A school administrator on the theory versus practice of adopting technology.
GUEST COLUMN | by Melissa Saunders
We educators are on the precipice of breaking the mold and doing things differently. Within just three years, I predict how we work with kids will look less industrialized and be more flexible.
All students come to school with different kinds of needs, and we educators continue to try to fit them into all into a box. But we have been trying to put round pegs into the squares. This is changing.
Maintaining high quality teachers over a long period of time is really important to us.
I hope that in 2020 we see more scenarios where students are getting some of their general information through teachers, and also having experiences. Students should have internships, externships and work opportunities to try some things out so that before they leave high school they have credentials and real experience.
I see fewer requirements around “clock hours” and “seat hours” and standards and assessments. That doesn’t lessen the high stakes accountability, but loosening the reins a little bit gives us an opportunity to break the mold.
I see our younger kids just getting much more comfortable with a world that is less about answers and more of them asking questions. We educators are very much used to just giving answers, and now we have students who can question and think critically much younger than (probably) we anticipated. It seems like that is the only way they will be set up to succeed in life.
Just think about the difference between someone who went to school in the early to late 2000s versus 2017, and that speaks to how fast things are evolving and how much teachers really need to approach their practice with flexibility and a mindset of lifelong learning.
Empowering teachers to drive student learning
Keeping up with these changes as an educator is hard. Sifting through new information and learning new technology can be overwhelming and time consuming. There are tools and resources that can help, but it’s difficult to make these changes without support at the school and district level.
At the district level, we’re constantly challenged to provide teachers with something that they feel they can take away from professional development and use every single day. We give surveys to capture information from our teachers and oftentimes they talk to us about the professional development – they say, “it isn’t relevant to me.”
At Manassas, we have about 700 teachers. About 50 percent of them are in their first three years of teaching. What we administrators struggle with is how to provide opportunities for teachers to get what they need in order to grow in their professional practice.
We see teachers as the key drivers of student learning. As a result, we need to make sure that we are investing in those teachers by personalizing their learning so they can then do the same for the students. As I look at how to provide students with the best instructional opportunities, the answer is through their teachers.
Being able to personalize learning for the teachers allows us to really enhance human capital in the schools. We are investing in our teachers to make sure that we retain them. Here in Manassas, we not only have a very young workforce, we have a challenging district in the sense that our work is hard. It’s rewarding but it’s difficult. For us, finding ways to maintain teacher engagement and teacher effectiveness comes through providing teachers with not only benefits that they see as monetary, but also that of independent professional growth.
The theory versus practice of adopting technology
Three years ago, Manassas City embarked on a one-to-one initiative—a state initiative that provided matching funding for us to offer laptops to every student in our high school. We started with our 9th and 10th grades, and then throughout the school for the next four years.
We had a lot of plans on paper about how we were going to do things and what we were going to do, but I knew that it didn’t really matter if I handed a teacher or a student a device. If the teachers didn’t know how to access and utilize the devices or change their practice, the experience was going to fail. That realization led me and our professional development coordinator to develop a series of what we call “certificates” for teachers to participate.
In theory and on paper it all looked great—as many things do—but what we found in practice is that our teachers didn’t have the right background. We didn’t have enough professional development to equip them to use the devices as effectively as intended. Essentially, we just gave kids devices that they were able to take home to access the Internet.
We didn’t create the capacity at the high school to turn around instruction. Where we did a good job was in coming up with the idea of what we wanted it to look like. Once we had that vision, we knew we truly did not have the capacity to carry it out. Our eyes were bigger than our proverbial stomach.
We realized we needed help. We wanted to maintain our goal of achieving this certificate because it really creates those ladders. It gives people something that they can work to. We knew we wanted to keep that. So we went looking for help and everyone we went to had a prescribed method for how they were going to provide this training before they even knew who we were.
We had a hard time finding someone who would partner with us that could see our vision of certification and who would really personalize professional development for us. We didn’t want an off-the-shelf solution. And so somewhere along the line, my Professional Development Coordinator ran into BetterLesson. What resonates with our teachers is the support they offer. It is a kind of independent support so teachers can really choose how they engage in this process.
Funding this type of initiative can be challenging, because it doesn’t fit neatly into a specific line of the budget. We’ve found success by embracing this ambiguity and matching funding to multiple elements of the district’s larger strategic plan. The funding is linked to HR development, student achievement and technology. We know that technology is an important part of what we do every day and our students need competence skills in that. But in order for them to do that, they need teachers who are able to utilize that and learn and grow within that technology. By placing this initiative at the crux of our vision, its value is undisputed.
We’ve put a couple of other metrics into place that help support funding for choice in professional learning. We give a division engagement survey that gets to how people could be more engaged, happier, and satisfied in their work. One of the key indicators that continues to come out of those surveys is the idea of professional development and it being personalized and having choice.
Retaining teachers through PD
Maintaining high quality teachers over a long period of time is really important to us. Once we invest in them and we train them, we want to be able to keep them. It’s important to have metrics that say on a large scale that you know your teachers really want this and this is how you might retain them. We live in an environment that is highly competitive. You can go ten miles down the road and be in a whole different school system and potentially have a higher salary, so this investment in the human capital side of thing helps us in more than just instruction.
Delivering professional development hasn’t changed much. Administrators say, “Here’s the professional development, here’s why you have to do it, here’s where you have to do it, here’s how you have to do it and here’s how I want to see it measured later on.” It is very prescriptive. Where I think teachers have been really positive about our work with our solution provider’s one-on-one coaching model is their feeling that it is improving their practice and at a great pace with ideas that they want to improve.
We are control freaks in education and we want to make sure it all goes the right way. So giving teachers a choice is huge. Just like our students, we have teachers that come from so many different walks of life. When they have this opportunity to have a choice, they are positive about it and I see them articulating that back in the classroom with their students.
Link to full interview: SoundCloud recording
Melissa Saunders, Ed.D., is the Executive Director of Student Achievement for the Manassas, Virginia Schools. She obtained her masters at Carnegie Mellon and her Ed.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. She is known for her driving commitment to excellence and her quest for quality educational opportunities for young people.