Bringing Teachers to the Front of the Class


“Classrooms are changing, and they’re changing fast. Get on the bus, or get out of the way.”

Dr. Terry Grier
Houston Independent School District (TX)

Brian Lewis’ wife began her career as a teacher in 1981. She was the school’s first hire in nearly 12 years, and the youngest by far, which landed her the appointed role of “tech expert by default.” This designation lasted for some time but after a while she started to notice a change. Newer, younger teachers had taken that role away from her and before she knew it, she’d been lapped without any instruction or professional development. She’d been given no opportunity to keep up. There was no solution in place to prevent this from happening – to her, or to anyone else. Those who lapped her would eventually pass the torch to a new breed of tech savvy educators, and so on and so forth, without any solution in place to keep those “old school” teachers abreast of changes in technology and in the classroom.

Lewis, who is CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) tells this story with a hint of fond reflection in his voice, and a hint of utter disturbance. Then he quotes an ex-colleague who asks rhetorically, “Will computers eventually replace teachers?” The answer: “No, but tech savvy teachers will replace those who are not.”

Survival of the fittest–but shouldn’t all teachers be afforded the same opportunity to survive? When we abandon teachers, we abandon students. With changing technology comes the rising need for leadership…leadership that can be scaled to fit school districts like Wake County Public Schools (NC), Houston ISD (TX), or Clark County (CO).

It’s clear that change is happening. At home, kids are consuming and digesting information at an impossible rate. They’re consuming what they want, when they want it. Advancements in search engines, device usability, social media, incredible broadband speeds, responsive web development, all have created an environment where kids can engage with their favorite pop stars, build the perfect fantasy football lineup, or share vacation pictures with friends on Facebook. Students want to have choice and they want their voices to be heard. So it seems only natural to create this environment in the classroom, to meet kids where they are, to give them that choice, that control over the information they are consuming in the classroom. Personalized and differentiated learning.

When implemented correctly, technology can play a major role in the improvement of student learning outcomes. But you already knew that.

We know that we have an obligation (or opportunity) now to create a different environment in the classroom that actually meets students where they currently are. And we know that with technology comes change and so doing technology “right” means training our teachers to teach differently. So when we start looking at the importance of creating digital learning environments, it’s not just about creating that environment, you’ve got to have a quality teacher who is trained and can make the most out of that environment.

So how do administrators support their teachers and enable them to teach differently than they have ever taught before?

Dr. Todd Wirt, Superintendent of Wake County Public Schools (NC) says the new role of the administrator involves “talking about culture and how to create conditions for this sort of environment. Too often sessions designed for digital leadership are about how to use twitter or how to use a tool (Dr. Wirt’s children haven’t had one day of PD on their own devices, yet they’re operating them just fine) when really it should be about how to create conditions – asking teachers to be more vulnerable than they’ve ever been in front of their kids and to trust their kids more than they’ve ever trusted their kids.” What really matters, according to Dr. Wirt, is building out a classroom that fosters choice. Technology can help us differentiate and personalize instruction but creating that environment where there might be 25 or 26 different ways in which a student demonstrates their learning is very difficult for the teacher, and so it is vital to create conditions wherein teachers feel confident taking risks and experimenting. And this is where the administrator’s role has changed. “You can’t PD everything,” says Wirt. “The level of rigor we’re asking for, that’s an incredible lift on the part of PD work.”

It’s becoming clear that our teachers need more. Today, programs like Discovery Education’s Digital Leader Corps are providing administrators with customized systems to scale professional learning with consistent direction regardless of the size or current state of the district.

Dwight Jones says, “I’ve learned that if I actually take the time to listen to my teachers, that we have amazing educators who in some cases have figured it out on their own, and sometimes you just have to get out of the way and take their best practices and find a way to scale them to other teachers. You have to create the space for teachers to have a voice and for their voice to be heard. You have to actually learn from folks who are already doing it.”

In the state of Colorado, Dwight’s team wanted to partner with the districts in a different kind of way and leverage state resources to make a safer environment for people to explore and experiment. The old way of performing staff development was a bore and in most cases very ineffective. It was a huge miss even though they were spending tremendous resources. So he wondered, “how do we do this differently and make the engagement more meaningful for teachers who were attending. We found that there are companies we can partner with who can do this better than we can.”

Dr. Wirt agrees. With more than 150,000 students across 169 schools, scaling this type of professional learning in Wake County Public School System wouldn’t have been possible without a partner like Discovery Education. “We’ve given principals everything they need to give a consistent message but it’s so difficult to control a consistent message across so many leaders,” he says. On the cusp of implementing Common Core state standards across the district, Wake County needed to determine the best way to scale professional development for its 11,000 teachers as it embarked on this digital journey.

In order to fully prepare educators for this digital transformation, the district entered a three-year partnership with Discovery Education and implemented Digital Leader Corps, a customized system of professional learning that nurtures and develops teacher leaders who accelerate and scale a district’s digital transition. They capitalized on the capacity of those teacher leaders who were in their buildings. They’ve just completed year one of a three-year program. Year one was built around how to create a collaborative student centered classroom and in each of those trainings they embed a learning theory, like facilitation skills, for example.

Terry Grier believes the teacher of the future will be a facilitator of learning, with kids having access to the knowledge 24/7. “As search engines get better and better and better they’re going to need teachers that know this and can facilitate project based learning with experts. Educational leaders have to be drum majors and you’ve got to figure out what the players look like.”

It takes the right kind of teacher to become a teacher leader – one does not necessarily translate to the other. Todd Wirt looks for a certain set of characteristics and leadership capacity when selecting these digital ambassadors. And as important as teachers are, the key, Dr. Grier says, is the principal. “If you don’t have a principal that is 100% all in, you will not succeed. Leadership matters, and people don’t get that. If you have a principal that is not all in, they either have to get on the bus, or get out of the way.” And let’s not forget the value of commitment. “If you don’t roll out a new initiative with significant force your critics will eat you alive,” says Grier. Dr. Jones explains, “Often times when you start to move in this direction, as soon as you start encountering rough waters, everybody wants to turn around and go back to shore. It’s hard to deal with the criticism you take from the media. You’ve got to stay the course despite adversity.”

Learn more about Discovery Education Digital Leader Corps
Learn more about Wake County Public School System’s success




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