Levelling the Playing Field and Inviting Creative Thought

“Iterate until success.”

Justin Wiedrick
Code Breaker Ambassador

Feeling locked into the public educational space that can seem to cover all types of learners with a blanket of expectations that do not promote creativity and reward students extrinsically, I decided to create my own version of an engineering creativity class for middle schoolers that gets outside of the testable environment.  I have taught mathematics, mostly middle school in 4 different school districts in New York State.  Students are tested in ways that are bland and generic regardless of creativity within instruction and/or discourse within mathematics and engineering. I have heard the call to create critical thinkers since I was in college in the 90s yet the public education setting does little to promote and often hinders progress. Some might even argue the system forces procedural thinking!  

My approach is to use coding to foster creativity and logical sequencing in the attempt to resist the complacency of using a math textbook series!  I promoted using Sphero robots, Scratch coding, Tello drones and other platforms to enable students the opportunity to engage in challenges that both levels the playing field and invites creativity of thought.  After getting shot down by multiple administrators due to “ït doesn´t fit into the schedule” and “we need to focus on test scores” I decided to take a two pronged approach to disrupting the norm.  I started an afterschool drone program that created tons of interest from students and parents, getting funding from the local Elks Lodge to purchase some equipment, along with gaining some credentials (achieving National Board and NYS Master Teacher standing).  These two approaches along with persistently offering my plans to develop a STEAM program led to a five week course for sixth graders.

We started by block coding robots and drones through simple challenges of distance, ramps, hoops, and more. Students struggled through finding logic and sequencing in their coding while collaborating with their peers to complete their challenges.  Taking our findings to school board meetings promoted our program to show that kids can learn and impress in ways other than by standardized test scores. When the world turned sideways in 2020 I had students and parents tell me that the only way they would come to school was to look forward to STEAM class! We were accomplishing more than what was planned from the start. Our program has grown to add a STEAM coordinator and a spacious STEAM lab with four offset rooms for different tasks.  We offer semestered STEAM classes for kids 6-8 and a high school class.  We won the world championship for the Sphero Global Challenge in 2023, took fifth place in 2022 and have multiple middle school teams competing in 2024.  We are competing in the high school tech challenge for the first time and are developing a U.S. Drone Soccer team with eighth graders.  We promote our program to schools within the region, to the board of education, and government officials and invite local engineering firms and police departments for drone flight purposes.

Within all the successes, I am still teaching sixth grade mathematics in the standardized testing world. My goals are to use the success of the STEAM program to give kids another avenue to pursue interests and careers using engaging challenges that give them feedback that is not a score, but iteration until success.



Justin is a totally Flipped Math/STEAM MS teacher, drone enthusiast and complacency RESISTOR! He is also a NYS Master Teacher, NBCT, Nearpod Certified Educator, SpheroHero, and 2022 #PAEMST finalist Connect with him through his socials.

Release the Grip of Teaching

Children are born to learn. Step back and allow them that right.

Donna McCance M.Ed.
Code Breaker Ambassador

Many times we learn by watching others. Operational learning happens when people model a behavior, and others learn by observing it. 

Children are very impressionable, meaning they can be easily shaped and influenced. Watching others is how they learn to do most things.   But as their brains develop, they reach a stage where they can analyze what’s going on by seeing consequences. 

When I was five years old, my parents were teaching my older brother and sister how “not to slouch.” When we went to church, they sat in the pew in front of us. Every time they started to slouch, my parents would press on their backs. I was so terrified of that being done to me, I made sure I didn’t slouch like them. I learned “what to do” by watching “what not to do” because I didn’t want to be put on public display and poked in the back. I made a choice.

Many times children learn how to behave by watching their siblings go through consequences for their behaviors. They learn by example.  

Operational learning is how I learned at a very early age to be the type of teacher I am. I learned “what to do”  by learning “what not to do”  through my experiences as a student, and my observations of other teachers. 

You can’t do that.

You’re not ready yet.

You’re too young to learn.

That’s too hard for you.

That’s for the next grade.

Slow down.

Hurry up.

Stop talking.



You made too many mistakes.

You’re not smart enough.

You failed.

You have a fresh mouth.

Don’t ask why.

Just do it.

Go stand in the corner.

These words and phrases all come to mind. I had a choice. Be that way, or break away.  I vowed to never be that way.

To me, being a teacher means allowing students to be learners, while I learn along with them. I learn about them. They learn about me. We build relationships by making connections. 

I don’t tell them who they are. I don’t tell them how they should be. I don’t tell them what their future holds for them. I give them space to be themselves. I give them time to figure me out. I show them who I am, and I allow them to develop trust.

What’s there to figure out that builds trust? The knowledge that I care most about them, not the curriculum. That I take an interest in them and their lives. I look them in the eyes and I show them respect. I ask them how they are with the intent of listening to their responses. I don’t judge them or boss them around. I allow them to talk about themselves. I don’t threaten them or lecture them. 

I don’t make them “walk the line.” I don’t force them in a “box.” There are no lines or boxes.   

What do I support? Free thinking. Do you ever hear the words “free thinking” anymore? Have you EVER heard those two words?

The concept is quite simple. Rather than being a restrictive, controlling teacher, I allow my students to think freely. Free thinking looks like this: think on their own; express themselves; ask their own questions; seek their own answers; investigate; explore; research; analyze; observe; document, experience failure; get dirty, and make mistakes.

I let them do their own learning, in the way that they learn best as individuals. The way people learn is not a one size fits all model, and teaching that way goes against diversity. 

Children are born to learn. Step back and allow them that right. And when we do that, we will become learners alongside them. We will learn about them, and we will realized that we learn from them just as much, if not more. 


Donna McCance M.Ed. is an educator, leader, mentor, author, school administrator, mental health advocate, fitness enthusiast and nature lover. Connect with her through her socials.


My heart put me in education. Their hearts made education the perfect fit.

Mike Azzalina

If I could go back to an alternate universe and meet the 16 year old version of myself, I would warn him of what was coming. He would be annoyed at the cautionary tales that he has heard since he was eleven, causing them to be met with an eye roll directly back to the baseball and glove undoubtedly attached to my young me’s hands. But I would persist in connecting, assuring him I knew how he felt.

Embarrassed. Aware, but shamed. In my head, the heart condition that haunted my every thought only existed to torture me slowly, but I was promised it wasn’t life-altering. Easy to say when you aren’t a teenager who collapses in front of his peers multiple times a week. And then, in 2004, it changed everything about my life. 

But it actually improved my pathless plan toward hope and purpose. Because of the educators who stuck by me, it helped me to understand that I too was called to be an educator.

Fast forward 19 years, I was in a weird place on my journey. Heading into my second year of the job I saw as my dream, the doubt and stressors began to creep into my head. The life of a principal was taking its toll on my physical health. The heart condition that had been buried deep in the alleys of memory lane had once again turned on their headlights and taken me captive. It was about to change my life…yet again.

Six episodes in three months. Why is this happening?

I poured my heart (pun sort of intended) into the job. The need for people to feel loved, supported, and valued at our school was paramount on the list of goals. It stood, in bold letters, underlined again and again, above test scores and which curriculum we would be using. Please know that I never turned a blind eye to those items, but my belief was always that if students connected with us, they would learn and perform. 

After another heart episode taunted me around this very time last summer, I met with a friend of mine who had recently left public education. She was traveling the country, delivering professional development in the work she was most passionate about, making her mark in a different way.

“Mike, it is an impact larger than you can ever imagine,” I remember her beaming as she talked about her new life. 

Three months passed after that conversation under the setting August sun. The leaves changed, snow fell, but my heart was steadfast in its messaging to me: Mike, it’s time.

Leaving was the most difficult decision that I have ever made. Walking away from a culture of love, accountability, and support tasted like spoiled irony. But it was a choice that needed to be swallowed.

Mike, it is an impact larger than you can ever imagine. What would my impact be? What could I give back to the world of education that it was either missing or a piece that needed a reminder? I owed the public sector of education an enormous “thank you.” Education is a true enigma. It brought me some of the most challenging days with big things that sometimes made me loathe it, while allowing me to grow simultaneously. However, it also brought me thousands of little hearts to impact and love. So for that, I would be forever grateful.

My heart put me in education. Their hearts made education the perfect fit. And when my own took it all away, I would be damned if I would be held back from finding a way to reconnect to the world I loved so much.

Sitting here, seven months since my last day as a principal, I feel like I am still searching for my impact. As someone who led with a relationships first mentality, working with the International Institute for Restorative Practices felt like the perfect fit. Traveling around the country, I have had the honor of meeting with educators who are so passionately engaged in connecting with their students. Hearing their stories continues to be the reminder of why this work matters. 

After spending a couple of days with educators, I have heard about how our time together changed their lives, professionally and personally.

“I had this conversation with my wife last night and it is going to change how we interact with one another.”

“My son was shocked when I did something restoratively with him last night instead of for him.”

“Mike, I am going to coach in a very different way now because of this. Thank you.”

And I love hearing that, but I am missing that direct link. I crave the energy of a building on a sunny Friday morning. The ability to make the student smile after a morning I could never imagine is no longer. Positively impacting staff members who are having trouble believing in anything they do has fallen off a cliff. The chance to open a child’s eyes to accomplishing goals they never saw attainable has disappeared. I enjoy what I am doing, but honestly hope to find the building again when the time is right. My impact came from long-standing relationships.

My journey has been entirely rooted in those exact relationships. It is a story of hopelessness turned hope because of the people who devoted themselves to connecting with me during the most difficult periods of my life. The people who made an impact larger than they could ever imagine. Since leaving my building, I have had multiple opportunities to share my story with schools, students preparing to be teachers, and many others. Watching their eyes go from sadness to hopeful during the span of that story has given me some of that missing vigor.

My story, Heartbeats, will soon be hitting shelves, giving a spotlight to the educators who saw me when I was unable to breathe on my own, and provided me with oxygen. The new purpose is to serve as a walking reminder of just how extensive an impact educators can have on students and one another. In our current world, the noise can make it incredibly difficult to believe that we matter. I am here to drown it out with a simple message of hope: You are loved. You matter. You’re really freakin’ important. 

So I go back to that question I asked myself earlier. What would my impact be? What can I give back? It’s my story, the simple reminder…

To make an impact greater than we can ever imagine.


Mike Azzalina spent 16 years in public education as a second grade teacher, assistant principal, and principal across elementary and middle schools. During this time, Mike found his passion in learning the stories of his students and using those to build effective, engaging learning opportunities for them. He found that his investment in their stories allowed for him to better understand their experiences and what made them tick. Mike has turned his passion for stories and their impacts into a podcast called The Prequel.  During his time in schools, Mike was trained in restorative practices and worked to implement it into his leadership. He was able to do so while also traveling as a contracted instructor for the International Institute for Restorative Practices. 

Mike currently works full time as an Instructor and Implementation Coach for the IIRP. He earned his Bachelor in Elementary Education from Elizabethtown College, Master of Curriculum and Instruction from Penn State University, and Master of Educational Leadership from the American College of Education. He is currently working toward his graduate certificate in Restorative Practices through the IIRP.  Despite having to step away from his principal role for health reasons in 2023, he is dedicated to the world of education and providing an environment in which students are confident in their abilities to learn because they feel they are loved and that their voices matter. Mike is a rising author and public motivational speaker with the goal of passing along his passion to educators everywhere.