Finding Balance

A while back, I wrote a piece here that was truly from the hip, and while I don't regret writing it whatsoever, I do sometimes wonder how it reflects on me as an educator.

You see, at heart I am vehemently pro-kid, almost to a fault, and at times this finds me in precarious situations when it comes to teachers. By first thinking of students, my initial reactions lead me to questions like "how can we get this information in the hands of students?" or "let's make sure our kids are seeing this;" this is unsettling to some because it immediately places the honus of doing this onto the teachers. My intentions are good, but it is not always communicated that way to the teachers that are directly in charge of our students.

To be pro-kid does not equate to being anti-teacher.

Jay Matthews had a great piece in the WaPo this week in which he railed against teachers who refuse to use the internet in their classrooms as a means of communicating to parents. On two levels this sounded eerily familiar. The first is the piece I wrote here a few months back that called out the teachers who openly claim they hate technology. The second is that I am blown away by the pushback I have gotten from teachers lately regarding the posting of homework and grades via the internet, and you can clearly see this in the comments at the bottom of the article.

In our district, we ask that our teachers maintain a website, post weekly lesson plans using our online lesson planner which also pushes out daily homework assignments automatically, and in a very short time our gradebook, which is part of our SIS, will be going live to the parents of our Middle and High School students. In short:

  • website (via OnCourse Systems)
  • lesson plans that automatically post daily homework (the lesson planner feature of OnCourse takes anything you place in homework and publishes it after a certain date and time)
  • gradebook online (a product called Genesis which is fairly specific to New Jersey)

Philosophical debates about whether or not grades or homework should be posted online aside, this is where I run into problems in relation to the "pro-kid" mentality I have. The feedback we are getting is that there is too much redundancy in the system, and that processes that used to take just part of their Sundays are now taking all of their Sundays. If we can provide one system that integrate at least two of these three processes and automate them as much as possible so that there is minimal double-entry, shouldn't that work? What I am hearing are comments much like this one from the Matthews' article:

How about a reality check. This issue is simple:

(1) Time. I teach three preps, 6 sections. Each period is a separate page on the school's gradebook (and communication web site). So I have to update 6 separate, click happy pages.

(2) Place. I don't have my own classroom with a desk and a computer. I share an "office" with five people. We have one computer. (Now ask about the phone - 8 of us share a line. No voice mail.)

(3) Use. Even after doing all this, only
about 1/3 of the parents actually log on. Yes, parents, we can track this, too.

Posted by: altaego60 | December 21, 2009 9:28 AM

And while this situation (especially the computer situation mentioned in number 2) is not exactly indicative of where I work, it may be in many schools around the world. We are pushing the idea of transparency by opening up some of the "guts" of education to open public view, but we are in the initial stages of the best ways to do it. For some of the teachers I work with, the system is fine and they have figured out how to make it work, but for others, even some of our early adopters, they find it cumbersome to have to post their lesson plans in one place, homework in another place, and grades in another portal, in addition to maintaining a website.

We have rolled this out to the staff in the "rough-ready"stage, meaning that we knew there would be feedback and that the process would be an ongoing one to figure out what works best for all stakeholders. My question as we do this is whether or not the systems we roll out take into account the teacher feedback on the workflow aspect of it. What I mean is can we ask teachers what the best system for making all of these pieces available to parents and students is, and then design our pieces accordingly. Too often, I think we in the ed tech field are guilty of imposing our workflows onto the teachers. Sure, it is dead simple for me to operate the three parts of our requirements without losing any time that I would have taken before--but I had a huge part in designing them. What I'd like to see are some other models that people use around the country and world to open up these parts to their communities.

If nothing else after reading the comments in the Matthews article, after being a teacher, and observing all of the mandates placed on teachers in this day and age, we should not impose anything on teachers that eats away at their primary responsibility: helping students learn and grow. If our systems for creating transparency are detracting from that, we need to rethink how we are doing it.

Cross-posted at Chalkdust101.