This blog was re-posted from Mutually Human, a Grand Rapids-based software company. Mutually Human’s vice president, Samuel Bowles was a guest teaching artist in 2014 for our app design team.

My Greatest Design Challenge

By Samuel Bowles 

This school year I taught a class in Interaction Design for high schoolers at the West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology. We designed an iPhone app, the details of which have been covered in a few publications. I was very pleased with the coverage, but what I haven’t been able to share in those articles is the experience of being a first time teacher struggling to find his way.

App Design Team meeting with Downtown Grand Rapids Inc.

I’ve spent the past few months watching full time WMCAT teachers work miracles each day and I’ve become incredibly aware of how much I value them. Over these months I’ve collected a handful of transformative stories—they have years of them—stories that would make anyone ask: “How can I make sure these individuals have every resource they need?”

I’ve been humbled over and over by my experience teaching at WMCAT. I’ve traveled the world speaking on Interaction Design in cities from London to Lisbon, Lansing to Austin, yet no other teaching engagement has been as challenging as this one. No audience has been tougher, no classroom more demanding. Everyday I teach I’m surprised by how much there is I don’t know. It’s an uncomfortable experience, as is any experience that pushes, stretches, and changes the way you view the world in fundamental ways.

Shortly after I began teaching, one of my students pulled me aside to let me know he would be leaving class, and Grand Rapids, after Christmas break. It seemed like a strange time to be informing me of this more than two months ahead of the event so I asked him why he was planning to leave. He told me, “I’ll be 18 and I’m going to go back to be with my Mom. I hate my foster Dad.” There seemed to be an invitation in his tone so we sat down and I listened. He proceeded to tell me the story of why he wasn’t with his Mom today.

He told me about a day sixteen years ago when was two years old and his mother held him in her arms as she argued with his father. They were screaming and yelling; the argument moved to the front porch of their home. He recounted colors, sounds, the clothes his father wore, his mother stooping to put him on the porch—freeing her arms to gesture. He remembered his father’s face as he pulled out a gun and shot his mother in the neck, the way she slumped to the ground, the blood, the tears, tears that were seconds away from falling again in our classroom. He fell silent, straightened his back and stilled the quiver in his lip. I saw anger, hope, and sadness flash across his face.

Clearly these kids have challenges much bigger than any “design challenge” I could conjure. So what does it mean to inspire these young humans who so regularly take my breath away? Some days are a triumph, others I’m left gasping and overwhelmed. Each day I try to give more than I receive, most days I fail.

A few weeks ago we turned a corner in the classroom. We moved from individual work to group work on our project. While we’d worked in groups at various times throughout the year, this was the first time we had worked together on our large project. Over the course of three classes I moved from surprise to astonishment to wonder. My kids danced from idea to idea and choreographed a concept for their app that I couldn’t have imagined if I’d tried. Ideas from one group connected to ideas from another, stories unfolded, designs emerged; I couldn’t help but wonder if I was necessary at all. Their imagination spilled onto the white boards and pages around us and I got a glimpse of what these kids are capable of.

The next wave of innovation, imagination, and inspiration is being cultivated by seven teachers at WMCAT. This is an overwhelming thought because I don’t even consider myself one of them. I’m a professional with a day job. I go to work everyday and spend most of my energy writing proposals, selling software, preparing quarterly reports, and practicing my craft. I still don’t completely understand what it means to be a teacher; I just play one a couple of times a week. But there are real teachers at WMCAT, teachers who blow me away with the ease with which they navigate all of these complexities, teachers who are in no small way changing the world one hard conversation, one design challenge, one inspiring breath of life at a time.