Tech is Tricky: Why Teacher Support is Critical
By Carl Hooker
I’ve spent the last 20 years of my life in education dedicated to helping teachers integrate technology in their classrooms. When I started, we had three Compaq computers in the back of the classroom. Students had to load interactive CD-ROMs to play games like Oregon Trail and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?
It’s safe to say, technology has come a long way in the last two decades. The computers in the back of the class have been replaced with mobile devices. The overhead projector has been replaced with interactive flat-panel displays. That said, the pace of change in technology always outpaces the pace of change in society and even more so in schools.
As more commercial technology makes its way into the classroom, supporting teachers and utilizing the thoughtful use of devices becomes extremely critical. The pandemic showed us teachers can rapidly adapt to an online learning situation, but the aftermath has been disjointed. Educators in a hurry to “return to normal” quickly stopped utilizing some of the new tools and strategies for engaging students with tech. Some of this is due to a motivation to return to the “good old days” but a majority is just due to the lack of support.
Barriers That Stop Teachers From Trying Tech
In my latest book, Ready, Set, FAIL!, I discuss the many different barriers we face that stop us from taking risks and being creative. Time and pressure from state mandates can be a creativity blocker, but we often invent unnecessary obstacles to prevent us from trying something new. With technology, most of these barriers fall into the three following buckets:
1. Fear of the unknown—H.P. Lovecraft famously wrote that “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Technology represents a great fear of the unknown. Even the most tech-sophisticated educator can be thrown off by the curveballs technology can throw. Asking teachers to try something new is hard. Asking them to try something new with technology is even harder.
2. Treating “not knowing” as a permanent condition—Math and art teachers get a lot of students in their classroom who “don’t do math” or “just don’t feel that creative.” With adults, it isn’t any different. I’ve done several training sessions with technology and had someone in the crowd say, “I just don’t get technology” and immediately try to disconnect from learning. The truth is, they all are carrying a super computer in their pocket and can deftly change from listening to music to watching a TikTok video featuring cats.
3. Thinking failure is a waste of time—We live and breathe in a time of famine in education. New initiatives, parent pressures, student behaviors, and administrative micromanagement are some of the many reasons why more teachers are leaving the profession than joining it. When a teacher tries something new with technology and it doesn’t work, they feel as though all the planning and prep they did for tech was just a colossal waste of time. The truth is, as Charles Duhigg writes in The Power of Habit, “When something doesn’t work, it’s not a failure. It’s an experiment that gave some data. The only way it ever becomes a failure is if you don’t learn what you can from it.”
Modeling and Coaching
One thing I decided to do as an administrator early in my career was to try and stay as connected to the classroom experience as much as possible. This can be a challenge with all the meetings and “administrivia” leaders face on a daily basis. However, it was important for me to experience what the classroom teacher was experiencing. I just distributed devices into the hand of every student, I needed to see what the ending outcome of that was on the ground floor.
When I visited my daughter’s third-grade class once to guest teach, I really wanted to dazzle her teacher. I decided to use Sphero robots to create a classwide battle bots challenge. I had everything set and spent hours researching and preparing to teach the lesson. Then, the day arrived, and disaster struck. I had forgotten to plug in the cart that housed the Spheros overnight. As a result, we now had a dozen robotic balls with no way of moving.
The teacher, who was about to head out the door, stopped to watch me squirm. “It’s always fun to watch the tech guy mess up,” she exclaimed. As I sat there wondering what to do, my first instinct was to have the students put everything away and get out their notebooks to write about what this could have been like. But instead, I tried something different. I leaned into my mistake. I told the students that this was the first time I had tried this activity and didn’t know what was going wrong. I asked the students to brainstorm some ideas and they did not disappoint. One student quickly discovered that if you charged the Spheros individually, they would charge faster. He and another student set up a “pit stop” of sorts to rapidly charge the devices while the other students designed their battle bot armor out of Solo cups and popsicle sticks.
The lesson actually became better because of the mistake. It improved because rather than controlling everything, I let the students take some ownership of the activity. The teacher who watched my debacle walked away with more confidence than ever before when it came to using technology. She realized at that moment she didn’t have to be perfect at everything. It was OK if the technology messed up, she had students who could support her. In many ways, giving them ownership of the lesson also improved their own learning outcomes.
Beyond Critical: Having a Team Available to Provide Support
As I mentioned at the outset, technology is changing at a rapid pace. Teachers have limited time and resources at their disposal to truly try new things with tech. In my former district (Eanes ISD, Austin, Texas), we employed an amazing team of educational technologists (Ed Techs) who researched, modeled, and supported the use of technology with learning.
They were there to help troubleshoot any issues with the technology and to help teachers discover new and exciting ways to increase student engagement in learning with technology. Having a “tech coach” on each campus not only offered support to the teachers, but it showed leadership and the community how serious we were about integrating devices into the everyday classroom.
This team would help meet the teachers where they were with just-in-time support. If an issue arose with a log-in or device, it didn’t take weeks to be resolved. This in turn, made teachers believe the technology would be more reliable. This comfort in knowing they would be supported helped remove many road blocks to their own creativity.
We would host “Appy Hours” after school to learn about new tools over ice cream. There were “lunch n’ learns” during their lunch breaks to help discuss and showcase some new strategy. Like most schools, we had professional learning in the summer, but unlike most schools, we could build off what they learned during the summer by utilizing this amazing team of Ed Techs.
With the obstacle of teacher support removed, many educators now felt comfortable trying new things in their classrooms. However what put us over the top when it came to high-quality, blended learning and the use of technology was the support and expectations of the campus administrator.
The Importance of Expectations from Leadership
There are some teachers, I call them “vanguard” teachers, who are willing to try just about any new thing you throw at them. Trying to figure out how to use the AI writing tool ChatGPT in the classroom? No problem! These trailblazing teachers are necessary to successfully roll out new technology or tools. However, not every teacher is onboard with trying new things, especially around technology.
Case in point: We had two middle school campuses in our district. These campuses were similar when it came to demographics, devices, and support. However, one campus excelled with technology use while the other struggled mightily. What was the key difference? Expectations from campus leadership.
In one school, the principal told all staff she expected them to use the technology regularly and each teacher was expected to bring it to meetings and have it out during class. She then modeled the use of it during her faculty meeting to show how invested she was in the program. The other campus was another story.
On the other middle school campus, the devices were met with a cold shoulder. The principal there stated, “the district is making it mandatory to use the devices'' but then failed to mention any of his own expectations. He essentially said, “I don’t care if you use them or not.” With no expectations of use, most teachers neglected the devices and made the students put them away. By showing a lack of support, the principal set back the campus a couple of years. The damage was done. During the next several years, we threw all sorts of support and training at that campus in a hope to accelerate the use of the program, but ultimately a leadership change and increased expectations helped.
Contributor: Carl Hooker has spent the past 24 years in education as a teacher and administrator focused on the thoughtful integration of technology and innovation in schools. He consults for multiple districts across the country and is a frequent speaker at state and national events. He’s also a 7-time author, 5-time podcast host, advisor to multiple ed tech companies, and National Faculty Emeritus for Future Ready Schools. Check out his latest book Ready, Set, FAIL! which focuses on unlocking creativity and innovation in schools. Follow him on twitter @mrhooker and check out his blog at HookedOnInnovation.com.
Want to learn more about technology and classrooms? Join Dr. Liz Brooke and Carl Hooker on the All for Literacy podcast as they walk through the thoughtful integration of technology into classrooms and schools. Are educator jobs being replaced by technology? Or, is technology a powerful tool that must be integrated into classroom instruction? Brooke and Hooker also explore the hot-button issue of artificial intelligence tools like ChatGPT and their place in the classroom. Listen in today!
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