Interview with Annie Fox about Great Teachers, Technology and Bullying

Annie FoxAnnie Fox has been helping kids her entire life. After graduating from Cornell University and completing her Master’s in Education from the State University of New York at Cortland, she became a classroom teacher in upstate New York and, later, the San Francisco Bay Area. After a few years in the classroom, she and her husband opened the Marin Computer Center, the world’s first publicly accessible computer facility. Her passion to help children and belief that technology could aid her to that end brought Annie to write and design a series of award-winning children’s software and begin The InSite, a website dedicated to helping teens and young adults address their issues. Throughout her career, Annie also authored a number of books on subjects ranging from computer programming to how teens can better deal with stress. recently spoke to Annie via email to find out what the educator, author and trusted online advisor thought about what makes a great teacher to what the future of education technology may hold and more. By 21, you decided that helping kids was going to be your life’s work. Was there a specific incident that motivated the decision?

Annie Fox: I had completed a semester of student-teaching as part of my undergraduate major in human development and family studies at Cornell. I absolutely loved every minute of my experience in that combination third-fourth grade class! The master teacher, Mrs. Schwartz, was a brilliant educator and a warm-hearted mentor to me. It was clear to me that being a teacher was my path.

What was it about Mrs. Schwartz that made her such a great teacher --- both as a classroom instructor to her students and as a mentor to you?

Mrs. Schwartz was cool! By that I mean warm, accessible, direct, flexible, unflappable, and the kind of teacher who gave each of her students (as well as me, her student teacher) 100 percent of her attention when she spoke to you. I learned so much about being a fully engaged teacher from being in her class.

Was the goal of helping children your primary inspiration in becoming a teacher? What subject did you teach? Where?

Absolutely! I taught in Ithaca and in Cortland (both in upstate New York). In the beginning of my career, I taught creative writing, music and theater, so I started out with the idea that creative expression is the way to reach kids and help them become their best selves. I also continued along those lines when I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. But in the past 15 years (since the launch of The InSite, my teen website), I've come to realize that the best way to help kids become good people is by teaching social intelligence skills --- that is: empathy, compassion, effective communication, etc. Social intelligence skill-building is the "subject" I teach.

You left the classroom to pursue new advancements in technology, particularly computers. What was that early connection you saw between education and technology, between teaching and computers

Personal computers were just becoming available in the late '70s, when David and I opened the Marin Computer Center. The first weekend we opened our doors, 700 people showed up! With kids leading their parents! It was obvious how much enjoyment the kids got from playing with computers. I'm all about fun and learning, so it was a no-brainer to come up with a new path that incorporated the creation of content that combined story-telling and social intelligence skill-building with technology.

Where do you think the future is headed in terms of the intersection of education and technology?

Interactive technology puts so many choices in the hands of the learner --- what I want to learn about, how I want to learn it, where I want to learn it, how I wish to “show what I know." But don't get me wrong: At the foundation of all learning for children is the relationship between student and teacher. That has to do with the heart-to-heart connection, and no technology is a worthy substitute for that.

You write an advice column for teachers, as well as students and parents. What is the most common question you receive from educators?

I don't write an advice column for teachers; I blog for teens as well as the adults who live and work with them. I also have been answering email questions from tweens, teens and adults since 1997. The most common question I get from adults (be they parents and/or educators) has to do with helping students learn to become more cooperative with each other. You probably don't need me to tell you or your readers that the drama that unfolds in every middle and high school can be very "distracting." It can also be psychologically damaging to students. Schools need to become safer and more accepting places for all students all the time. As the adults who maintain the tone and emotional landscape of a school, teachers have an essential leadership role to play.

Your campaign, “Cruel’s Not Cool!”, seeks to examine our culture of cruelty and how we as teachers, administrators, students and parents can put an end to it. If you could give teachers one piece of advice to combat bullying, what would it be?

Cruel's not cool, not ever. Turning a blind-eye to peer harassment in the halls, the lunchroom, the classroom is a form of cruelty. Research shows that when teachers take a leadership role and let students know which behaviors are totally unacceptable (for example: homophobic slurs, sexist comments or behavior), then those types of behavior decrease. When teachers put on blinders and/or decide "I'm on a break, I don't need to deal with this," then students get the message that bullying is OK. Teachers must speak up whenever they see or hear or learn about cruel behavior amongst students. And administrators must support teachers who call out bullying.