It’s a Seller’s Market for Tech-Savvy Teachers

By Mary Ann Zehr — February 10, 1999 5 min read

Every year when Robert Doltar assigned his students to dissect a frog, a few of them refused. So he wrote a software program that allowed them to simulate the process on a computer.

Now the biology teacher at Grant High School in Portland, Ore., earns between $10,000 and $20,000 a year in royalties from four software titles he sold to Pierian Spring Software LLC in Portland.

“I’ve always done something in the summer [to earn extra money], but nothing that would dovetail into teaching the way this does,” said Mr. Doltar, who has taught science for 22 years.

Mr. Doltar is one in a sizable pool of technology-savvy teachers who are capitalizing on their expertise to take advantage of some remarkable opportunities--financial and otherwise--outside their classrooms.

Other teachers who are ahead of the pack in using technology are speaking at national and international conferences, writing books about technology for other teachers, creating online curricula or reviewing software for companies, and otherwise earning money and recognition apart from their regular jobs.

Observers say there are two main reasons for the demand in technology-proficient teachers. Schools are pushing hard to integrate technology into the curriculum, and many teachers don’t have the time or inclination to figure out how to do it on their own. In the private sector, meanwhile, companies are trying to win a share of the booming education technology market by producing hardware and digital content for the classroom. They need practical advice about what is useful to teachers.

“We want people who can help ease everybody else into the world of technology,” said Paul Thomas, the general manager for Discovery Channel Education. A unit of Discovery Communications Inc. in Bethesda, Md., the company contracts with teachers to write online lesson plans and run online forums.

To snag lucrative opportunities, though, teachers have to stay well ahead of the curve, says George Cassutto, a tech-savvy social studies teacher at North Hagerstown High School in Maryland. He runs a World Wide Web forum about world empires for Discovery Channel Education and has written the Pocket Internet Guide for Teachers, expected to be released by Genium Publishers this spring.

“With the Web presence, you get corporations to come to you,” Mr. Cassutto said. “You’ve got to be innovative. You can’t just do the average stuff.”

Career Moves

For some teachers, technology has provided a step up the career ladder--and out of the classroom, said Cheryl S. Williams, the director of education technology programs for the National School Boards Association. Schools are hungry for technology coordinators and systems administrators, she said, and generally must pay well to keep people in those positions.

“What we’ve seen a lot of is particularly women--because the teaching profession is mostly women--are taking on all this leadership in technology at the school level and have crafted new careers for themselves, not so much with the technical stuff but with being creative with the technology,” Ms. Williams said.

Karen Bryant, for instance, became a K-12 computer coordinator five years ago for the York Central in New York state school district after teaching kindergarten for 20 years. While the job didn’t translate into more income, she considers it a promotion in other ways.

“It’s given me an opportunity to explore some new areas and gain some new skills I wouldn’t have developed,” she said. “It’s made my life much more stimulating and exciting.”

Former elementary school teacher John Drag Jr. said his technology skills helped him land his current job as the assistant principal of Eagle Ridge Science and Technology Magnet School in Coral Springs, Fla.

When Mr. Drag was a teacher, his knack for using technology creatively brought him a slew of opportunities to work with software companies in testing software and demonstrating it at conferences for other teachers. Companies still load him up with their latest products as a way to get him to try them out. He’s also acquired two free laptop computers by earning distinguished-teaching awards.

“It seemed like every time I latched on to a piece of new technology, it opened new doors,” he said.

Other technology innovators have turned in teaching jobs for positions with education technology companies or jobs as consultants.

Teacher Bonnie Bracey, for instance, left the Arlington County, Va., schools last year after a software company agreed to sponsor her to advise schools about technology full time. For two years in the mid-1990s, she managed to more than double her school salary of $56,000 by also giving speeches and working for the 21st Century Teachers Network project and a White House technology initiative.

Her ability to show teachers how technology can enhance their lessons is in demand, Ms. Bracey said.

“You must show and share with people what’s possible,” she said. “Most school systems haven’t given teachers the time to explore.”

‘An Ego Trip’

Many technologically adept teachers stay in the classroom and chalk up their outside activities as professional development.

Ceil W. Jensen, an art and social studies teacher in Rochester Hills, Mich., has given presentations on technology integration at teacher conferences in Australia and Argentina, as well as on a state and national basis. She’s written Internet Lesson Plans for Teachers, published in 1996 by Brighter Paths, based on a global-learning project she managed with teachers in her county. She also helped craft an online curriculum to accompany a video series for the Annenberg Foundation.

Those experiences have strengthened her commitment to her classroom work, Ms. Jensen said. “Sometimes when you first start out and you’re the only one [trying something new] in your building, you have doubts about whether you’re on the right path,” she said. “When you find out you’re part of a global faculty, it’s invigorating.”

Grants have given her the materials she needs to continue to experiment with technology in the classroom, she added.

And Joe Hofmeister, a mathematics teacher turned technology director and computer science teacher for the private Cincinnati Country Day School, said that getting involved with technology revitalized his career.

“How many math teachers who start out teaching Algebra 1 get to have a part in a national movement like this?” Mr. Hofmeister said. “It’s an ego trip to have all these people who are interested in what you’re doing.”

Mr. Hofmeister is often asked to advise other schools on technology and has co-written eight books about teaching with technology. One of the books earned him $10,000.

But more than the money, Mr. Hofmeister says, he enjoys how his knowledge about technology has given him a voice outside his school.

“Inside every teacher is a little missionary trying to get out,” he said.

Mr. Doltar, the Oregon biology teacher, agrees that a financial reward is one of the least important benefits of having a presence in a wider arena.

“When you get something published, it’s a boost to your confidence--to know that other people think this is good, too,” he said. “In teaching, there isn’t a lot of opportunity for recognition.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 10, 1999 edition of Education Week as It’s a Seller’s Market for Tech-Savvy Teachers