Oct 11 2006

Teachers Double-Dip As Technologists

In many schools, classroom teachers assume a second role as technologists. This balancing act offers challenges, as well as valuable skills to improve educators’ knowledge.

At age 52, Gerald Lancaster has played a lot of roles in his life. A former television actor, he’s played good guys, bad guys and many in-between guys. Last year, he was cast in the hit reality program, Big Brother.Lancaster lasted 45 days before getting the boot, a feat he says was not too shabby.

But the role that truly tests Lancaster’s star power is that of school technologist and teacher.

Lancaster teaches reading full-time, then dons the role of teaching three industrial technology classes, running a modular lab with 16 workstations and supporting the school’s tech infrastructure for Woodrow Wilson Middle School. According to Lancaster, “I have to turn kids away,” he says, because the tech classes are so popular among the Glendale, Calif.’s 1,200 sixth-through eighth-grade students.

Lancaster splits his time approximately 80 percent as reading teacher and 20 percent as technology instructor and support person. Juggling this dual role has helped him become better organized, more flexible in his approach to teaching and better able to manage relationships with other educators, students and parents, he says. Asked what the biggest challenge is of performing this dual role—time.

“My biggest wish would be to have one-half of my day pupil-free, so that I can teach other teachers,” Lancaster says.

Despite the time constraints, educators who perform double duty as teachers and technologists share a love of technology and a vision for how to improve instruction in their school. Equally important, they all agree that the experience has made them more patient, more thoughtful and more creative as educators.

Bringing Digital Access to Rural Mississippi

For Lynnette Morrison, the need to do a lot with a little is nothing new when it comes to technology in her school. She serves as the only technologist at Clarksdale High School in Clarksdale, Miss., a town of 20,000 in the rural Delta region of the state.

Morrison is not just the only technologist at the high school, she is the only technologist at any of the town’s public schools. Besides herself, the entire educational technology staff includes a full-time coordinator and a part-time assistant to that coordinator. “We’re really in a very poor area,” Morrison says. Most of her students come from homes without computers.

Morrison came into her role when Clarksdale participated in the Mississippi 2000 program, which bridged four rural schools digitally and included setting up new computer labs along with Internet access.

“I was very interested in technology and had taken a couple of classes,” Morrison says. “My principal knew about them and put me in charge.”

Like Lancaster, Morrison reports a mixed bag of responses when it comes to how fellow teachers’ enthusiasm for learning new technologies and using them in the classroom. But in the case of the Clarksdale faculty, the reason for any techno-phobia is obvious—most of the teachers don’t have their own computers at home.

But there’s no mistaking the interest level and enthusiasm of students in learning all they can about technology. “I’ve never had a discipline problem or a problem with the kids not wanting to come to class,” Morrison says. “They are always really excited and ready to get to work.” She feeds off that enthusiasm, and says it challenges her to be more creative as an educator.

Technology Adds New Life to Teaching

In West Virginia, as in Mississippi, many students come from homes without computers or Internet access. Likewise, funds for technology in schools are hard to come by. Full-time technologists are even harder to come by.

Fortunately, the statewide trend is not the case in Moundsville, W.Va., an upper-middle-class community where 80 percent of homes have computers, and where coordinator of instructional technology programs, Bill Burrall, heads a staff of nearly all dual-role technologists.

Burrall has two high schools, three junior high schools and 11 elementary schools under his jurisdiction in the Marshall County Schools. Each school has one technologist, Burrall says, and in most cases, they are classroom teachers doing double-duty.

“Most of them fell into the role by their interest in and desire to learn more about technology,” Burrall says. “They took a general interest in technology, and then saw the potential it has to affect learning.”

Equally important to that interest in technology are strong people skills, Burrall says. They need patience. And they need to have no fear. “Some of the technologies can be pretty intimidating,” he says. “The learning curve is steep.”

That didn’t scare off Jan Madden, who now serves as both the music teacher and the technologist for the Sherrard Elementary School in Marshall County. Madden has been teaching music for 25 years, but also developed a strong interest in technology several years ago. At first, she saw the classroom computers and software applications as a way to make her classroom duties easier and eliminate duplication of effort. Then the bug bit.

“After I got into it, I could see that it would really benefit me,” Madden says. “I also realized that the kids are growing up with technology, and if I am going to keep up with them, and be able to help them, I had better learn as much as I could.”

Her music background helped Madden appreciate and more easily learn technology. So four years ago, when the local faculty decided to create new dual roles with a 50/50 classroom/ technologist split, Madden easily fell into the role.

Reflecting on the experience since, Madden says, “My greatest strength has been that when we have a new program available, I’m always willing to get the training necessary to help my teachers to understand and use it.”

“My greatest challenge has been time,” Madden says. “I spend an awful lot of time after school, either adding programs to the computers or making up study sheets for students. That’s the biggest drawback.”

Despite the drawback, Madden says her new role as a technologist has breathed new life into her teaching. “When you’ve been teaching music for 25 years, you get less challenged,” she says. “Now that I’m doing both, it makes me appreciate the music even more.”

Massachusetts Teacher Stays Current with Digital Age

Appreciating classroom teaching even more as a result of working with technology is a view shared by Diane Ingvarsson, a part-time technology assistant.

Ingvarsson works in a dual teaching/technology capacity at Memorial Elementary School in Burlington, Mass., a community of 25,000 west of Boston. This is high-tech country, and Burlington is smack in the middle of the so-called Technology Highway that rings Boston.

Here, each school has its own technologist. But the full-time instructional technologist is shared by another school, and two days a week at Memorial, Ingvarsson is it.

That’s no easy task, considering that Ingvarsson is the fourth-grade classroom teacher, and her duties lie there from the first school bell to the last. Normally, her role is to assist with supplies, keeping the printers in working order and tracking inventory and purchasing. But on the two days she works alone, she gets involved with trouble-shooting and tech support as needed.

“I was told by the director that since I only get a small stipend to do this, I should handle the technology responsibilities when it’s convenient,” she says. “But that’s hard. I have a problem not providing instant gratification. So I put in a lot of time before school, arriving at 6:30 in the morning. I put in time on my breaks. I put in time on my lunch hour and after school. And if there is a lot of work to do, it goes home.” To best help the full-time instructional technologist, she must keep her skills up to date. And she must observe everything.

“I’m learning different ways to teach with technology, to present things to the children and to get them enthused,” Ingvarsson says. “Doing all of this has exposed me to more situations than I normally would have been exposed to. I’ve learned more, and I’ve seen new ways to help children accomplish what they are trying to do, and to enhance what they are trying to do.”

Despite the time investment and the hard work involved, the payoff is well worth it for both the teachers and students. .

Words to the wise

Advice to teachers and technologists on how to be successful in their dual role

Get Organized

“Organization is key, especially when you’re doing both technology and training. You’ve got to be able to organize things into serious and less serious, so you get things done that teachers really need. Read. Be curious. Research and learn about things coming up, what’s new, and how you can use them to help your teachers.”

—Lynnette Morrison, Technology Instructor and Technician, Clarksdale High School, Clarksdale, Miss.

Patience Is a Virtue

“You need to have patience. You’ll work with a lot of no-thank-yous. You need to be a people person. You’ll be relating to all sorts of people. And you need to be willing to learn from the kids as well.”

—Bill Burrall, Coordinator of Instructional Technology Programs, Marshall County Schools, W.Va.

One Step at a Time

“Don’t bite off too much at first. Once you get into technology, you’ll want to jump in with both feet. But start out slowly, with some long-range goals. Decide where you want to be in three years. Be flexible with those goals. And keep in mind that it’s nice to have the hardware and software, but don’t invest in technology for technology’s sake. You need to fit it into your curriculum.”

—Jan Madden, Music and Technology Teacher, Marshall County Schools, W.Va.

Know Your Limits

“You have to go into it with your eyes open. You’ll be stretched. There will be a lot more work to do than you’ll have time for. It takes incredible patience. And if you have the opportunity to take a course to learn a new program, learning it from start to finish really helps. Everything out there has more options than we’re aware of, because we don’t have the time, or take the time, to learn them.”

—Diane Ingvarsson, Technology Assistant, Memorial Elementary School, Burlington, Mass.