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Hang in There Bob: Notes for New Teachers Via Computer

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CAMBRIDGE, MASS.--Robert Parlin, a first-year social-studies teacher in Newton, Mass., was having a "bad day.''

The high-school instructor's third-period class "would not sit still for one minute.'' One student, told he would receive a zero on a quiz unless he made it up after school, swore at Mr. Parlin and stormed out of the classroom.

During the incident, the rest of the students slipped out of the room--minutes before the bell.

For a first-year teacher, such an experience can be devastating, bruising any sense of budding self-confidence.

Worse still, most have nowhere to go and no one to turn to for advice.

Mr. Parlin was lucky.

Through an innovative computer network being pioneered by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, he communicates regularly with nearly 50 other beginning teachers who graduated from the university last year and with several faculty members.

Using personal computers in their homes, these beginning teachers--who are scattered across the country--can turn to trusted colleagues and experienced practitioners to vent their frustrations, describe the daily challenges they face, and receive crucial support, feedback, and assistance.

"Just when it seems like everything is going well and under control, I have a day like this,'' Mr. Parlin typed into his home computer following the rugged day back in December. "I wonder if this constant pressure will ever really let up to the point where I can be relaxed in school.''

Over the next several days, responses began to pour in through the network.

"Hang in there, Bob,'' one fellow first-year teacher wrote. "I know how you feel and I have one simple suggestion (it works for me), just take a couple of minutes (or seconds) during the day and stop and look at yourself and think about what a good job you are doing.''

"I have found it helpful,'' another teacher wrote, "to drop back and tell myself that I cannot always take it so personally if something goes wrong.''

"The kids are lucky to have you,'' he added.

Katherine K. Merseth, director of teacher training at the Harvard education school and the creator of the network, also chimed in.

"Try not to let a bad experience ruin your whole day,'' she told her former students. "That is really hard because we are all human, with feelings, and we get hurt just like the kids do sometimes. But if you can isolate the experience and not let it spill over into another class, you'll be making a great step ahead.''

Although the first year of classroom teaching is a crucial period in a teacher's development and has much to do with whether he or she stays in the profession, beginning teachers often find themselves isolated, with few to turn to for advice.

With this in mind, Ms. Merseth struck upon the idea of using electronic-mail and computer-network technologies to create an instant community for her former students.

Until recently, the geographic dispersion of teacher graduates made it virtually impossible for teacher-preparation institutions to provide effective support and maintain a mentor relationship with their graduates, Ms. Merseth said.

But the advent of computer technology and telecommunications, she noted, now makes it possible to bridge the distance barrier.

'These Teachers Get Help'

"One of the real beauties'' of the Beginning Teacher Network, Ms. Merseth said, "is that these teachers get help and support immediately, not just from Harvard but from people who are in the same type of situation they are in.''

"I know of no other program that takes a class of students and extends their training for another year through this kind of network,'' she said.

Officials at the school of education here do not view the network idea as a panacea, but say they believe such systems can be a useful tool in helping students through the critical, and highly stressful, first year of teaching.

"Anything we can do to sustain new teachers and increase their retention rate is worth doing,'' Ms. Merseth said.

She noted that approximately 15 percent of new teachers leave the profession by the end of their first year on the job, and that roughly half leave within the first five years.

Normally, said Patricia Albjerg Graham, dean of the faculty of education at Harvard, teacher-training institutions "drop their beginning teachers over the edge of a cliff, and pay no more attention to them until they ask them for money to support the institution.''

The computer-network idea is one way colleges and universities can address this shortcoming, she said.

"It's great,'' Ms. Graham said, "because of the psychic freedom it gives a beginning teacher to reveal his or her uncertainties to peers, something a beginning teacher doesn't generally want to do in the new school in which he or she is working.''

How it Works

The entire network is run from a microcomputer located in a tiny, third-floor office in the education school's Gutman Library. Using software developed at Harvard's Educational Technology Center, this "host'' computer acts as a central switching and message board for the network.

First-year teachers with personal computers and modems in their homes send messages over a telephone line to the host computer. The software, called "Common Ground,'' enables teachers to direct messages to others in the network, or to larger forums where all participants are welcome to read and comment.

Only one telephone line feeds the host system, so only one teacher can be on the network at any given time.

Chris Hancock, a former project associate at the technology center and the designer of the software, compares the system to a building with both common areas and small private rooms.

"Every enrolled participant,'' he wrote in a 1985 issue of BYTE magazine, "has a private office that no one else can get into. Private mail sent to a participant is delivered to that person's office.''

"The building also has other rooms, called forums, that anyone can visit,'' he added. "Each forum is devoted to a particular discussion topic.''

Range of Specific Topics

Within the Harvard network, a number of forums have been created on a wide range of topics.

Participants can check into a forum and receive teaching advice specific to a particular subject area, such as mathematics or psychology; discuss classroom management and discipline; field concrete suggestions on the nuts and bolts of teaching; or talk about general education issues.

One forum called "latest'' is earmarked for "gossip.''

According to Ms. Merseth, forum discussions may focus on techniques to collect and evaluate homework, ways to foster classroom discussion, or the educational value of field trips.

Often, she said, participants react and give advice to fellow teachers experiencing particular difficulties.

Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, learned about the network while teaching a course at the university this semester and was so intrigued with the idea that he asked to join, and has even had a "forum'' created in his name.

Issues raised thus far in the "Shanker'' forum include district-union relations, accountability, merit pay, and tuition-tax credits and vouchers.

The 'Camaraderie Factor'

In 1986, Ms. Merseth piloted the network idea with five graduates. There were not enough participants for it to work effectively, she said, "but I saw what was possible.''

To expand the network, she sought and received outside support. I.B.M. donated 25 personal computers, and the Mellon Foundation provided a grant.

As a result, the school of education was able to lend a computer to those graduates last year who did not already have one, and has been able to pay all the phone costs the participants incur in transmission.

Although the network was officially launched in the early fall, use did not really "take off,'' Ms. Merseth said, until a toll-free number was established in mid-November. To date, roughly 3,400 messages have been transmitted through the network, an average of 110 messages a week.

For first-year teacher Dave T. Morrison, a graduate of the school's preparation program for people switching to teaching in mid-career, the "camaraderie factor'' has been the network's biggest benefit.

"First-year teachers can be pretty isolated, there isn't a lot of time to communicate with other teachers in school,'' said Mr. Morrison, a high-school mathematics teacher at Crawfordsville (Ark.) High School. "I get discouraged at times. But being in touch with classmates who are in the field and experiencing some of the same sorts of things I am has been a big help.''

The math teacher also said he values the "encouragement and practical information'' he has received through the network from Ms. Merseth and the several other Harvard faculty and staff members on the system.

'A Little Overwhelmed'

Mr. Morrison, who entered the Harvard program after retiring from the United States Foreign Service, recalled one time in particular when the network helped him through a difficult period.

At the mid-year mark, the school district added a geometry class to the five mathematics classes he was already teaching.

"I felt a little overwhelmed at that point,'' Mr. Morrison said. "I got on the network and threw out a help message.'' The message was a personal one, targeted at a fellow Harvard graduate who was teaching mathematics in Chicago.

"I asked him to suggest ways to get started, and he gave me a list of good ideas,'' Mr. Morrison said. "And when I hit snags along the way, I'd get back on the computer and ask for more help. We communicated almost every day for several weeks.''

Judy L. McClure, a first-year general-science teacher in Quincy, Mass., compared participating in the network to "keeping a public journal that others can respond to.''

"It's a convenient, easy way to get yourself to think and reflect about teaching and your job,'' she said. And, she added, "It has kept me in touch with a group of people that I care about.''

Institutional Benefits

First-year teachers are not the only ones to gain from network participation.

"It also has benefits for the institution,'' Ms. Graham said.

Through the network, the dean noted, the school receives "immediate feedback on the kinds of things we could have done better while [the teachers] were with us, and alerts us to how we can improve our program based on their experience.''

Ms. Merseth will be leaving Harvard at the end of the current school year. But she intends to continue being an active network participant, using the wealth of material she has gathered through the network to write on the experiences of first-year teachers.

"I have stream-of-consciousness printouts about first-year teaching that are just rich,'' she said.

Meanwhile, another 50 or so prospective graduates of Harvard's three teacher-preparation programs have said they would like to participate in the network next year, Ms. Merseth added.

And many of the teachers currently on the network have indicated that they would like to continue participating. Those with their own computers will be permitted to do so, she said, and will continue to be reimbursed for the telephone-line costs.

But the computers donated by I.B.M. will have to be returned, so the new teacher graduates can use them.

The university has not yet decided whether to add another host computer and set up a second network for the new group, or to put both the first- and second-year teachers on the same system.

Much will depend on Ms. Merseth's ability to garner additional foundation support for the project, she said.

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