home d.tech life Adapting to a Wall-less Classroom: new teachers on d.tech

Adapting to a Wall-less Classroom: new teachers on d.tech

By Joelene Latief

Lessley Anderson, left, is a new teacher at d.tech. Photo by Yuze Sun

d.tech  is not like other schools. The innovative, vibrant environment would not be possible without the diverse staff of passionate teachers. Before coming to d.tech, the majority of teachers came from traditional schools, and nearly all of them had never heard of the design thinking process. So how did they adapt to the flexible learning environment and get on the road to become design thinking mentors? I interviewed five of d.tech’s new teachers to find out.

English and Computer Science Design Lab teacher, Patrick Sullivan, formerly taught elective classes and worked with teachers at Taylor Middle School in Millbrae. He loves being able to work personally with students, “kind of like a guide rather than teaching in front of the class.” He enjoys how d.tech classes are less lecture-based, and more production-based.

Sullivan says he practices design thinking all the time in his own life. “When you are designing for your own life, you empathize with yourself,” he says. Sullivan says he uses this tool for an array of things, like thinking of more efficient and enjoyable ways to get to work in the morning. Sullivan says that working at d.tech is not “some stagnant job where I am doing the same thing everyday; it is always changing. In design thinking, they call it a ‘wicked problem’, and that is what teaching is – a ‘wicked problem’.” An interesting fact about Sullivan is that he has travelled to more countries than states, including living in Korea for nearly three years and in Vietnam for nearly one, a testament to his adventurous spirit and desire to grow as a person. He advises students to, “Be kind to other people. This is probably one of the most important things that ever happens in the world. If it is a decision between being right and being kind, choose being kind every time.”

d.tech Econ and government teacher, Henry Lonneman

Next up was Henry Lonneman, Economics teacher. Prior to joining d.tech’s community, Lonneman taught at Everest High School in Redwood City, which, similar to d.tech, is a smaller school of about 400 students. He says that d.tech’s community is similarly close-knit. Lonneman sees design thinking as, “an approach to solving problems,” that he feels that he, “doesn’t use in his own life as much as I would like to.” Lonneman would like to improve in, “eliciting feedback and prototyping more in daily life”. To do this, he has started doing little things, such as asking his neighbor for feedback as he is fixing up his lawn. Lonneman’s mindset on teaching is evolving; he now thinks that teaching isn’t necessarily a situation where the teacher holds all the answers, and the students are just trying to get the right answer. He believes it is a much more interactive and engaging process through which both the students and teachers have a chance to grow.

He has started doing little things, such as asking his neighbor for feedback as he is fixing up his lawn.

My next interview was with 11th grade English teacher, Lessley Anderson. Leading up to teaching at d.tech, Anderson was a journalist for fifteen years, then a student teacher at the School of the Arts in San Francisco. She says that at SOTA, “academics were sometimes put on the back burner,” but that is not the case here. She also mentioned that many rules were bent, so she is quite adaptable to d.tech’s flexible environment.


Anderson has an interesting view on design thinking; “My view of design thinking is still evolving. I don’t think of myself as a designer [though she designs fun and engaging material for her English class], but rather as a communicator.” However, she highly values the empathy portion of the design thinking process, because she feels that it teaches students’ essential social and interviewing skill. She says that because of the school’s emphasis on empathy, d.tech students are, “lightyears ahead of other kids their own age”. Anderson feels she is able to form a closer relationship with her students because there is more trust in the community, even with all the “normal teenage stuff”. If there is one thing she would change about d.tech, she would like to see more integrated music and arts curriculum. “[d.tech] needs music and arts curriculum ‘baked in’, not just as an ‘a la carte’. In my opinion, this is just as important as academics. Music and art have done way more for me than science/math classes,” Anderson says. Her wisdom for her students: “never pass up an opportunity to go on an adventure because it may not come again.”

She says that because of the school’s emphasis on empathy, d.tech students are, “lightyears ahead of other kids their own age”.

Next up: Sarah Lucckesi, Special Education teacher. Luckesi was a teacher at a school in San Francisco before joining d.tech. She says that working at d.tech was a little bit challenging at first, because she personally doesn’t love change, but she is continually growing more confident in her skills both as a teacher and as a designer. For her job, she has to solve problems all the time, whether that be with a student, logistics, or paper work, and says that design thinking is, “incredibly eye opening”. Lucckesi feels that her relationship with students is, “way more authentic,” than at her old school. She feels that people genuinely care about each other and the community, and that makes it a great place to work. Her counsel for students is to, “Be more empathetic, because you really do not know what is going on in another person’s life. Also be more empathetic to yourself as well; life is hard, don’t be so hard on yourself. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.”

Finally, I interviewed a teacher that is very new to d.tech: the 9th grade English teacher, Teri Hu. Hu taught in the Fremont Unified District, where she says students are continually stressed out about grades and test scores. She feels that students are much less pressured about those things at d.tech, which allows students that may feel, “oppressed and scared,” at another school, to thrive here. As a very new teacher to d.tech, Terri has not learned a lot about design thinking, but she currently sees it as just a revamped form of traditional design. However, her main critique of the school is the “trash. Trash everywhere. And everything is covered in dirt”. Her piece of counsel to high school students is that, “ultimately, high school doesn’t matter as much as you may think it does right now, so don’t stress too hard.”

One thing that was universal through all my interviews is that teachers found it difficult to adjust to the lack of walls at d.tech. Lucckesi says that sometimes, when she wanted to work out a difficult problem with a student or solve a challenging logistics problem, she needed a quiet space, but doesn’t often have access to one. Lonneman and Sullivan both say that the constant noise and somewhat stifling environment is not ideal, but they have learned to adapt. In fact, Sullivan has even grown to view this environment as a positive aspect, because it is an opportunity to solve a real problem.

Some teachers who came to teach at d.tech. Photo by author

This really sums up what d.tech is about at its core; it is not about having the ideal situation all the time – our school is far from perfect. What is truly great about our school is that we are able to grow as a community and push each other to improve as designers and as people, and our extraordinary staff is a big part of allowing us to do this. Thank you for your hard work!


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