An Open Letter to Elementary School Teachers

Dear Elementary School Teacher,

Are you teaching in a "cyber-classroom?" Is your instruction considered "high-tech?"

If you answered "NO" to either question, should you feel guilty?

As the Principal from a school that received the 2003 Catholic Schools of Tomorrow Award for our Innovation with Technology, I emphatically say, NO! You should not feel guilty!

The explosion of information technology is certainly challenging business-as-usual for you, the elementary educator. Yet, I believe most of you certainly have risen to the challenge, even though some 'administrators' might disagree with my assessment.

As an elementary school principal myself, I would like to speak to you directly, and let you know how humbled I am at the amazing work you do every day. The difference you have made in the lives of so many young people is a testimony to your commitment and dedication to your vocation as an elementary educator.

What does this have to do with technology? Nothing – and that's the point.

Your value as an elementary educator has nothing to do with your use of or comfort level with technology. Yet in the last five years or so, some schools have made many elementary schoolteachers feel that their effectiveness in the classroom is exclusively tied to their proficiency in technology.

Well, I respectfully respectively disagree!

The value of the elementary schoolteacher goes much deeper than any amount of experience with technology. Teachers should not be intimidated by this "frenzied trend" towards technology. Students do not learn from gimmicks, quick fixes, or even computers. Students learn from teachers, like you, who teach the curriculum. I believe that the initial reluctance most of you had toward technology was based on this insight and not on any "fear of technology."

Obviously, computers are here to stay and you and I must respond to their classroom presence. Elementary schoolteachers are at the crossroads on the information highway. While preparing our students for the information age of the twenty-first century, we must ask how we are going to incorporate new technologies into the educational process successfully, without sacrificing our role as the elementary – the children’s first – educators. The challenge for teachers is not to become computer experts, but to view our role as one that provides access to technology at the appropriate time so that the curriculum is enhanced.

In this article I have two objectives.

  • First, I want to dispel the myth regarding the correlation between a teacher’s proficiency level with technology and students' access to this technology.
  • Second, I want to demonstrate how my school, while focusing on the curriculum, was able to increase student access to technology even with teachers who had low proficiency ratings.

Let us begin with the origins of the myth. Historically, the teacher was once the sole provider of classroom information, aided by the library or resources within the local community. Today, however, information technology allows teachers to offer students more alternatives. I have never known a teacher to refuse access to anything that would further a student’s learning. Why would teachers refuse access to technology? The fact is, they would not. So, why this perception (essentially a myth)? Because some administrators confused the provision of student access to technology with that of asking teachers to be technology proficient experts themselves.

This is wrong. Most teachers do not necessarily need technology to teach. Case in point: five years ago, when I became Principal, St. John's was one of those schools that had no technology, no technology coordinator, and certainly no way of "integrating" technology into the curriculum. The irony was that this lack of technology had not seemed to hurt the academic performance of the students. The lack of technology did not seem to impair the teachers from being excellent educators. Clearly, the quality of education taking place at St. John's had nothing to do with technology, but everything to do with the quality of instruction the teachers were providing — teachers like all of you!

So, does technology make a difference? Prior to my becoming principal, I spent eight years as the technology coordinator at another school, the School of the Madeleine in Berkeley. Technology was everywhere. The Madeleine school had a fully equipped computer lab, there were computers in every classroom, the teachers all had e-mail accounts, the school office was fully automated and the school was on the cutting edge of technology. Yet, with all these advances, technology did little to improve the learning at the school. I know this because the access students had to technology was completely removed from their classroom instruction and was seldom part of the curriculum. Yet, students at the Madeleine did very well academically and I attribute that to the teachers in the classroom, not technology.

So, if it’s not broke, what is it we are trying to fix with all this technology? Why spend all this time and energy trying to make our teachers technology gurus. It does not take a genius to use the Internet, create a Word document, or even a PowerPoint presentation. However, it does take years of dedication to complete a teaching credential program, and even more time to become a master educator who is loved by pupils and parents alike. Which elementary teacher would I rather have in my classroom? The answer is obvious.

In addition, the computer skills listed above require minimal time to learn, if necessary. I would prefer my teachers to spend their precious professional development time becoming stronger in their curricular areas rather than becoming proficient in Microsoft Word. As teachers become stronger in their command of the curriculum, students benefit, learning is enhanced, and teachers become better educators.

So, do students need technology in school to learn? Students do not. Students need good teachers to help them learn. How did I come to this realization after making a career of promoting technology for eight years?

You, the Elementary teacher, showed me the error of my pre-conceived technology notions. I'll admit, coming to St. John's was a bit of a technology culture shock. And yet, it was good to spend my first year as principal in the technology "desert." I was forced to see through the mirage created by so much heat over educational technology and the illusive promises it made. Little did I realize, but the fact that the school had no technology was the greatest gift I, as principal, could have been given.

As I observed the academic culture of St. John's I learned how the faculty had become masters of curriculum integration. Since funding for multiple programs were not available, our educational community had learned to integrate vital educational experiences into existing curriculum areas. Since drama, music, and art were all incorporated into the curriculum in very innovative ways, why should technology be any different? Because of my teachers, as non-tech savvy as they were, I realized that St. John's now had the opportunity to create a new vision for technology and we seized the moment. Together with my teachers, students, and parents, we flew out the "technology box" and created a new way to view, use, and integrate technology into the school.

My first step was to recognize and publicly acknowledge that teachers were to be curriculum experts first, not technology gurus. I did this immediately upon becoming Principal and continue to do it today. My second step was to shift the technology focus away from teacher proficiency levels to student access.

This shift was confirmed, oddly enough, in a conversation I had with the finance chair of the school’s Advisory Board regarding technology. Our finance chair is an excellent accountant and a finance officer for Bank of America, charged with overseeing the finances for all the bank’s properties in the western United States. One day, after surviving massive layoffs, he said:

"Clearly the bank values my understanding of finance and appreciates the quality of my performance far more than they value my proficiency with Excel worksheets. The only reason I use a computer is because it makes my job easier, but it in no way makes me a better accountant. When I run into a ‘computer’ problem I just ask my colleagues. Technology is merely a tool, teach your children the curriculum first, make the best tools available to them and let them know they may need to learn from each other."

He didn’t realize it then, but he solidified my conviction about technology and its appropriate place within the classroom.

As a good accountant, our finance chair does not need a computer to be qualified at what he does. His education and training prepared him to succeed at his profession. However, as a good accountant, he requires the best tools be available to manage, organize, and demonstrate his ability. Without the proper tools efficiency is lost and, in the end, that could mean clients.

Similarly, a good student who is properly prepared by his/her teacher(s) doesn't need a computer to learn, yet a good student requires the best tools to be available to demonstrate his/her knowledge: tools for writing, tools for research, tools for presentations, and tools for creativity.

Do students need technology to learn? No, but they do need good teachers to learn. However, just like my finance chair, students need access to the best tools that will make their experience as students more productive and efficient.

Let's see, students have the teachers, all they need now is access to technology. Right? Right.

But wait-a-minute, don’t schools already have this technology? Yes. Well, why don't students use it?

Students don't use technology because they don't have access to it. And that is not the teacher's fault. What’s the problem then?

Let's think about it for a moment: the computers at school are usually locked up in a room (computer lab) to which students don't have access. The computers are usually under the watchful eye of the "technology gatekeeper," otherwise known as the Technology Coordinator. The Technology Coordinator seldom has time to allow students to use the technology when they really need it for curriculum needs because the lab is either locked or being used. Yet, for technology to be effective, students need to have access to it when the curriculum calls for it.

Let's be completely honest here: teachers do not control the access.

Back to my analogy: my finance chair does not have to go to another room, at a scheduled time once a week to use a computer. Rather, he will turn to his computer when needed and perform his tasks. The requirement for him is access.

The same is true for students.

Students don't need a $50,000 computer lab to learn how to create a Word document or a PowerPoint presentation. Students may not even need a computer teacher to teach them these skills. Imagine if we created pencil labs so we could teach all the students how to use a pencil. We laugh at this image, but we have done the same thing with computer labs. Students need to learn to write, so we give them a pencil, we demonstrate how to hold and move the object, but we do it in the context of writing the alphabet, words, sentences, or paragraphs. The pencil is merely a tool used to advance the language arts curriculum and/or learning of the student. The emphasis is never placed on the tool (pencil).

When it came to technology, rather than providing access to the tool,schools got caught up in teaching the tool. The structure of technology placed too much emphasis on the tool, as if teaching students "computers" was the goal. Students may have acquired the skills to use a computer, but skills taught outside of instruction defeat the goal of curriculum integration. Besides, we don't teach computers, we teach language arts, math, science, social studies, religion, etc… You see my point.

To correct this our school community boldly decided to focus on student access and not teacher proficiency levels. We also agreed that no matter what we did, the curriculum would remain at the heart of all instruction. This meant that the existing ‘models’ of how technology is currently being implemented in most schools would not be an option for us. Instead, we agreed that a wireless mobile environment was the right technology direction for us to develop in the context of a classroom environment, regardless of teacher's usage.

We wanted technology to meet the students when instruction was taking place. We felt that students needed to be able to pull out their books, paper, pen, and appropriate technology when the curriculum naturally called for such tools. My teachers were instructed to teach as they always had, based on the curriculum; they had to provide access to the wireless technology with the idea that students could use the computers to complete existing projects, lessons, or assignments.

We also found that the skills some students needed to know were being taught by their classmates. Since many projects were collaborative in nature, students who had more proficiency with technology used their skill where necessary and taught their classmates at the same time. As a result of this strategy, students were learning from each other, access to technology focused on advancing the curriculum, and teachers stayed focused on teaching. This model guaranteed that no instructional time was ever lost to merely teaching the tool.

By implementing mobile computing in this fashion we believe we have achieved instructional transparency. With the innovation of mobility comes transparency of instruction because students stay in their classrooms, technology is brought to their desktops, and the teacher continues to instruct. Wireless technology also allows our students and the teachers the flexibility of using the laptops anywhere on school grounds for instructional or learning purposes and does so while staying connected to the school's network and the Internet.

Mobile networks, like the one we developed and currently use at St. John's, bring the technology to the environment where learning is taking place. Now, what really surprises a lot of my colleagues is that all of this has been done without a computer teacher.

My question is: why do we need one? Junior high students, as most of us know, have demonstrated time and time again that they know as much or more about computers as many teachers do. Therefore, we created Student Technology Aide Representatives, (STARs). Our STARs are responsible for managing, troubleshooting, and assisting all the students (and teachers) with technology when needed in the classroom. Teachers are relieved, the students like the peer tutoring, and the STARs love the experience of leadership.

As I said earlier, teachers don't need to be computer experts or technology gurus and I only want them to use technology if it is going to complement their instruction. If a teacher is partnered with a STAR, the educator teaches the curriculum, and the aide assists the students with the technology. The teacher remains focused on curriculum, the students remain focused on their projects with access to technology, and the STARs are focused with assisting in that process. Our STARs are truly partners with us in the educational process.

As you can see, our curriculum always stays at the heart of the teacher's instruction and thus, the curriculum determines which tool is the most appropriate and how it will be used. It may surprise some of us to realize that during instruction sometimes the pencil, the blackboard, or even the textbook is the most efficient tool to use rather than the computer.

When teachers teach, and the curriculum drives instruction, the appropriate tools will surface. Principals like me have to ensure that all the appropriate tools are available so you can continue to do what you do so well: educate our young.

Let me close by reiterating what I said in the beginning of this article: Your value to the elementary education of the young goes far beyond your use of or your proficiency level with technology. Your presence in the classroom has stimulated, inspired, and encouraged hundreds of young people over the years to be contributing members to society. For this you are to be thanked. Your commitment to this vocation is a gift to society, a gift to your school, and a gift to the children for whom you serve.

So, as the technology of tomorrow begins to enter the classroom of today, just relax! You do not have to be the expert, only the conduit for it. If you are anything like the teachers at St. John’s, I believe you will let your students have access to these tools. As an educator, you believe any tool that may deepen a student’s knowledge or increases his/her love for learning, has a place in your classroom. But what is not negotiable is your place in the classroom. Without you, the elementary schoolteacher, there is no elementary school.


Kenneth Willers, Principal
St. John’s School

P.S. Okay, now I know you're asking, ‘Well, who maintains, sets up and configures all your technology?" Fair question. I do because I have the training and I can train my students to the rest. My teachers should not have to worry about the technology. Do you think my finance chair, while at work, worries about the technology that surrounds him? No. Nor should he. He expects everything to work so he can do his job. Moreover, there should be an IT person to handle all the technical problems. Shouldn’t teachers be able to expect the same at school? I think so. So, I would say to my fellow administrators: "you may need to hire a "technology guru" to maintain, set up and configure your networks so you can leave your most valuable educational "tool" alone — the elementary school teacher."

Thanks for all of you who do!

Email:Kenneth Willers