The interactive smartboard in Denise Beasley’s high school classroom was supposed to make life easier: helping her present digital lessons, appeal to different learning styles, and boost student engagement by allowing kids to interact with images.
Instead, adding yet another technology to her classroom had the opposite effect. “It was just craziness,” she said.
With a recent grant, Beasley’s district, Osseo-Fairchild in Wisconsin, decided to purchase the smartboards. The district believed the devices “would make our lives so much better, even though we’ve never been trained on them,” she said.
A high school English teacher who has been working for more than a quarter century, Beasley is no Luddite. She taught online courses before the pandemic and has used a learning-management system for years, unlike some of her colleagues, who still prefer a traditional pen-and-paper grade book.
But Beasley doesn’t think she—or most teachers in her school—have the bandwidth to master yet another new piece of technology at a time when they are being asked to cover classes for quarantining colleagues and help students recover academically and emotionally from the pandemic.
“It’s flying by the seat of our pants just getting through every single day,” Beasley said.
On paper, this should be the start of a golden age for education technology, the moment when devices and the teaching techniques they enable finally spur the kind of innovation and academic gains that their supporters believe they are capable of.
After all, teachers have a deeper understanding of technology than ever before. And laptops, tablets, and Wi-Fi hotspots are now available to students in nearly every school district.
But that rosy picture glosses over a major problem: Most educators are tired of using technology constantly. Nearly two-thirds of teachers, principals, and district leaders who participated in a survey conducted by the EdWeek Research Center in December said they were experiencing technology fatigue. And 79 percent said they felt their teacher colleagues were tired of all the tech use they have experienced over the past two years.
In response, some administrators who started the school year exhilarated by the recent education technology momentum are now giving their teachers some breathing room.
“Our teachers are really just juggling a lot,” said Justin Cutts, the principal of Whitney High School in Rocklin, Calif. He’s long been passionate about the power of technology to energize students and help teachers do their jobs more effectively. But, he acknowledged, “I have to kind of take a step back” and dial down expectations, at least for now.
Some of his educators are “people who I feel are good teachers. [I was] excited that they were going to learn something new,” he said. “And then watching them come back with frustration and say, ‘I did everything you talked about, or everything we said we were gonna do, and it’s not [working]. I just feel like I have to fall back on what I know works.’ And so, for me, it’s been tough, but I’m like, OK, I can’t not support that. Because they did try.”
What’s more, educator exhaustion, coupled with the staffing shortages that many districts face, mean that it might be a while before the K-12 system sees the kind of widescale changes to teaching and learning that some ed-tech advocates believe will grow out of the pandemic and the increasing use of technology during it.
“Many teachers and district leaders see the need for some other things out there to further differentiate instruction, to meet more students where they are, to accelerate learning,” said Chris Rush, a senior adviser at the U.S. Department of Education and a co-founder of New Classrooms, a nonprofit focused on innovation. But, he added, many educators “don’t feel like this is the moment that they can implement some of those changes and reforms.”
‘They demand more technology with your lessons’
While new laptops and tablets opened fresh avenues of digitally enhanced instruction, they’ve also heightened pressures on teachers.
“The district paid for so much, they demand more technology with your lessons,” said Jeanette Escobar, an elementary teacher in El Paso, Texas.
But to her mind, some concepts are easier to grasp outside a computer screen. For instance, she’s had students dissect owl pellets, the undigested food that the birds sometimes regurgitate, in science class. There’s just no digital substitute for the experience of stumbling on, say, a mouse skeleton buried in the bird’s pellets, Escobar said.
She’s also not entirely comfortable with a new online camera that trails her around the classroom so that kids learning virtually from home can see what she’s up to.
“If I’m over helping a student, if I’m teaching a lesson, wherever I’m talking, whatever I’m doing, it’s following me around,” she said. “To me, it’s a little bit stressful to have that going on all the time. Because sometimes you want to decompress ... just relax with the students and have a good discussion. And you really can’t get to do that” with the device tracking a teacher’s every move.
Educators aren’t the only ones who want a break from technology. Students are also weary of devices at school, according to 72 percent of teachers, principals, and district leaders who participated in the December survey.
In some cases, that’s meant kids are reluctant to take advantage of extra support when it’s provided in a virtual space. The Topeka, Kan., school district offers tutoring after school, with both online and in-person options. While students show up for the in-person program, “no one logs on” to the online offering, said Tracy Keegan, the assistant principal at Eisenhower Middle School.
“They’re tired of the screen; they get home and they have 42 other distractions,” Keegan said. She and her colleagues end up assisting kids in the morning before class instead, who say, “‘Hey, I didn’t get to log in. Can you help me with this now?’”
‘Honestly, just back off and support them’
Teacher burnout isn’t just about technology, said Casey Rimmer, the director of innovation and education technology for the Union County public schools near Charlotte, N.C.
“I don’t think our teachers are tired because of tech,” she said. “I think our teachers are tired because of the thousand other things they’re having to do. They’re covering such a heavy load for their kids.”
By sticking with established, nondigital strategies, she said, “they’re trying to revert to a safe space with what they’re comfortable with and what they know. And that’s most likely pre-pandemic teaching.”
To be sure, some teachers in her district are building on what they learned when school was virtual, applying the tools they mastered more often and in different ways. But most aren’t interested in tackling something new.
“They don’t want to throw a bunch more tools into the mix and figure out where to click and what buttons to press again,” Rimmer said.
So, Rimmer is giving teachers space. “We’re not making anything mandatory,” she said. “We’re putting opportunities out there for teachers. We’re not reprimanding anybody for not doing what we’re offering.” She’s told current and prospective ed-tech vendors that “now is not the time” for new devices or platforms.
Diana Morris, the supervisor for humanities for the Penns-Grove Carneys Point Regional school district in New Jersey, had a similar take.
“This technology is, I don’t want to say difficult, it’s a challenge. It’s a challenge for teachers. So they don’t need anything new,” she said. “Honestly, just back off and support them.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 06, 2022 edition of Education Week as Tech Fatigue Is Real For Teachers and Students