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February 1, 2019
Vol. 76
No. 5

In Tech Rollouts, Don't Forget the Teachers

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Before launching a schoolwide technology initiative, leadership must build a sustainable professional learning infrastructure.

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All too frequently, school initiatives are top-down directives. Leadership identifies an area of need, makes decisions, and then teachers do the hard work of implementing whatever plan has been mandated. Schoolwide initiatives can be a catalyst for change, but they can also lead to anger and resentment. When I ask teachers about the challenges they face, "top-down decisions," "directives with no support," and "too many initiatives without follow through" are common complaints. I've felt this same frustration as a teacher when I received marching orders without significant direction, support, or follow-up.
In my work with schools that are shifting to blended learning, I am aware that this transition from traditional teaching practices to tech-infused learning models often takes the form of an administrator-level initiative. The first thing leaders typically do at these schools is invest money into purchasing hardware and improving the WiFi infrastructure. This seems an obvious first step. How can a school embrace blended learning without technology? I understand this rationale, but I think it's a bit misguided. Before the buying should come buy-in: Leaders need to articulate the value and purpose of the initiative.

Establishing the "Why"

Initiatives push for change. Change is scary. Without taking the time to establish the why, as author Simon Sinek advocates, leaders are simply pushing something else onto their staff. Schoolwide initiatives impact all stakeholders, and the entire school community needs to understand the purpose. Why is this initiative worth the time and energy required to implement it? How will it impact teaching practices? How will it improve the students' experience? These are important questions that leadership must consider, discuss, and reflect on so that they can communicate the answers to stakeholders to garner their support and enthusiasm.
Too often, when I work with schools that are initiating a 1:1 rollout or are shifting to a blended learning model like the rotation or flex approach, there is little organizational vision beyond securing the necessary devices. Unfortunately, purchasing the technology is only one piece of a complex puzzle.

Avoiding Pitfalls and Perils

The decision to invest in technology without putting a roadmap in place to support teachers in using that technology creates myriad problems. First, teachers resent having devices in their classrooms that they do not know how to use. Teachers are used to being the experts, but technology may shift that dynamic with students, who are often more tech-savvy. Instead of fearing that loss of expertise, teachers must leverage their students' expertise and leadership must have a plan in place to proactively teach educators how to harness technology tools and online resources for learning.
Second, devices that are not used purposefully can quickly become a distraction. This mindset that technology distracts from learning is the exact opposite of the mindset that leaders want to foster in their teachers during a blended learning or similar technology initiative. Too frequently, I meet teachers who tell me they have "banned" devices from their classrooms or keep their Chromebook carts locked because technology is a headache. As a teacher who has always had to be creative to get technology into my students' hands, the revelation that teachers with access to technology choose not to use it is mind-boggling. However, if teachers don't have the strategies to keep kids engaged with devices or manage those devices during offline learning moments, I can understand their frustration. It is important for teachers to establish routines and norms in their classes around technology use. Just like traditional classroom management strategies, these must be clear to students and consistently reinforced.
Third, if there are only sporadic training sessions scheduled to support the new technology initiative, teachers may feel they have been set up to fail—that there are not enough opportunities to learn how to teach with technology. All of these consequences of a quick technology purchase without a clear plan for implementation can create an adversarial relationship between leadership and teachers.
In turn, school leaders become frustrated when their significant financial investment in hardware is not translating into transformative change in classrooms. After a large-scale technology purchase, leaders will lament that teachers are only using the devices to substitute for traditional tools instead of engaging students with innovative methods, providing learners with more agency, differentiating instruction, encouraging creativity, and connecting students to an authentic audience for their work.

Building a Professional Learning Infrastructure

Teachers have to learn how to use technology effectively for any blended learning or tech-related initiative to be successful in classrooms. The traditional approach to professional development, in which large groups of teachers are mandated to attend a handful of presentations or workshops throughout a school year, isn't effective in an era of hyperconnectivity and rapid technological change.
Leaders who want to create change in their districts and encourage innovation must invest time, energy, and resources into building a sustainable professional learning infrastructure to support that change. This may feel like a big ask given how tight school budgets are, but without this equal investment in professional learning, much of the money spent on technology is wasted.
In my most recent book, Power Up Blended Learning, I propose a path for building a professional learning infrastructure specifically designed to support teachers as they shift from traditional teaching practices to blended learning. I advocate for generating excitement and creating a spark, cultivating a coaching culture, and grouping teachers in professional learning communities (PLCs). This three-part progression is designed to gradually release professional learning to the teachers, so it becomes a part of their everyday routine at school.

1. Creating a Spark

Teachers are more likely to buy in, take risks, and champion an initiative if leaders can get them excited. Leadership must articulate the purpose of the project, but it can also be helpful to bring in an expert who can articulate the value of the shift for teachers and provide them with engaging, practice-based training. I often play this role for school districts that are starting blended learning initiatives. I will spend a day with teachers defining blended learning, highlighting how blended learning models can shift the power structure in a classroom to give students more agency in their learning, and how this shift can mitigate, and often eliminate, many of the pain points that teachers experience. As the spark, I want to pique their interest, demystify blended learning, encourage them to explore the various models, and generate excitement. It helps that I am a former teacher and can speak to many of their practical concerns.
In considering which staff member or expert might be most effective in creating a spark for the initiative, leaders must ensure that this person understands the current climate on campus. Conducting a needs assessment before training can help the expert design a professional learning experience that will meet real teacher needs. In addition, experts should actively model the strategies they advocate for in their trainings. If teachers are passive observers in a "sit-and-get" training, they are unlikely to be excited, feel like it was a good use of their time, or be inspired to implement anything. When I work with teachers, I build in time for them to collaboratively plan how they will apply what they learned.
Alternatively, leaders can organize an event led by their teacher trailblazers or technology TOSAs (teachers on special assignment) or conduct a book study. But it is much more common for an outside expert to do this job, in part because they bring in a fresh perspective.

2. Cultivating a Coaching Culture

No matter how great a professional development experience is, many teachers will not just return to their classrooms and flawlessly implement a new strategy. Those brave teachers who do try out a new strategy may hit bumps and become disillusioned. Some of these teachers will abandon the strategy in favor of what has worked in the past or feels comfortable. The implementation gap reveals how ineffective whole-group training sessions are without follow-up. If the spark generated in a large group training is going to last, teachers need support during implementation.
Coaches are the bridge between training and implementation. As a blended learning coach, I work one-on-one with teachers using a six-part coaching cycle that begins with a conversation designed to break the ice and build trust. Then, we set SMART goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely. I want teachers to think about what they want to learn, how they would like to grow in their practice, and what they want to achieve in their classrooms.
After establishing clear goals, I go into their classrooms to conduct an initial observation and see them in action. My objective is to be a mirror reflecting, not judging, what is happening in the lesson. To this end, I capture my observation notes on a document that I immediately share with the teacher so they can see everything I write. Afterward, we debrief and discuss the lesson, which leads seamlessly into our lesson-planning session.
Co-planning lessons is one of my favorite coaching activities. It is the moment in the coaching cycle when teachers realize I bring value to our interaction. Instead of talking about a lesson and what the teachers should do, we cocreate it. At this point, a coach can help teachers translate what they learned in an all-staff training to their specific teaching assignment and student population. This can help overcome one hurdle that often prevents implementation: When teachers are not sure how to modify a strategy or use a particular technology tool in the context of their subject area.
For example, a 5th grade math teacher who has attended a training on the station rotation model may struggle to conceptualize what a math lesson could look like using that model, especially if she is used to planning and facilitating whole-group lessons. Instead of presenting information and modeling problem solving with the whole group for 30 minutes, then releasing students to work individually on practice problems, the teacher and I work collaboratively to redesign that lesson as a three-station rotation. This may include a teacher-led station to provide targeted instruction for each group, another station where groups work online with Desmos or IXL to access personalized practice, and a third where they work collaboratively offline to solve problems. For many teachers, rethinking their approach to designing and facilitating lessons is challenging, but working with a coach can make the shift more manageable.
When teachers implement the lesson we have cocreated, I can assume one of three roles: I can coteach, helping the teacher facilitate the lesson; I can take the lead on a section of the lesson to model a strategy, introduce a routine, or onboard students to a technology tool; or I can focus on real-time coaching.
Real-time coaching makes it possible to turn the lesson into a pedagogical learning experience. Instead of waiting until the end of a lesson to identify elements that could have been adjusted or improved, we can pause the lesson, discuss what is happening, and adjust as needed. This pause-discuss-adjust strategy also communicates to the students that learning is happening at every level and even teachers work to improve their practice. That sends a powerful message to students. If they see the teacher experimenting, failing, learning, and iterating, it is less scary for them to take risks. The beauty of real-time coaching during a blended lesson is that the whole lesson does not need grind to a halt for the coach and teacher to discuss and make minor adjustments. Instead, these valuable conversations can happen during the lesson; however, this demands a high level of trust between the teacher and coach. It is crucial that the coach establish clear norms that the teacher is comfortable with prior to a real-time coaching session.
As a blended learning coach, I want to support my teachers from goal setting through implementation and reflection. This is easier to do when I am working with a small group of teachers at one time. For those schools with a limited number of instructional and technology coaches, providing such personalized support can feel daunting. I've met coaches who are tasked with supporting 150+ teachers. I encourage them to start smaller and build slowly. Find a handful of teacher trailblazers—the folks they don't have to convince to try something new—and coach them first. These teachers take less time to coach and can be champions of the initiative moving forward. Their classrooms can be spaces open to other teachers who want to see blended learning, or any new strategy, in action.

3. Empowering PLCs

The final piece of the professional learning infrastructure is supporting participation in professional learning communities. The PLC model groups teachers together in learning teams that meet regularly to connect, collaborate, and continue learning. Ideally, leadership would design the schedule so that teachers have a shared preparation period or window of time each week to work together. This time can be spent sharing best practices, identifying areas of need and strategies to meet those needs, talking about what they are learning from their students, analyzing student work samples, and challenging each other to continue growing in their teaching practice. A PLC that is focused on implementing a particular blended learning model, for example, may choose to use its time to coplan lessons, explore new technology tools, and troubleshoot issues.
The PLC structure encourages teachers to lead their learning. When engaged in a PLC, teachers become active agents who make key decisions about what they want and need to learn. Teachers who have been through coaching can incorporate the strategies they learned during the coaching cycle—such as goal setting, peer coaching, and reflection—to support their peers.

Managing Change Better

Ultimately, meaningful change in education requires that educators continue learning. Leadership will find it much easier to introduce a new technology initiative if they build a sustainable professional learning infrastructure to support that change.

Guiding Questions

› Reflect on the rollout of a recent schoolwide technology initiative you led or were part of. What went well? What didn't?

› Could Tucker's professional learning infrastructure—generating a spark, elevating coaching, and supporting sustainability with PLCs—be adapted to a current or future technology initiative in your school?

› What additional supports should leadership provide for successful technology implementation in teachers' classrooms?

 

End Notes

1 Sinek, S. (2009). Start with why: How great leaders inspire everyone to take action. New York: Penguin.

2 Tucker, C. (2018). Power up blended learning: A professional learning infrastructure to support sustainable change. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Catlin Tucker is a Google Certified Innovator, bestselling author, international trainer, and keynote speaker. Catlin is currently working as an education consultant and blended learning coach while pursuing her doctorate at Pepperdine University.

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