An On-Line Lifeline

By Blake Rodman — September 01, 1989 6 min read

“I’m in dire need of help,” Anita Houck typed into her home computer after a particularly bad day at school last spring. “At this point I feel like one of those teachers I always said shouldn’t be teaching. It’s awful.”

A first-year teacher in the Newton, Mass., public schools, Houck was getting nowhere with two high school English classes she had been assigned to halfway through the second semester. Some of the students were unruly. Many just acted bored.

For a new teacher, the experience of working with such hard-to-manage classes can be bruising. And what makes it worse is that most novices have nowhere to go—and no one to turn to for help and support. Houck was lucky.

Through an innovative computer network being pioneered by the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, Houck communicated regularly with several faculty members and roughly 40 other beginning teachers from the university. Using personal computers in their homes, the beginning teachers—who are scattered across the country—can turn to trusted colleagues and instructors to vent frustrations; describe the daily challenges they face; and receive support, feedback, and assistance.

Within hours of sending out her SOS last spring, empathetic messages from her former classmates and instructors began pouring in through the network. Some offered practical advice and moral support; one described a distressing classroom situation similar to Houck’s. “I really was lost,” Houck recalls. “The emotional support I got back helped.”

There is plenty of evidence to suggest a teacher’s experience in the first year of classroom teaching has much to do with whether he or she stays in the profession. Approximately 15 percent of new teachers leave teaching by the end of that first year on the job, and roughly half leave within the first five years. One way to cut this dropout rate, many contend, is for training programs and school districts to do a better job supporting novices. Because graduates scatter across the country, teacher-preparation institutions find it difficult to provide the kind of support new teachers need. Looking for a way to bridge the distance barrier, Katherine Merseth, the former director of teacher preparation at Harvard, struck upon the idea of using existing electronic-mail and computer-network technologies to create an instant community for her graduates.

One of the unique advantages of the network is that neophytes can get help and support immediately, according to Merseth, now an assistant professor of education at the University of California at Riverside. The help comes not just from instructors at the university, but from first-year teachers facing similar challenges.

Participants can discuss their problems and frustrations with candor, without fear of being seen as weak or ineffective. “I felt that I could be honest about my problems,” Houck says. “I could say, ‘Hey, I’m doubting myself.’ I couldn’t really say that to teachers at my school. I’d be afraid that they’d think I was losing it, or incompetent.”

Says Merseth: “What the network gives participants is emotional support and a perspective on their situation. You get people saying, ‘You think your day was tough, let me tell you about mine.’ It gives them a broader perspective and a context for looking at their work.”

The system also enables the new graduates to continue the stimulating discussions about education issues, theory, and policy that had been so much a part of their lives at the university.

“In the day-to-day life of a teacher, you often get caught up in frog anatomy or the solar system,” says Mary Driscoll, a teacher in a Boston alternative school for problem students. “Being on the network helped me keep a sense of the bigger picture and what the whole endeavor of education is all about. It’s a link to a rich dialogue about ideas in education that doesn’t go on in the school where I am teaching.”

Participants say that networks like Harvard’s can help new teachers through their critical and highly stressful first year. But they do not view the networking idea as a panacea. Notes Eliza Walbridge, a Harvard graduate now teaching high school on the Zuni Indian Reservation in New Mexico: “You get moral support from the network, and that is no small thing. But what you really need as a first-year teacher are people who will observe what you do, and offer direct concrete feedback on what they see.”

Merseth piloted the network idea in 1986 with five university graduates, too few for the system to work effectively. Still, she realized that she was onto something. “I saw what was possible,” she says. To build on the idea, she sought, and received, outside support: a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and 25 personal computers from IBM. This enabled the university to lend a computer to those graduates who did not already have one, and pay the phone costs.

The network was officially launched in the fall of 1987. Over the past two years, approximately 90 participants have transmitted more than 7,500 messages through the system. Roughly 50 graduates of Harvard’s three teacher-training programs are expected to participate this year.

The entire network is run from a microcomputer in a tiny room in the education school’s library. Using software developed at the university, this “host” computer acts as a central switching and message board. Teachers with personal computers and modems in their homes send messages over the telephone line to the host computer. The software, called “Common Ground,” enables participants to direct messages to individuals in the network, or to larger forums where all participants are welcome to read and comment.

Within the Harvard network, more than 10 forums have been created, each devoted to a particular discussion topic. Participants can check into a forum and receive teaching advice specific to a particular subject area, such as mathematics, science, language arts, or social studies; discuss classroom management and discipline; field concrete suggestions on the nuts and bolts of teaching; talk about general education issues; or catch up on the latest gossip.

Although no longer directly affiliated with Harvard, Merseth continues to be an active network participant. She is using transcripts of the candid conversations transmitted on the system as grist for research she is conducting on first-year teaching, specifically the influence novices can have on each other. This form of research, she says, will add “a rich source of participant knowledge to extant understandings of teacher development.”

When Harvard launched the network, it was thought to have been the only program of its kind in the nation. Two years later, interest is growing. “I have had a dozen phone calls this past year from people wanting to know about the network,” says John Ameer, a program administrator at the education school.

The calls aren’t just coming from education-school administrators. Officials from several school districts also have inquired about the possibilities of using an interactive computer network like Harvard’s to support their rookie teachers. In fact, Merseth is currently helping two county school systems in Southern California launch such a system. The pilot project, funded by the state, is expected to link roughly 40 beginning teachers this school year in San Bernardino and Riverside counties. The teachers will communicate through computers located in their schools.

Not everyone, however, is sold on the computer-mentoring idea. Says Merseth, “We still fight the common reaction: ‘How can you support someone with a cold, impersonal machine.’” She answers the skeptics by pointing to the testimonies of the dozens of Harvard graduates who have already benefited from the network.

“This is a coming thing,” she says.

A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1989 edition of Teacher as An On-Line Lifeline