Professional Development

The Comfort Zone

By Andrew Trotter — January 15, 1997 17 min read

Tupelo, Miss.

A Mississippi district struggles to bring technology to the classroom without invading teachers’ personal space.

Employees arriving at school district headquarters in Tupelo, Miss., cast wary eyes at the computers that have appeared overnight. Their trusty Macintoshes are still there, but a new Pentium crowds each desk, too. Empty cartons and wayward cables add to the disarray. Though the staff was warned early and often about the switch to DOS computers and Windows95, the atmosphere is still tense.

“You can do anything on Windows that you could do on a Mac,” Superintendent Michael Vinson assures everyone at a briefing that November morning. Yet for him, the change is a welcome one. Vinson admits that he never quite got the hang of the Mac after moving from a DOS-based school system to become Tupelo’s deputy superintendent in 1994. David Meadows, the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, also tries to soften the blow. Training on the new machines will begin next week, he says, and the Macs will remain temporarily as a “safety valve.”

Tupelo school officials know the new operating system invades the comfort zone of the central-office staff members--most of whom are experienced computer users. So they’re taking even greater pains to smooth the technological transformation for the district’s 450 teachers. The next three years will see Tupelo schools moving toward the vanguard of technology-using districts as new computers and networks are installed in classrooms and media centers at the district’s dozen schools. Eventually, every school will be linked to the Internet.

Yet Tupelo’s school officials recognize what scores of other school leaders have realized: Unless teachers learn to accept and use technology as a daily tool, teaching will not change and learning will not improve.

Today, a small but growing number of Tupelo’s teachers are turning to technology to support a wide range of classroom activities. But eight out of 10 teachers still don’t feel confident blending technology with instruction, according to a district survey conducted last May. And half of those teachers consider themselves technological novices.

Shifting those numbers is a goal woven throughout the district’s technology plan. It’s also the mission of Kameron Conner, a young teacher who just this year leapt from her 2nd grade classroom to the central office to become the district’s new technology projects coordinator. Both Conner and Meadows sat on the committee that last summer wrote the technology plan, outlining a total investment of more than $850,000 over the next three years. (See “A Three-Year Plan of Action,” Page 37.) The plan, which incorporates school-level strategies as well as ideas from teachers and community members, is designed to allow schools latitude in choosing their own path to technology. Only one common principle must be observed: Improvement of student learning is the paramount end, and improvement of teaching is the primary means.

Experts say a technology plan is essential to tailoring new technologies to instructional goals. Another basic ingredient is adequate investment in training, an amount that experts generally recommend to be 30 percent of the total spent on hardware and software. Although Tupelo’s budget for professional development--at $143,992 for three years--comes in at about 17 percent, those numbers are deceptive. Additional community resources bolster the training budget substantially.

Tupelo’s schools enjoy an enviable tradition of support from parents and local businesses. Parent organizations in recent years have donated computers and televisions to local schools; some schools in turn have offered parent workshops in computers and the Internet. What’s more, local manufacturers, many of whom see future prosperity in technically skilled employees, have set out to upgrade the technological skills of the teaching corps. Not long ago, a local textile magnate, L.D. Hancock, gave the schools an apartment complex worth $3.5 million. From the building’s revenues, the district draws $225,000 annually--money earmarked for staff development and technology training. Much of this has paid for teachers to attend conferences and visit more high-tech schools.

And when teachers return brimming with ideas, a group of local business leaders has found a way to give them a chance to experiment at home. For the past 10 years, the Association for Excellence in Education has awarded $100,000 a year to teachers who want to put their newfound technological knowledge and interest into action. Teachers may apply for AEE grants of up to $2,000. Last year, for example, the program helped one teacher buy a computer for a class project on the ecosystem of the Mississippi River.

Superintendent Vinson, a bearish man with an august, easy manner, built his technology agenda on a foundation of his predecessor, former schools chief Michael Walters. For years, Walters funded trips for teachers and principals to observe other schools using new technologies and instructional strategies. When Vinson stepped up as superintendent in 1995, he wanted to convert that knowledge into systemwide instructional improvements.

Eight out of 10 Tupelo teachers don’t feel comfortable using computers in the classroom. Half of those teachers consider themselves technology novices.

“We had many bits and pieces that we thought could support a first-class program,” Meadows explains. “We wanted to slow down, to assess, to distill lessons that could make a broad impact.” The Hancock Leadership Center, which opened in 1993, is helping the district do just that. The staff-training facility comes equipped with a sleek multimedia lab where teachers regularly gather for professional development seminars and software tryouts.

Staff members praise Vinson for the freedom he gives schools and teachers to experiment with technology and such reform strategies as project-based learning, discipline-based arts, and multiage classrooms. The superintendent’s slogan, they say, is, “Just do it right.”

Vinson promoted Meadows, a former superintendent hired as the director of instruction in 1994, to head up the technology plan and ride herd on its countless technical and logistical details. Meadows, full of restless energy, spends much of his time tracking down answers to school board queries and asking vendors the tough questions. He’s a pragmatist with a do-it-yourself attitude. In fact, he helped his son and another teenager install the new computers at the central office. He even diverted those PCs for two weeks to the high school’s multimedia lab after a dispute with a vendor delayed delivery of the lab’s computers. And he plans to ship some of the central office’s old Macs to the district’s Carver School for Innovations, a fast-track program where at-risk teenagers learn middle school science and language content while they catch up on deficient reading skills.

But Meadows is also focused on student learning, always weighing the mix of technologies schools need to support the plan’s three broad goals: knowledge capture, knowledge interpretation, and knowledge creation. He pays special attention to what he calls “the implementation gap,” a temporary decline in test scores that experts have documented in schools in the early stages of adopting high-tech methods. Meadows wants to avoid the phenomenon in Tupelo. Shortly before he arrived, average reading scores at the elementary schools on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills had fallen for three consecutive years, even at Rankin Elementary, the district’s technology test bed. Fortunately, the districtwide slump ended, and the past three years have seen reading scores climb again--and none more rapidly than at Rankin.

Rankin Elementary enjoys special status in Tupelo. “It’s really been our lighthouse,” Meadows says. Given the district’s first Internet connections, the school has been a proving ground for Internet practices and policies. Since then, grants and awards have flowed into the school, along with hundreds of visiting educators. Last July, the district began gearing up to export the lessons learned at Rankin across the district. Superintendent Vinson tapped Rankin’s principal, Dale Warriner, for a district role as the assistant superintendent for evaluation. Previously, Warriner had spent five years as a guidance counselor at a Tupelo middle school.

As Rankin’s principal, Warriner reigned instead of ruled. She put schoolwide innovations to a teacher vote. She urged teachers to question their assumptions about instruction, attend conferences, and visit other high-tech schools. She helped them open their eyes to new ways of teaching. During Warriner’s tenure, for example, teachers started experimenting with multiage classrooms and found that technology proved to be a natural complement to multiage teaching principles.

But not all the early reviews were glowing. Some teachers grumbled about the change in the school’s culture, and a number opted to transfer to other schools. “One teacher who left,” Warriner recalls, “more or less told parents their children would get cancer from computers.”

Tupelo has reversed the typical pattern of focusing training on novice teachers. It’s reaching out to the more experienced first and coaxing them to train the rest.

Even teachers who didn’t feel threatened by the school’s technological advances worried about losing sight of the basics. Donna Jones, for one, was wary of anything that might distract her 2nd graders from mastering their reading skills. “If you’re too computer-oriented,” she says, “there’s a risk they might not get enough reading.”

Warriner’s response to the naysayers has remained firm: “Don’t tell me what you can’t do; I want to know what you’re going to do.” To her, the bottom line is that Rankin’s students are doing better. As evidence, she highlights the scores of the same children in successive years as they compare to national norms. She makes a point of not comparing the performance of one 4th grade class with that of the next 4th grade class--a common approach that she says glosses over real differences in students from year to year. Those differences might even out across a district, she argues, but not within a school. Rankin’s 3rd graders last year jumped from four points below the national norm to 15 points above it.

But even at Rankin, only half the teachers are using technology effectively. Still, Warriner says, if you look at the teachers who have integrated technology into their classroom activities, you’ll find many of the highest average scores in the building.

Last year, Rankin’s second-highest test scores came out of Kameron Conner’s 2nd grade class. A trace of pride comes over Warriner’s face as she talks about Conner. Having worked together for almost three years, the former principal and teacher know each other well. “She’s my second mom,” says Conner, which seems a natural statement coming from a 24-year-old with an effervescent, almost girlish personality.

“I’m not a techie. My main role is serving as a former teacher and helper.”

Kameron Conner, technology projects coordinator

Conner admits that she’s not yet comfortable in her new role as the district’s technology projects coordinator. “It’s been pretty weird not being a teacher this year,” she says. “Weird but good.” But Conner has already impressed those around her with a serious but sensitive approach to teachers struggling to go high-tech. “I’m not a techie,” Conner says. “My main role is serving as a former teacher and helper.”

Conner’s job description, in fact, signals a districtwide change of heart that recognizes how the teaching and technical sides of technology canbe worlds apart. Until this year, Tupelo lumped together both sets of concerns under former technology coordinator, Cavet Otis. Now the district’s technician, Otis focuses on debugging the new computer networks and troubleshooting the more serious ailments of aging computers. Conner turns her attention to the human side: the network of teachers and administrators who will decide whether--and how--to use the new machines in the classroom.

Giving advice to teachers often twice her age with immeasurably more classroom experience requires a delicate touch. Conner’s former colleagues at Rankin praise her as a communicator, team player, and unrepentant early-childhood teacher. “What I do is very 2nd grade,” Conner warns a group of teachers as she unpacks a colorful display at the start of a recent training session.

Growing up about an hour away in the village of New Hope, Conner followed her mother, a 3rd grade teacher, into education. She worked her way through Mississippi State University, where she earned her education degree. While working as a professor’s assistant, she taught herself how to use a computer. She had to, Conner says, because her teacher-training courses virtually ignored technology.

But Conner says she did learn something of the inequity of educational resources. Her teacher practicum took her to a rural elementary school just a few miles from the university where students had to supply their own crayons. One day, when a child arrived clutching a plastic sandwich bag with only seven crayons, he explained that his mother had divided the box among nine children. The memory of that child fuels Conner’s impatience with schools that don’t take advantage of technologies available almost for the asking.

Conner believes technology has the power to level the academic playing field for low-achieving and disadvantaged students. Tupelo is not a poor district, but there are achievement gaps among its schools that Conner thinks technology could close. “That’s why we say technology is the great equalizer,” she says.

In 1992, Conner was hired at Rankin Elementary to substitute for a teacher on leave. She impressed Warriner with a multimedia project she created for her 4th graders and was brought on as a permanent teacher the next fall. Conner proved a quick study in how to make the most of technology. Over time, she became a believer in technology’s potential to boost student learning. It has limits, she says: Teachers must be discerning about the educational software they rely on, and the technology must be woven into daily activities so that it’s almost transparent.

Her Rankin colleagues credit Conner as being an innovative teacher who was always willing to share her time and classroom strategies with other teachers. They also speak of her willingness to take risks. For her biggest experiment, Conner and another teacher knocked down the wall between their classrooms, hooked up their computers with a local area network, and merged their two classes into one class for 2nd and 3rd graders. “She’s not afraid to fall on her face,” says Warriner, who encouraged the multiage venture.

Conner had planned to take a leave of absence to pursue her master’s degree when Meadows asked her to join the technology planning committee last spring. Taking on a leading role, Conner squeezed in only four days of vacation all summer. In the fall, Meadows offered her the administrative post.

Tupelo’s training program runs like a city bus: It follows a prescribed route but lets teachers get on and off almost at will.

“Kameron had internalized strategies to use technology for something besides a toy or an electronic baby sitter,” Meadows says. “She also has those interpersonal qualities that are very valuable and the patience of a much more experienced person.”

Hopping daily from school to school, Conner adjusts her training to fit each staff’s needs. Some schools specialize in multiage classrooms; one focuses on the arts; Rankin Elementary is known as the district’s technology school. Some principals let teachers vote on school policies, as Warriner did at Rankin; others consult teachers but make the final decisions themselves.

Such diversity makes districtwide training a challenge. Tupelo officials hope to equip teachers with a common set of skills in technology. To accomplish this goal but still give teachers options, the training program runs like a city bus: It follows a prescribed route but lets schools and teachers get on and off almost at will. Such a system preserves autonomy by allowing people to progress at their own speed.

To ensure a degree of consistency, school officials are adopting a basic stock of software programs to use across the district; one such program is used to create pages on the World Wide Web; another supports elementary reading. But schools and teachers can add other software of their choosing.

As outlined in the technology plan, teachers rate their technological abilities on a scale: novice, practitioner, integrater, or extender. The district uses these self-assessments to plan formal training, conducted during the summer and throughout the year on scheduled staff-development days or after school.

A “novice” has scarcely used technology. Conner recalls one such teacher who placed the computer mouse up to the screen when Conner asked her to click on the red dog in a software program. “I said, ‘Wait a minute here, let’s step back a bit,’ ” Conner recalls.

A “practitioner” knows enough to help students use technology as a supplement to regular classwork. An “integrator” uses technology purposefully with a range of activities to achieve curricular goals and can also handle such classroom issues as giving students equal access to equipment. And an “extender” can effectively convey these technology skills to other teachers.

According to last summer’s survey, 40 percent of Tupelo’s teachers consider themselves novices, 40 percent practitioners, and 17 percent integrators. A mere 3 percent said they were extenders.

Tupelo has reversed the typical pattern of focusing training on novice teachers. Instead, it concentrates first on the more experienced and coaxes them to help train the rest. And expertise is often found in unexpected places; in February, the high school band director will be teaching colleagues across the district how to create their own Web pages.

Not surprisingly, many of the most effective trainers come from Rankin Elementary. One Thursday afternoon, two Rankin teachers, Sue Shepherd and Linda Frank, join Conner at an after-school session for two dozen teachers in the media center of Lawhorn Elementary. To one side, the trainers have wired a computer to a large television. But they’ve also propped up poster-board displays plastered with student projects.

Conner begins the session by outlining the district’s plans for linking schools to the Internet. She knows the information highway is a mystery to many, so she describes the wealth of resources available on World Wide Web sites ready-made for teachers. “A Web site is like a magazine article,” she begins, to reassure her neophyte on-line surfers. As an icebreaker, she even hands out pill bottles full of jellybeans, warning her audience that technology can be contagious.

“I have learned more from kids’ mistakes than I ever learned by myself.”

Linda Frank, Teacher

Shepherd and Frank next talk in detail about how they’ve used technology in their multiage class of 3rd and 4th graders. A few years ago, Frank says, when asked about their vision for improving their classroom, the two teachers could only think to ask for more construction paper. But visits to schools taking advantage of technology gave them fresh ideas about how to structure learning around group projects. Ever since, they’ve used a computer-based multimedia tool that lets children combine text, graphics, animations, and sound into their own presentations. “This has gotten children excited about doing research on their own,” Frank says.

Frank clicks on the computer to show a series of student projects on the TV screen. During an animated sequence on the human body, a green pea travels through the human digestive system. Another presentation features dancing bones from a human skeleton. The projects were to include a one-page bibliography, but, when students in one group couldn’t fit all their sources on a page, they added a recorded snippet of their voices reading the last citation aloud. “I have learned more from kids’ mistakes than I ever learned by myself,” Frank tells the group.

As the session winds down, Shepherd gives the teachers a final pep talk: “You just have to get in there and do it,” she urges them.

The ultimate success of Tupelo’s technological transformation may hinge on sessions like this one. A plan, money, equipment, and committed leaders will only take the district so far. To reach their goals, the district’s administrators will have to win over the skeptics and the computerphobes. Technology may play a big role in the Tupelo schools in the 21st century, but it will have to be brought to the system one teacher at a time.

A version of this article appeared in the January 15, 1997 edition of Education Week as The Comfort Zone


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