old, is making a mess in the playgrounds during break time.

I approached him and say, okay, either you bring me your communications copy book, or you sit down for five minutes, his response was, I won't do any of those. And he continued messing around. I was defeated, beaten by a six year old. I didn't have further arguments. I knew how to argue with teenagers. The six-year-old he said No to option A, No to option B. And he got his way, I must admit, but at least it was a teaching moment for me in terms of which are my strengths as an educator as well.

Danu Poyner09:10

What did you take away from that about your strengths?

Maria Fernanda Puertas09:13

I'm a terrible negotiator.

Danu Poyner09:17

Arguing with teenagers versus negotiating with six year olds. What is the difference there?

Maria Fernanda Puertas09:23

Teenagers, they want to argue because they want to break the limits. They want to go even further and they understand reason. They just want to challenge it. So it's a game of who builds the better arguments and that is super fun and it's super enriching. And the level the conversations get after three years of having the same group of students is amazing, it's debate level. With a six year old, it's not conscious, it's not challenging limits. He simply didn't want to stop running and he simply didn't want me to tell his mum Teenagers are very well suited to the classroom environment and the school environment and the form of institutional environment by the time they reach 16. But they love to challenge everything you say to them and that is super fun. In the case of kids, they just want to do things differently and they don't care what you want them to do.

Danu Poyner10:17

Do you think with the teenagers that that challenging is always done through a mode of reason? What form does that challenging take?

Maria Fernanda Puertas10:28

Generally it's arguing and generally challenging practices, things that they're not supposed to do, and they do them anyway. And then you engage in that conversation where you learn something because they are much younger.

So they have a lot to teach and they learn something on how to approach social interactions in different environments. I would be really defensive with them. Yes, it's always through reason. It's always through challenge, but if you tackle the conversation in a material way and in an empathetic way, both parties leave that conversation having learned something.

Danu Poyner11:10

I'm struck by the way that you are defensive of them and that you describe those arguments as being a lot of fun, but I guess that's not how most people would describe those interactions. what can you tell me about that? What makes it fun?

Maria Fernanda Puertas11:25

It's a tricky question. I'm a communicator and I love communicating. I love the nature and the construction of language and how to use it in different contexts. I'm a researcher, so when I can get to the bottom of things, is when things become clearer and they can ask questions and that skill is useful for me to communicate with teenagers and they get something from those exchanges because they'd get questions to ask, ways to approach a problem or a conversation and ways to use analyze language. That is quite tricky with younger students, you can't do. And in my case, my strength, I have to deal with complex uses of the language and how we use that to interact with each other. I guess that both of us get something from those conversations in that aspect.

Danu Poyner12:19

Well, thank you for going with me on that tangent. I enjoyed that. You mentioned you always wanted to be a head teacher. What was it about being a head teacher that was particularly appealing to you from the outset?

Maria Fernanda Puertas12:31

It was an idea of what being head teacher is, not the real thing in the end. That is why I am not in that field anymore. The learning experience of students that attend a particular school, you can make sure that the quality of their experience is amazing, not just in the amount of knowledge, but also the quality of experiences they leave, how they signify the learnings, how they experience living with each other, what they get from that experience.

As a teacher, I spent my days delivering lessons and trying to make sure that that happens with my 25 students in front of me. If I could do that at a larger scale, that was going to be amazing. In the end, it's not exactly that way.

Danu Poyner13:17

I feel like teaching is one of those professions where it's not always easy to see what the path to growth looks like. If you're a teacher who loves the interaction with students, then a lot of what looks like career advancement actually can take you further away from that and more into the administration and the politics of administration, which seems like it might give you the opportunity to own the experience as you say. What was that experience like once you got to being a head teacher?

Maria Fernanda Puertas13:45

Exactly that way. I imagined that I was going to spend my day talking to students, visiting classrooms, talking to teachers, making sure that they had everything they needed. And they were challenging themselves and challenging students. The end you spend your day doing admin work. On one hand, it makes processes more efficient but in the end, you're an agent. I now live in the UK, but in Argentina it happens quite much the same way in terms of the national curriculum. We do have one curriculum, one organization of stuff, and that is the way it has to be done.

The room for improvement is quite narrow. Therefore, I find myself spending my day in between meetings and working on spreadsheets.

And not at all talking to students. And I found myself after a couple of years with students not really wanting to talk to me.

And that was terrible.

Danu Poyner14:42

Was that something that crept up on you or was there a moment when you had a kind of outbreak of clarity that that had happened?

Maria Fernanda Puertas14:50

It wasn't from one day to the other, but it was quite drastic. When the last group, I had been their teacher, graduated the rest of the school have never had the experience of sharing a classroom with me as their teacher. So they didn't really know me. There was no reason for them to trust me to come and talk to me or whatsoever. I hadn't built that bond or that connection as I had with the groups that had been my students and when it was a teacher.

It was something that happened gradually. That became a lot stronger when the last group I was graduated and I remained being someone who hadn't taught anyone in this school.

Danu Poyner15:35

That's a nice illustration of the impact that teachers have and what the work is because it's not just what's happening in this space at this time. You really are with someone over a journey for several years of their lives and that it is not always built into the way that work is designed for teachers, I guess.

Maria Fernanda Puertas15:57

Not at all. And that's why either it's too tiring or it's proactive and not every teacher does do it, although they might wish to do it. The time they want to spend with students learning how they are feeling, what they need, what they wish.

If they're finding their learning journey meaningful in any way, it's not something you get to do. On that aspect I do think that the pandemic in some cases gave students and schools in general, that opportunity because formal learning was placed in a second place, the main objective for every school, at least the vast majority, was to support those students throughout lockdown. In some cases, that was something that was addressed and hopefully it continues until now. In the situations that that didn't happen, at least is something that now we're talking about.

Danu Poyner16:56

Let's get into the pandemic then, because you found yourself in the hot seat when the pandemic started, suddenly responsible for standing up your institutions online homeschooling program and making it work somehow against great uncertainty. What happened? What did you do? What was it like? What can you share?

Maria Fernanda Puertas17:16

It's incredible because it's the main reason why I'm now sitting here and doing something completely different. Terrible, but for me, it was enlightening in terms of what I want to do and what I'm great at doing. In Argentina to give some context, we had one of the longest lockdowns in the entire world, and it covered the entirety of an academic year.

The academic year started on March the 11th. On March 13, we stopped attending schools and we never came back. It was an entire academic year. That day, you March the thirteenth, I had to say goodbye to my students, sat in my desk and we got a call saying that that had been the last day of regular classes.

And we didn't know when those were going to be resumed. So we had to come up with something. I went home and spent, I would say seven, eight hours, just writing an email because in that email, we had to communicate clearly reassuring the entire community that we knew what we were doing when actually we had absolutely no idea and coming up with a plan. So we spent long hours writing that email for families, for teachers, for students, for the entire community. And that was the Kickstarter. We send that email, we set up the virtual classrooms, we set up a schedule. We made the decision of spending 50% of the time on zoom or live lessons and 50% with async activities.

We needed to support teachers on the acquisition of those resources, those tools and those structures the most challenging part was writing that email.

Danu Poyner19:04

I'd love to know what was going through your head because it was so sudden, it sounds like you took on and really felt that responsibility in a farsighted way early because there was so much uncertainty.

Maria Fernanda Puertas19:18

There were so much uncertainty that is true. At least in the Southern hemisphere, we saw how Europe was coping with this. We knew that lockdown was a possibility.

At least I had some time since I've received work in February, until students came to school in March thinking of best practices in case that happens, even if it was for a week. So by the time that day came on March 13, at least it was really confident about what was great teaching and learning in on-line environments. Because I had done my research just in case.

Danu Poyner19:59

It sounds like you had a feeling of almost relief from the uncertainty in a way that at least now we know what we have to do. Sounds like it was quite a galvanizing moment.

Maria Fernanda Puertas20:10

It was. It's different when I talk about it right now that everything has already finished . At that moment, it was freakish. It was 2, 3, 4 weeks working 13 hours being available for teachers 24 7 because they needed support and all of us were alone at home. There were teachers that didn't own a computer, for example. They didn't even have the resource to upload a Google doc or awards document to their students. I can say that I was confident on the design of a learning experience that then the reality hits.

It was a very big school, almost 1,500 students, 200 educators was a very big school.

So there are plenty of realities to address and that are in a very unique moment of history. I think that that made it a bit more difficult, the human parts of all of this, rather than the design of the structure.

Danu Poyner21:13

That was a very confusing and difficult and overwhelming time for everyone. How did you experience that? What was that like for you and how did you get support or did you?

Maria Fernanda Puertas21:25

I was at home with my husband, he was amazing throughout the lockdown. He worked in finance. Finance was also crazy during that time. So at least we supported each other and as for my mental health, I have to think my therapist.

And then it was building net. Networks with other teachers, other headteachers, parents, families of the community. Experiencing that and trying to figure out what was going on. What got me through that process was actually building networks and building really strong communities of practices in different settings. At a personal level, I was really, really supported, but I professional level. Those networks got me and a million other teachers through a lockdown.

Danu Poyner22:13

Can you put yourself back in that time and recall what were the main things that everyone was really talking about and puzzling out together?

Maria Fernanda Puertas22:24

I think that the main thing was what to do. At a general level, what to do to support students well, to support families, what to do to support the economic situation of those families.

Many families lost their jobs, lost their income during the meltdown. So it was what do we do with teaching? What do we do with assessing? What do we do with supporting. And sharing ideas and sharing experiences and testing a lot and asking for feedback.

I didn't call it feedback when I was a teacher. I called it. Please tell me how you're doing and asking for something back so we could evaluate what we were doing and steering a different direction if it was necessary. But I think that the main question was what do we do? That was a community question among educators among schools globally, not just in Argentina, not just in south America.

Danu Poyner23:19

You mentioned before there was this sort of discovery that happened that supporting the students is a huge part of it and primary to the education part of it itself in many ways. And I know parents were discovering that schools are not just places of education, but they're also places of care and daycare as well.

And there's a sort of redefining of what schools are actually for and about, and the relationship between teachers and students and parents. You were in the middle of all of that. What did you experience about that discovery? What did you do?

Maria Fernanda Puertas23:55

It was really, really complex. And from the questions you raised that was one, was it more difficult students or parents. And I will always say parents, but because there is no school for parents and certainly I'm not the teacher nor the head teacher in that school for parents. So, it's difficult to find alignment with families.

It's difficult to make joint decisions when in most cases, in a very conflictive scenario, they needed something that we couldn't provide. They needed a place for students to sit down so they could go to work or find a job or whatsoever. We couldn't provide that. They needed a service from the school that we were not there to do it.

Those were very difficult conversations. And although we had been thinking about not being super happy about my role as a head teacher for a while, by that time, there was one day in particular that I read an email from a group of families saying they didn't think it was appropriate to pay the fee because we were not teaching during lockdown. I can completely understand now where that came from. But for me personally and professionally, it was, we are doing an amazing work, at least in the amount of work we're doing to keep this together. And if they need something different or this is not what they want. This is not the place for me.

Danu Poyner25:27

It's interesting when you have those kind of moments of deep clarity about what's not working and what you need to change. Did you have a clear idea of how you would make a change or what you were gonna do?

Maria Fernanda Puertas25:41

I had zero idea. I knew that I wanted to work in tech because I was tech savvy and I was clearly showing, at least myself, that I was able to do it. Didn't even know that there was a field called learning design, that people designed these learning experiences, mediated by technology.

Once I digged in that field, I realized that I had been doing plenty of that when it was working in publishing, when I was working in human resources when I was a lot younger. I just knew that I wanted to work in tech and I wanted to work creating, or supporting learning platforms or learning resources online because there was a huge lack of those. So I wanted to be in that hotspot saying if I can support my 200 teachers with a training session on how to manage a video call, imagine what I can do by designing a resource that can support 1 million teachers.

I started Googling people who did what I did, how were they called?

Where did they work? What they knew that I didn't know. And I started reading a lot. I started following certain companies, for example, Duolingo, to see if people worked in education, what did they do? And quite quickly because the offer was high,

I hit my first position as a freelancer and just a couple of weeks. And then the change was tiresome because I kept two positions. I was a head teacher in my morning and it was a learning designer in my evening. And he took me a while to make those fit together. the flow was smooth let's say.

Danu Poyner27:17

There's a lot of intention behind the path that