Becoming a Project Based Learning Teacher

Dec 08, 2023

I want to tell you about a pivotal part of my teaching journey.

Back in 2011, I began searching for my first teaching job. Back then in my city, open teaching positions were few and far between. The average English and history positions were receiving roughly 400 applications. So I was, dare I say, a little desperate. I even attended a job fair entertaining the idea of moving from Michigan to arctic Alaska just to secure a job! 

Then, one day towards the end of my student teaching, my supervising teacher shared with me that a school in our area was hiring an ELA 9 teacher. The only hitch was, this was not a totally normal high school. In the job description, it said, “Our school is a project-based learning school. Applicants must have familiarity and passion for project-based learning.”

Confession time: I didn't know what project-based learning was.

But I really needed to find a teaching job, so I did a bunch of research on PBL and applied. I had every influential person I encountered throughout teacher college write me a recommendation, prepared like crazy for the interview, and got the job.

Learning to Teach in an Unfamiliar Way

But now was the hard part. I needed to learn how to teach in a format different from the one I grew up in. Growing up, the majority of my school experience was defined by knowledge acquisition and retention. Projects were always something that came after the learning unit, and I usually just let my teammates do all the work, especially because I could easily sit out of a project and still do well on the unit test.

But now I was having to learn how to teach in a way that the learning was integrated with the projects. It was no longer something that came after the learning happened, like a model volcano after the unit test. Instead, the problem would have to be there the whole time, motivating and driving students to learn throughout the unit. And this would require authentic deadlines, collaboration, student-inquiry, and sometimes controlled chaos. As a new teacher just figuring out how to lead his own classroom, I had to step out of my comfort zone. My first projects were not earth-shattering, and if I'm being completely honest, not even that successful academically. Teaching like this required a learning curve.

Students Were Growing & Learning

But I did start seeing the value of this type of learning in other ways. My students were enthusiastic about coming to class. They were solving problems bigger than just receiving a grade. Kids were actually collaborating, boldly presenting their work in front of audiences, and working hard to achieve goals. These were totally normal high school kids working in ways I could never have dreamed of when I was in school.

As I grew as a teacher and became more skilled at designing projects, academic success soon followed. My students were doing as well on standardized tests as their peers in non-PBL classrooms, but they were also gaining these essential skills. What's interesting is that even though I was teaching with project based learning, I was still using “traditional” best practices that I learned in college and from mentor teachers. However, now these strategies were fueled by purposeful work. I still gave direct instruction and assigned silent reading, but now students engaged with those activities a little more because there was a problem to solve, a project to engage with.

I Learned to Love Teaching Like This

So, this is how I got into project based learning. I love it. I love teaching this way. Because at its core, PBL is really about giving purpose to student work. It's not a new fad like many of the other education-acronyms that seem to come and go. Project based learning is really just teaching with the awareness that people want to solve problems. Students are driven by purposeful work. And when that happens, students engage at a deeper level, learn the material more, and develop skills that will serve them throughout their lives.

Helping Other Teachers Learn Project Based Learning

Since my third year of teaching, I started to train other educators on how to use projects to engage their students. From leading workshops to opening up my classrooms as learning labs, I absolutely love getting to help people start this journey. This past year, I've been working on new ways to introduce people to PBL. This work has culminated in my new website,

A Project Based Learning Resource

At epicPBL, you can get free resources to plan and lead projects. There are videos to help you understand and lead project based learning in your classrooms. You can also check out my online PBL course there, as well as other ways for us to connect. 

Building this site has served as its own project for me, and it’s still ongoing. I’m regularly adding new resources, including fully planned projects (a bunch more coming next week). My hope is that it can become a resource for any teacher who is searching for new ways to engage their students, as well as fall in love with their work more. That’s honestly what PBL has done for me. I can’t imagine teaching anymore without having purposeful motivators embedded in the learning experience. It makes me love teaching more.

If you get a chance to check it out, please let me know what you think! I'm super nervous about finally launching this, but like any good project, it feels good to put it out in the world. 

Whether you are brand new to the idea of purposeful, project based learning, or you've been doing it for years, I hope epicPBL can give you some inspiration as you keep doing the good work of teaching and engaging students.

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