When South Carolina chemistry teacher Justin Simpson decided to use the water crisis in Flint, Mich., as a backdrop for a water-quality project, he turned to his school’s technology coach, Tami Lenker. She brainstormed ways to use apps and other software programs that Simpson didn’t know about—or have the time to learn.
Then Lenker popped into the classroom every now and then to offer support to both Simpson and his students at Blythewood High School in Blythewood, north of Columbia.
“She came in a lot in the beginning,” Simpson said. “Then she weaned us away from needing her so much, but she would check in on us. I still bounce ideas off her and touch base every day.”
The use of technology coaches in classrooms is on the rise, according to ed-tech experts. While coaches still meet with teachers outside the school day to plan, rehearse, and reflect, they are now becoming a steadier fixture inside classrooms. They do everything from observing to co-teaching, passing on their knowledge about technology so that teachers can be more productive and effective.
The use of tech coaches varies by district, but many align job responsibilities with the standards for coaching laid out by the International Society for Technology in Education, or ISTE. The standards are divided into six categories: visionary leadership; teaching, learning, and assessments; digital-age learning environments; professional development and program evaluation; digital citizenship; and content knowledge and professional growth.
“Everybody keeps talking about students needing 21st-century skills, but today’s kindergartners will be one-third of the way through the 21st century when they graduate from high school,” said Michelle Jaeckel, the technology coach at Abingdon Elementary School in Arlington, Va. “We need to be preparing students for what’s next, not just right now.”
Jaeckel was a classroom teacher for seven years while earning a master’s degree in integrating technology in schools, then took her current position. She coaches teachers through the SAMR model—substitution, augmention, modification, redefinition—for ways to transform traditional paper-and-pencil activities to iPads and computers, demonstrating how technology can best affect instruction and student work.
Jaekel offers a rundown of a typical day: “Two weeks ago, I went from a kindergarten classroom for reading to 1st grade for math, to 2nd grade for social studies, then lunch, then 3rd grade, then back to 2nd grade for a grade-level meeting, and then back to 1st grade for word study. Then I met with the gifted resource teacher-specialist after school.”
In the classroom, she either models instruction, co-teaches, or simply offers support when needed. She also vets apps and websites, designs curriculum, and creates tutorials, demos, and materials. Dividing the workload with the classroom teacher, she said, provides the most successful environment for students: “I say, ‘That didn’t go well. Next time, what can we change to be successful for you and the students?’ or ‘That went really well. How can we go deeper?’ ”
Maria deOlazo, a 2nd grade teacher at Abingdon Elementary with more than 25 years of teaching under her belt, was both excited and nervous about using new technology at first. She compares the need for technology coaches to being in the driver’s seat for the first time.
“Kids don’t learn to drive a car at 16, they learn from the age of 2,” she explained. “They’ve been watching lots of different processes happening at the same time for years—looking through the windshield, the two side mirrors, the rearview mirror. Adults need the same opportunity to watch and learn from those more expert than themselves. Also, people often forget that we sometimes have to do something with somebody for a while before we can do it successfully on our own.”
Successful partnerships take trust and encourage risk, two traits leaders in the 9,850-student Flagstaff Unified school district in Arizona say they’ve increasingly seen with their technology coaches.
“The teachers who have someone there to be their cheerleader and coach them through their failures, those are the ones we see transforming their teaching practice,” said Heather Zeigler, the district’s digital-literacy specialist, who helps provide training and oversight of the coaches. “We find so often that teachers who try a new technology lesson or integration strategy without a coach are reluctant to ever try it again.”
Technology coaches in the Flagstaff district are full-time teachers who have applied to work closely with one or two peers during the day, typically during common collaboration times, before and after school, when they can get someone to cover their classroom for a bit, or when students are otherwise occupied. They only receive a $300 annual stipend, but they are given more formalized training and support through a personalized-learning network designed to help them become better teachers.
That arrangement is based on research demonstrating that job-embedded training connected to classroom practice has a much greater impact in the classroom than other forms of professional development, said Zeigler.
The number of coaches fluctuates yearly depending on district initiatives: In 2013-14, during iPad rollouts, there were 33; in 2015-16, there are 11.
Luis Melo is one of them. “Being part of the first group of tech coaches for my school district helped me to go above and beyond,” said the 5th grade Spanish teacher at Puente de Hozho Trilingual Magnet School. He even uses his students to help his peers achieve mastery of the latest technology—buoying youngsters’ confidence with their own mastery in the process. “Having my students be part of each one of my presentations for teachers proves that students learn by interacting with concepts and contents.”
In South Carolina’s Richland County School District Two, which serves some 27,000 students, officials found that when professional development was provided by a technology coach, teachers reported higher satisfaction. The teachers cited more opportunities for personalized learning, authentic real-world applications, student collaboration, and technology integration.
The district has 36 full-time tech coaches, in a role that has shifted dramatically over the past five years and whose success has drawn visitors from other districts both in and out of the state, according to Donna Teuber, the director of technology integration and innovation.
Lenker, one of the district’s tech coaches, said the most common question she would get from teachers used to be, “What’s the newest tool I’ve got to use?” These days, they are more apt to ask, “What do I want to do with it?”
“Now, I feel like I’m talking more about teaching than technology,” Lenker said.
Coverage of trends in K-12 innovation and efforts to put these new ideas and approaches into practice in schools, districts, and classrooms is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York at www.carnegie.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.