Oct 12 2006

For Teachers Entering The Profession In Mid-Career, A Working Knowledge Of Technology Is Crucial

Teachers aren’t being replaced by technology but the percentage of full-time faculty on campuses across the country is declining, in part, because of technology.

When Cecelia "Charlie" Nauda moved from Pennsylvania to Florida more than a decade ago, she looked for a nursing position similar to the one she had held at Pennsylvania State University. Nauda didn’t find an exact match. Instead, she discovered an opening at Boca Ciega High School. The new magnate school, located in Pinellas County, Fla., focused on students interested in the medical field. School administrators sought nurses to teach the classes. Figuring that high school and college students are close in age, Nauda acquired a temporary teaching certificate and began work at Boca Ciega.

The temporary assignment eventually turned into a long-term career move. But one career change led to another. Nauda, who quickly became the school’s technology champion, started working part-time as the de facto technology coordinator while maintaining her full-time teaching duties. Two years ago, she went from nursing instructor to the Boca Ciega’s full-time technology specialist. “I thought I was a good nurse, but I had a knack for teaching,” she recalls. “It just so happened that right around that time that I was getting into computers.”

Mid-Career Move

Entering the teaching profession in mid-career isn’t unusual. Research from a 2003 Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) study indicates that 46 percent of 486 first- and second-year teachers surveyed in California, Florida, Massachusetts and Michigan entered teaching mid-career and at an average age of 38.

“The varied backgrounds and preparation of this next generation of teachers pose a challenge for schools,” Pforzheimer Professor Susan Moore Johnson, director of the HGSE’s Project on the Next Generation of Teachers, reported when the research was released in April. “New teachers today do not fit the stereotypical image of 22 year-olds embarking upon their first careers after graduating from university teacher education programs.”

In addition, the amount of time allotted for new teachers to get acclimated with their new careers has diminished significantly, if not disappeared completely, adds HGSE research assistant Susan M. Kardos. “Teaching is incredibly complex work ... to expect a new teacher to be as effective as a veteran teacher on day one, without additional support, is unrealistic,” Kardos says.

Barnett Berry, executive director of the Southeast Center for Teaching Quality (SECTQ), agrees. Many of the alternative certification programs for mid-career, would-be teachers are designed to get people into classrooms quickly. “In some cases, perhaps too quickly so that they don’t have a full, sound repertoire of skills to draw upon as they begin teaching,” Berry says. “Then they tend to end up in the most challenging assignments in schools that tend to be less than fully functional. Then they are not in very good places to learn on the job.”

A SECTQ-developed top-10 list distributed last December at a symposium for the nation’s governors noted, “alternative routes designed to attract mid-career teachers are a promising source of new teachers, but research has shown that they are more likely to stay if they have better training before they enter classrooms and more support on the job.” In some programs, teachers are interns for up to a year, getting a feel for the classroom environment under the tutelage of a veteran teacher. Other certification programs require teachers spend more time in professional development courses rather than traditional teaching programs.

“Why do people think that with a seven-week program in the summer before you start teaching you have sufficient knowledge and skills to go into a classroom and know enough about how to do things and how to work effectively with diverse learners?” Berry asked. “Why do people think you can learn that in seven weeks?” Part of the rationale is dealing with change. “The economy stinks,” Berry says. “The economy has changed, people have lost jobs in the private sector and they say, ‘well, maybe I’ll just get a job teaching.’”

Add technology to the equation, and there is even more change. “It’s one thing to be well-versed in using computers for e-mail, Word documents, spreadsheets, desktop publishing and PowerPoint—the kinds of things that many people use computers for,” Berry says. “It’s another thing to know how to use computers, computer technology and the Web to seek and find high-quality curriculum materials, and how to engage diverse learners in your classroom with those materials. It’s hard to distinguish between the good, the bad, and the ugly among what’s out there to draw upon. Those are very different skills, and many of our traditional teacher education programs still don’t do a very good job of instructing new teachers how to use technology in the educational context.”

Nauda called her early days as a technology specialist as “complete on-the-job training, a complete baptism by fire.” And she understood how to use technology. But, then and now, she enjoys her job.

“Having been a teacher, I knew what the teachers needed. I knew their frustrations of being overworked, underpaid, and ‘this is one more thing they’re putting at me.’ So I had to be their advocate and help them understand that technology, in the long run, could help make their job easier, because it does,” Nauda says. “It’s hard to convince someone who is already overworked that by learning this and doing more, you’re going to end up doing less. It’s quite a challenge. But it’s working.”

Teaching it to the Limit

Scott Robinson’s experience as a teacher, even though it was more than 20 years ago, benefited him tremendously when he became the chief technology officer for Portland Public Schools (PPS) in Oregon. Robinson taught at Reynolds School District in Multnomah County in the early 1980s. He then spent nearly two decades in the corporate world. He worked at PPS as an on-loan executive a few days a week when he received an offer to join the district full time.

“The challenge appealed to me, the challenge of turning around the district and putting a different spin and reputation on what kind of services we were delivering and how we were delivering them,” Robinson says of the mid-career move. “I grabbed the challenge and it’s been a fun ride.”

Meeting the challenge has been manageable, in part, for Robinson because, like Nauda, he not only talks the talk, but he can walk the walk as well. “When I was teaching, we didn’t have computers,” he notes. “What helped was that I could talk in (teachers’) language. I could talk to them in terms of impact and being able to answer the ‘What about me?’ question is very important to teachers. ‘What is it going to do to me?’ ‘What is it going to do for me?’ Working people through that is a process. And, while, yes, it was 20 years ago, that process never left me.

“It had helped that I had been in the classroom. I understood their issues and pains and while I can’t resolve every one of their issues immediately, they know that we’re on a path to rectify most of the problems.”

That doesn’t mean change happened overnight. In the beginning, the CTO met with huge skepticism. “It’s been an interesting road, for a number of reasons, and there was a lot of skepticism about my model, which was predicated upon a concept of district assets versus building assets,” Robinson says. “In other words, when the building gets a computer, people think, ‘it’s my computer.’ To work with my model required them to think of the highest and best use for equipment. It also required some give and take.

“Moving toward some degree of standardization requires people be willing to forgo some degree of customization,” he says. “If you looked at the history of the district, and for us it was site-based, meaning each building contained its own future, meaning, we have 100 buildings in the district, they had 100 different ways the IT environments were administered.”

Robinson started out with a novel approach—personally visiting principals in their buildings. “CTOs never went out to the other buildings. They sat back in the central administration building and did what they did,” he says. By contrast, Robinson visited each site, listening carefully to the goals and desires of each principal, regardless of complexity and priority. “I’m a firm believer that you win people’s trust and respect when you deliver,” he adds. “And if you don’t deliver, you can make all of the promises in the world—this organization is driven by performance, managing numbers, managing metrics, managing accountability. That’s a new phenomenon for the school district, at least at Portland Public Schools anyway.”

Accordingly, teachers enthusiastically allow Robinson to shape and manage their technology infrastructure, allowing them to focus on academic objectives and the students—in other words, do the job they were hired to do while using technology for support.

“Day one we put a vision out. It had key initiatives associated with it. We have stuck to that plan. We have not moved off of it,” Robinson says. “It has always focused on the kids. It has always focused on the schools. It has always focused on taking away their points of pain and we’ve delivered. We have had the metrics, and the performance indicators and the service level agreements in place to show that we are making a difference. Now when principals talk to me, it’s a totally different conversation.”