Professional Development

A Profile at ISTE of a First-Year Teacher’s Struggles With Technology

By Sean Cavanagh — June 28, 2016 3 min read
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The title of the session would seem to sum up the agony of many new teachers quite aptly.

“Sink or Swim: An Elementary Teacher’s Development in a Technology-Rich School,” was the description an Indiana University researcher gave at the ISTE conference to a project in which she traced one young educator’s effort to make productive use of digital devices in the classroom during her first year on the job.

Researcher Ya-Huei Lu’s case study of the 1st grade teacher, who is not named and whose school is not named, would surely resonate with many new educators who are forced to take on a host of new challenges during their first year—technology being just one of them. A number of educators who listened to Lu’s presentation on Monday, in fact, said it rang true to them.

Lu, a Ph.D. candidate in instructional systems technology, is monitoring the teacher’s work over the course of two academic years.

The researcher hopes the work sheds light on how new teachers’ efforts to use tech wisely are shaped—or disrupted—by the grinding pressures they face in other areas, which include answering to the principal’s demands, laying out lesson plans, learning how to manage a classroom, and communicating with parents. The lessons should be especially applicable in districts that are moving aggressively to use technology in elementary grades.

The teacher who Lu followed—the researcher gave her the pseudonym “Lily"—was well prepared to use technology, and had postsecondary training on how to use it in K-12. She also had a positive attitude toward digital tools, and had done student teaching in the district that ended up hiring her.

She was hired just five days before the start of the school year.

Teachers and students in the school were using iPads, but sharing some of the devices between classes. (Lu described it as a “1-to-2" device-to-student arrangement.)

Survival Mode

A number of factors, on the positive side, helped ease and accelerate Lily’s use of technology. She had a supportive principal and overall school environment.

But there were many challenges. Students’ devices always seemed to be running out of battery. She had to take them down the hall to charge them. When the devices were low on battery, “‘Kids were like, it’s 10 percent and it’s dying!’” the teacher told Lu.

“‘You don’t need to tell me,’” the teacher would respond. “ ‘Just put it away and do something else.’ ”

Technology implementation also was disrupted in even less direct ways. Her classroom didn’t have a bathroom, so Lily ended up having to carve out class time every day to take students to the privy down the hall.

When her students logged onto their computers, the school’s homepage was Yahoo. Some online sites were blocked by the school, but pop-up ads kept coming up, crowding students’ screens, and they weren’t able to remove the ads on their own.

The teacher came up with a number of tricks to smooth the path. When she needed to calm the class down, she turned to GoNoodle, a site that leads students through desk-side physical activity.

As Lily learned to manage the class, much of the tech activity she did was “teacher-directed,” not designed to give students much autonomy, Lu explained.

Lu outlined a typical set of stages new teachers pass through over the course of a year, several of which were experienced by Lily. New teachers start in a place of hope and anticipation, then slip into survival mode and eventually disillusionment, before a rejuvenation and upswing occurs.

Ultimately, Lily was stuck in “survival mode” as she scrambled to figure out how to best use technology, Lu said.

In a paper given with her ISTE presentation, Lu quoted the teacher as saying she would have benefited from having spent more time watching experienced teachers use digital tools in elementary schools.

“I think it is really important to see what a good classroom environment looks like,” Lily said, “so you know what you should be striving for.”

Some of the teachers who attended the ISTE session were on board with that strategy. One educator said schools would be wise to invest more heavily in mentoring new educators who will have a lot of new technology thrust upon them, but who are afraid to ask for help.

“We need to be able to take on a little extra work,” the attendee said of veteran educators, and district leaders need to allow young teachers “to admit, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing.’”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.