Work With the Willing: Moving Teachers into the 21st Century
Given some time to reflect over the holiday break, I’ve been thinking about the essential structures that must be put into place for a successful technology integration program (or, as I would prefer to call it, a 21st century school). I started really thinking about this last year, when my then-tech director, David Sinclair (now at Taipei American School), and I started building a framework for our integration program.
This is now the third international school where I have helped institute a fully integrated technology program, and between my experiences in Munich (before the blog), my work with David at M’KIS and the planning that we’ve put in place here at ISB, I’ve realized that schools need:
- to take away the typical barriers to success
- a vision and essential understandings for 21st century literacy and technology integration,
- supportive administration that is willing to change and make a leap into the future
- a mandate for change (and clear expectations for teachers, administrators, and facilitators)
- a framework for embedding technology and 21st century literacy
- a transparent process for documenting success
- consistent communication with parents
- a technology facilitator and/or 21st century literacy specialist that has enough time (and resources, and support) to work with each of these teachers on an individual level.
And then of course, there’s the teachers…
Clearly there are so many pieces to this puzzle that it’s no wonder that those of us truly excited about the possibilities are feeling alone, frustrated, exasperated, discouraged, even if we are learning from our mistakes. We try to bring change to our schools, often at the individual level, only to see those ideas fall apart at the seams. We try to push departments froward with curriculum redesign, only to become overwhelmed with the differing factions. We try to mandate change at an administrative level, only to see certain individuals find a way around the standards set. Clearly we need all of these pieces working together to institute any real change. But we can’t forget about supporting the teachers. They are, after all, the linchpin to our success. We can change curriculum and document new ideas until we’re blue in the face, but the teachers are the ones that have to actually change.
One of the things I’ve realized after trying to get this ball rolling in three very different schools with three very different approaches to 21st century learning, is that, when it comes to teachers, you have to start out by working with the willing. Sometimes it’s hard for school leadership to accept that you can’t get everyone on board at once. Even if you set out a mandate clearly detailing that every teacher must change their classroom practice, it doesn’t mean it happens instantaneously.
When I came on board at ISB, I was so over-enthusiastic about my position, the direction the school was heading, and the amazingly supportive leadership, that I
had have a hard time reining myself in. Why can’t we get everyone on board in one year? Why can’t we have an expectation that all teachers have classroom blogs by the end of the year? Why can’t we update and adapt all curriculum plans to embed technology in one year? We really don’t have any time to waste, so it’s full steam ahead – no matter what the cost.
Unfortunately, the reality is that teachers are bombarded with expectations for all areas of their profession every day. Sure, they all know they need to “keep up” with technology, but it’s mixed in with all those other expectations we all know and love – from grading to parents to classroom management – and who has time for something that may not end up making the job any easier? And we can’t forget that every teacher has their own specialty, their own personal interests and expertise that they bring to their classroom. Do they all have to bring technology? Ultimately, I think they do – I just don’t think it all happens at the drop of a hat.
So, I recognize that I have to be a better salesman, to parade my wares more tantalizingly, to suck as many people in with my exciting and alluring advertising strategies (this perky blog included), but frankly, I’m not really sure that’s the only issue. I think teachers need to be ready, and willing, to change. Because 21st century teaching is not just about turning on the Smart Board and plugging in the laptop. It’s about changing the way you do business in your classroom. It’s about flattening those walls, taking a deep breath and jumping in – feet first. And the only way to really sell that adventure is to find a teacher who wants to buy.
Back in August, when I arrived here in Bangkok, we had a great team meeting about how to embed 21st century literacy into our classroom instruction – specifically how to change the way teachers teach. I advocated for a 3 step process:
Year 1: Work With the Willing
In the first year, connect a small cohort of teachers that are personally interested and invested in changing their classroom practice. A group of people that want to do new things in new ways, who want to try and who aren’t afraid to fail. This could be one teacher per grade level, or one per department, depending on what works best for your school. These teachers would then work very closely with the technology facilitator to embed 21st century skills into their classroom practice – not on just one project in the year, but in their daily interactions with students. They would begin to explore how multiple pieces fit together because each new project they begin will build on the previous learning. They would see how different tools can handle different tasks and how bringing all those tools together, along with thoughtful planning, higher level thinking and creativity, and engaging teaching makes a truly 21st century classroom. As a group these teachers can meet together to discuss strategies and ideas, they can be a support structure for this new adventure, and they can start planting seeds in other teacher’s minds.
The work that these teachers in these different classrooms do then becomes an example for other teachers. They showcase their projects at faculty meetings, they present at conferences, they bring new ideas to department or grade-level meetings. And the key is, because these are actual classroom teachers doing this (not just the technology facilitator who just knows how to do this stuff), their voice is so much more powerful.
Year 2: Mentor the Willing
In the second year, the teachers that changed their classroom practice in year one will become mentors to a second group of willing teachers. The same idea applies only now the teachers from year one are leading the way. Now, because there are multiple teachers adapting their classroom practice, they can work together to develop official curriculum planners, to start institutionalizing the changes they have made in their individual classrooms.
Plus, this opens up a second group of teachers for the technology facilitator to work with. Now you have 3 teachers per grade level: a teacher mentor who went through the process the year before, the teacher they’re working with, and the teacher the facilitator is working with. In most schools, that would be the whole grade level. At some schools it’s only half, or less. Either way, you have classroom teachers inspiring change in other classroom teachers.
Year 3: Bring the “less than willing” on Board
In the third year, teachers from year 1 and year 2 will now be mentoring a new teacher (again, those that are willing). The facilitator will mentor another group of teachers (can be a group of willing teachers, or perhaps a group that are mandated to change classroom practice by admin). Given that you now have 5 teachers per grade level doing new things in new ways, building off previous years work, collaborating with their other 21st century teachers, you can now begin to change common assessments, and to formalize the projects that have been developed over the years.
I’m still working on pushing this 3 step process through. I know it’s frustrating to see something so close yet so far, and I know it seems like if we could just get the technology authentically embedded (and we don’t need the teachers on board for that, do we?) into the curriculum in one fell swoop, we’d be done before we started. But teachers are special folk. If they don’t want to change, they won’t. We have to show them, we have to prove why they should. And there’s no better way to do that than with other classroom teachers sharing their success. And those successes aren’t going to happen with a technology facilitator forcing a teacher to change (as if they could, given that they’re never going to be a supervisor to other teachers). It’s going to happen when a teacher wants to change and asks for help.
So, I wonder, if we had all those initial pieces in place, and we started working with the willing, could we do it in three years? Could you change an entire school (or school division) from the ground up in three years. I think you could. In fact, I wonder if any school already has every piece in place…
Tags: 21stcentury, internationalschool, flatclassroom, classroom, 21st century literacy, globalcitizens, collaboration, learning, creating, vision, philosophy, understanding, framework, embed, technology, curriculum, planning, development