How to Elevate Teachers in the Age of Computers
One of the worst implementation mistakes school leaders make when they buy devices for their classrooms is allowing even one teacher to feel obsolete. Computers do not substitute for good teachers.
To be clear, the problem is not that computers are inept vehicles for delivering instruction. On the contrary, many online programs are delivering remarkably powerful instruction. One of my children, now in 7th grade, is grade levels ahead in math and has not had any face-to-face math instruction since kindergarten. It’s been only the online programs Dreambox Learning and Khan Academy for her at Acton Academy, a blended micro-school that she attends. Those software programs are terrific—and get better all the time. Depending on circumstance, the best mix of face-to-face and online instruction varies for each learner.
My concern with teachers feeling replaced by computers is not that teachers are giving up part of their whole-class direct-instruction role. Instead, my concern is that some teachers are missing the moment. They aren’t given a view of the new opportunities that current innovations in education open for them.
We live in an age when many children do not have the support they need. Many have special needs and special talents, but lack a mentor to help them unlock their potential. Many would do better with individual tutoring and personal coaching. For decades, however, the factory-based classroom model has made it nearly impossible for traditional teachers to take on an individual mentoring and coaching role. They see the need, but they can’t fill it. They simply don’t have time.
But that structural roadblock for teachers is going away. Blended learning makes it possible for students to drive their own learning, which in turn gives teachers a remarkable gift—more time. And with that time, teachers have a windfall of opportunity to minister to each child and give each child what he or she needs, including friendship; academic tutoring; unconditional positive regard; technical feedback; emotional support; even help securing healthcare, dental care, and basic nutrition—whatever it takes.
The tragedy is when teachers aren’t given a view of how powerful, meaningful, and vital this new role is. Some teachers in blended classrooms sit at their desks feeling replaced while their students work away on their devices. It’s a waste, when with that newfound time, they could be giving targeted instruction, connection, and support.
A few days ago Jethro Jones closed his Transformative Principal podcast interview with me by asking a hard question: “What is the one thing that principals can do this very week to improve their schools?”
My answer: Get up from your desk and walk your school. Look for teachers who show any sign of feeling replaced by computers. Check if teachers are using the windfall of time that they get from blended learning to give coaching, mentoring, and unconditional positive regard. Ask whether you’ve adequately inspired your teachers to the uniquely human and purposeful role that awaits them in this century.
The Blended Workbook, which Michael B. Horn and I wrote to help schools improve their blended-learning strategy, offers several questions that principals can use as they walk their buildings and observe their teachers. From Module 2.4 in the workbook, the following are a few of the best questions to ask:
- Do teachers move beyond planning and delivering whole-class lessons such that each student has more opportunities to feel successful each day, have fun with friends, and have more control over the time, place, path, and/or pace of their learning?
- If not, why not? How might you adjust the student experience to help teachers move beyond planning and delivering whole-class lessons so that students don’t progress in lockstep and have more opportunities to be successful?
- Are teachers able to spend more time working on higher-order skills with students, as online learning delivers content and instruction?
- If teachers are not spending more time working on higher-order skills with students, why aren’t they? How might you adjust the student experience to help teachers spend their time on these skills and applications of knowledge?
- Do teachers have greater opportunities to mentor and coach students? How? List some of the opportunities.
- If not, why not? How might you adjust the student experience to help teachers have more time to mentor and coach students?
Not in the workbook, but I wish it were, is one last set of questions:
What can you do to inspire teachers to see the awesome potential of their new role as teachers in the 21st century? How will you recognize and celebrate teachers publicly who are exemplars? What are you doing to equip them for their evolving role?
It’s an unusual, historic time to be a teacher. The opportunities for one-on-one connection and transformative, life-changing impact with each child are unprecedented. What a sad irony that some teachers are feeling replaced, when in fact, their reach and potential are becoming unbounded.
About Heather Staker
Heather Staker is the president of Ready to Blend, a training firm that prepares educators to design and implement blended-learning environments that improve the achievement and well-being of K-12 students. She is the co-author of the Amazon bestseller Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools (San Francisco: Wiley, 2015), as well as the recently published companion book, The Blended Workbook (San Francisco, Wiley, 2017). She has appeared on radio and television and in legislative hearings nationwide as a spokesperson for student-centered learning. Follow her at @hstaker, @r2blend, Facebook: ReadytoBlend, www.readytoblend.com.