Never Say Never! How to Become Tech-Savvy

I still remember the day I was hired to teach. Somehow, my new principal had tracked me down to a picnic at a local state park and shared the wonderful news: "You're hired!" Immediately after thanking her, giving a loud shout for joy, I reset the telephone receiver with trembling fingers and made the call I had been waiting all summer to place—to order my first computer. Yes, that's right. Before I phoned family or friends to share the wonderful news about my first teaching position, I did the one thing I felt I needed to do to ensure success in the classroom. I secured my most important tool for teaching—a personal computer.

To my surprise, not many of my colleagues shared my enthusiasm. In 1993, many teachers did not yet have computers in their classrooms or at home and considered using technology as one more nuisance in their already overfilled day of planning, teaching, and interacting with students, parents, and administrators. Being the new kid on the block, I was looked upon as an idealist who would soon wake up to the realities of the profession. While my first year in the classroom was a surprise in many ways, it was the technology skills I had that allowed me to survive the challenges of that first year. As I am serving my 11th year in the profession, I am amazed at the enormous strides that have been gained in the area of computer science and have watched with admiration as the field of instructional technology has developed and allowed all teachers to learn and master the use of technology in the classroom. As an added bonus, I found that I had emerged as a technological resource over the years, a situation that has spanned 11 years and over four locations. One group of colleagues even jokingly referred to me as the "Techno-Queen", an overstated, but hilariously funny reference to my tendency to "over-compute". In reality, what I came to realize is that I have become an unofficial technology coach. How did this happen?

In spite of the emergence of the Internet and the rapid developments that have resulted in making personal computing accessible to everyone, many veteran teachers do not implement technology into their classrooms. Because of this, many training initiatives in technology have been tested and implemented with varying results. Despite many districts' increased spending on technology solutions, it can be quite surprising to find that results can be lacking, even after excessive upgrades, funding, and a structured technology focus are set into place (Boyle, 2005).

Further complicating the issue is the disparity that exists in the area of teacher training in instructional technology. Some school districts offer more training than others ("Teacher Computer Use", 2001). Training teachers in technology is a logical first step, but is also a step that must be well planned and that must include follow-up (Mathews & Guarino, 2000) and strong support from administrators who understand technology themselves (Holland & Moore-Steward, 2000). Time to absorb and to implement new training is also an important factor when designing technology training. Having severe time constraints limits teachers and these half measures are "not enough to enable teachers to implement an innovation" (Wetzel, 2001). Half-measures in this area will serve only to frustrate and alienate teachers; therefore, the lack of these key factors of planning and support will ensure that any forced instructional technology training is subject to dismal failure.

One example of this need is the use of word processing and Email clients. Newer teachers may be surprised to learn that their more mature counterparts never received formal training in the use of computers and, therefore, lack even these basic skills. In some cases, even if training were mandated during the older teachers' college years, that training is now obsolete, as word processors and computer applications have evolved with lightning speed. In my case, the word processing client I trained on is now obsolete and only old-timers remember when Lotus 1-2-3 outshone Excel as the spreadsheet application of choice.

While it would be easy to blame "non-techie" teachers for their lack of technological prowess, veteran teachers simply cannot be expected to use these programs efficiently if they have not had the in-depth training of their younger, more recently trained peers. Because of this disparity in training levels, some "quick-fix" solutions that have arisen include large group training sessions, printed tutorials, and teachers who have been left to their own devices, somehow expected to pick up this information on their own. Not surprisingly, teachers report that these methods have not worked for them and that they need more support (Whitfield, 2005).

Teachers who lack technological skills can expect to need to learn at least the following applications: word processing, spreadsheet applications (or gradebook applications), database applications, presentation software, and Internet software, including the use of Web browsers and Email clients. Sound overwhelming? It really isn't! Once these programs are mastered, most teachers move on the fun stuff! Print Shop, Print Master, or Microsoft Publisher all allow the user to create newsletters, banners, cards, brochures and the like, without having to possess a degree in computer science. In addition, once a document has been created, subsequent documents can be built using the original as a "master" or template. Imagine the time you'll save!

So how does an old teacher, or perhaps I should say a seasoned educator learn new tricks? Track down a technology coach! Just like a personal trainer does for a celebrity, a technology coach can guide your acquisition of computer skills without endless sessions of lectures and drill and practice. In addition, they can provide personalized mini-lessons and one-on-one support that cannot be found in large-group or formal computer classes. If you are employed by a system that provides official technology coaches, also called instructional technology consultants or some similar title, then count yourself lucky and contact them right away! As a matter of fact, you don't even have to finish this article! Go!

If, however, you are emitting a wistful sigh and your district does not yet offer such luxury, don't worry. Chances are that at least one guru of technology is lurking somewhere in your school. Your job is to find this person and convince her/him to tutor or support you in your efforts to acquire useful technology skills. Teaching is a profession of helping others; so don't be afraid to ask! Would you turn down a colleague who asked for advice or help? Then, what are you waiting for?

Before you approach your new mentor for your first "coaching" session, be sure to have outlined what skills you already possess in the area of technology, as well as what things you need to know. Having these items prioritized will assist both you and your coach in getting you started right away and in allowing plenty of time for you to master your new skills. If you don't already have a computer at home, consider purchasing one. New computers are less expensive than ever and with basic use, a purchase of even the most economical model should last you several years. One word of caution: Do not overbuy if this is your first computer purchase. Salespeople have an obligation to sell you the highest-end product you are willing to commit to, so consider taking along a tech-savvy friend who has your best interests and your pocketbook in mind!

Once you have had your first session with your new personal computer coach (Think Oprah and her personal trainer!), you will want to write down some goals for your subsequent sessions and, most importantly, build in lots of time to practice your newly acquired skills. Much like practicing an instrument, learning new computer skills occurs more through discovery than by following a strict set of instructions. You will amaze yourself with all of the new things you will learn just by doing.

Things to keep in mind while improving your techno-savvy:

  • Be patient, but open-minded. Computers are relatively new and can seem a bit overwhelming, but you don't need to know HOW they work to use them. Think about your car. You probably don't know anything about what makes it run, but you use it as a tool for getting around. The computer is the same thing—a tool.
  • Take an active part in your technological training. Sessions with your coach (whether official or unofficial) should focus on YOU doing the work, not just watching someone else perform computing miracles. We all learn by DOING!
  • Research how other teachers are using technology. Computers can make the paperwork that floods our profession much more manageable. See how other teachers are using computers to manage their inflow and outflow and copy the methods that you think will work best for you.
  • Learn to template. Do you have a worksheet that you keep returning to year after year? Using templates (a type of document that opens as a fresh copy each time—like a blank job application) is a great way to save your work from year to year. I make a copy of my class roll and save it to my desktop as a template and use it almost daily for things like keeping up with reading assignments, lunch money, behavior, and forms.
  • Ask questions until you completely understand the answers. The problem with a lot of technology gurus is that they tend to speak "computer-ese". Don't walk away until you understand the answer to the question you have. If the person you asked cannot give you a satisfactory answer, find someone who can!
  • NEVER say "Never!" Many teachers have techno-phobia, or an unrealistic fear of technology or of "messing up" their computers. Don't. Unless you physically take a hammer to your hardware, most things you do can be fixed, so don't be afraid that an errant keystroke is going to shut down the entire district. That's just bad sci-fi stuff!
  • Just do it! Now, go out there and get started! Happy computing!
  • Boyle, A. (2005). A formula for successful technology integration must include curriculum. MultiMedia & Internet@Schools, 12(1), 30-32.
  • Holland , L., & Moore-Steward, T. (2000). A different divide: Preparing tech-savvy leaders. Leadership, 30(1).
  • Mathews, J., & Guarino, A. (2000). Predicting teacher computer use: A path analysis. International Journal of Instructional Media, 27(4). 385.
  • Teacher computer use, training surveyed. (2001). Technology in Education, 40(2), 78 .
  • Wetzel, K. (2001). Preparing teacher leaders. Learning and Leading with Technology, 29(3), 50-52 .