Future Tense

Teaching the Teachers

Private groups step in to show instructors how to use technology in the classroom.

teacher tech.
The teachers who succeed in adding technology to their teaching usually spend their own time to figure out how to use new tools.


It seems a waste. Millions of educational apps, millions of lesson plans available online, millions of laptops in the hands of students.

Yet only a small segment of teachers nationwide find ways to infuse technology into their lessons.

“There’s a real hunger out there, about how do I get better at my craft?” said Jeff Liberty, the senior director of teacher development initiatives at BetterLesson, which trains teachers to use technology in class. “But there aren’t clear mechanisms for that to occur in a dependable way.”

The resources exist; the desire is there. So why aren’t more classrooms using digital models? One answer that teachers give is that there’s too little training, and traditional teacher training workshops just aren’t up to snuff.

A 2015 survey of teachers found that 90 percent felt technology was important for classroom success, while almost two-thirds wanted to integrate it into their lessons but said they needed more training.

The teachers who succeed in adding technology to their teaching usually spend their own time to figure out how to use new tools—sitting up late at night digging through YouTube videos and trolling Twitter chats. They don’t get paid or receive any credit for these extra hours of work. A whopping 38 percent of teachers nationwide said they learn about new technology through their own research, according to a December 2015 survey of more than 4,300 teachers nationwide.

If more teachers are to follow their lead, educators across the country say they need additional—and better—training. One-time, workshop-style sessions just haven’t inspired the bulk of teachers to adopt technology. Many are interested, but some are also intimidated by the devices, and need role models and coaching.

“This is the question everyone is trying to answer right now: How do we get teachers the proper training and resources to get them to the point they want to be, with technology?” said Jeff Astor, who teaches chemistry at Alliance Cindy and Bill Simon Technology Academy High School in Los Angeles.  

By many accounts, school districts—the usual providers of professional development—aren’t meeting this need. Bart Rocco, superintendent of the Elizabeth Forward School District, near Pittsburgh, said that districts are on different parts of the learning curve with technology. Innovative districts have developed training programs, while others need models.

Now a nonprofit and several companies founded by teachers have stepped in. These groups are developing training methods that leverage the same tools that teachers could be using in their own classrooms, in the hope of giving them hands-on practice with the technology.

“ ‘Sit and get’ professional development has been the norm for 30 years or so,” Astor said. “Someone explains a PowerPoint and cool resources and gives examples. Then [teachers] go back to the classroom, and no one is checking to see if they integrate it.”

Some veteran administrators agree that there’s a need to make the training more interactive, and to help teachers outline exactly what they want to achieve with digital tools, as well as how to do it.

“When I talk to folks from around the country, they feel districts focus more on the device than on the training that goes along with having this device,” said S. Dallas Dance, superintendent of Baltimore County Public Schools.  “We didn’t want that to be the narrative that defined us.”

Each school in his district has a staff development teacher who coaches colleagues on how to integrate technology to enhance their lesson plans.

On just another school day in December, Jessica Anderson stood in the corner of her classroom with a laptop perched on her palm. The ninth-grade Earth science teacher was discussing water samples with a student who was preparing to examine them in the laboratory at Powell County High School in Deer Lodge, Montana.

Anderson also checked in with a blonde teen wearing an infinity scarf who was working on her laptop to illustrate the cycle of water through the atmosphere.

Other students sat on a futon or lounge chairs working on projects. One boy in a red T-shirt looked through Google 3-D glasses. He was on a virtual field trip, researching various ways that communities across the globe use minerals. Each student was on a self-directed path of lessons infused with technology.

Anderson is a self-made blended learning teacher. Her district administrators did encourage technology use—first by providing mobile computer carts and then by giving a laptop or tablet to every student. But trainings were sporadic, Anderson said, and only two or three teachers at her school are now seamlessly integrating technology in class.

Two big influences helped Anderson “blend” her class: BetterLesson’s program and being inspired by the 2011 Montana Teacher of the Year, Paul Andersen, who “flipped his classroom,” by assigning online reading and digital lectures as homework and using class time for deeper discussions, analysis and collaborative projects. Anderson followed his progress on his blog.   

BetterLesson is a company founded by former teachers from Atlanta and Boston public schools. It connects educators with “Master Teachers” who help the teachers create a strategic plan for doing blended learning in the classroom, along with a “ruler” to measure the effectiveness of the approach. The team then meets along the way for coaching, feedback and accountability.

“It’s awesome,” Anderson said. “This is what needs to happen—you need to have passionate self-starters using technology, promoting, sharing and reflecting on that process, and then exposing that to other people.”

Now Anderson will spread the word herself: Technology and personalized learning are integral parts of her platform as Montana’s 2016 Teacher of the Year. She also regularly shares her classroom with faraway observers—teachers from other schools, administrators, and even reporters—who can watch her work through a Google Hangout and a webcam on her computer.

Sunlight streams through the door as students walk into Jessica Lura’s eighth-grade classroom at Bullis Charter School in Los Altos, California.

They’re going to learn about creating mood in their writing. They have laptops and iPads, and their teacher is projecting a PBS Kids video to hook them on the project. By the end of the lesson, they’ll have written sentences in various moods, written and recorded a monologue, and made that monologue come to life with an animation app.

Lura’s teaching is captured in the “Lesson Flow in Action” video on Graphite, which is Common Sense Media’s portal for teacher resources. Common Sense featured Lura because she’s one of their certified educators who integrates technology comfortably into her classroom. Her lesson plans are hosted with about 2,200 other lessons on the site, which also has almost 12,000 app reviews accessible to its more than 310,000 teacher members.

It’s these teachers who now say that they need more than content. They need context through training and coaching.

“Content is everywhere,” Astor said. “There’s so much high-quality content it’s overwhelming for teachers. Instead, coaches need to focus on ‘How do you want implement these in your classroom?’ ”

Teachers have the same concerns about the traditional district-driven professional development that’s offered. Trainers offer content, but it’s generalized and doesn’t focus on daily application to classroom lessons.

“Teachers are saying, ‘It’s great that you’re helping me find great products for learning, but now how do I integrate these into teaching?’ ” said Kelly Mendoza, director of professional development at Common Sense Media. “What we’re shifting to is including not only the products but also the practices.”

The nonprofit’s site now includes videos of classroom practices. Later this year, Common Sense plans to launch a feature that allows teachers to choose not only what they’re learning but also the format. For example, there might be an article for the avid reader or a video for the visual learner, Mendoza said.

Each feature will be short enough that teachers can progress through the trainings during small blocks of time they have free during the school day.

“We know teachers are limited in time and training, so we’re looking at ‘How can we offer bite-sized individual trainings that they can complete in chunks to learn about best practices for utilizing technology in teaching?’ ” Mendoza said.

The group beta-tested the training program in the fall and is now using teacher feedback to overhaul the modules.

“In a world where teachers are being asked to personalize their lessons for individual students, it simply makes sense that trainers do the same for teachers,” said Craig Leach, a technology and learning coordinator for the Bonsall Unified School District in Bonsall, California, who worked with Common Sense to develop the training product.

The Teachers Pay Teachers website model responds to another call from teachers: to get credit for work they do outside of mandated trainings. Founded in 2006, the site now has 1.8 million resources, some free but most available for purchase, and it has enabled teachers to be paid a total of $175 million for their lessons.

Common Sense Media also recognizes the need for teacher reimbursement, in time if not money, and is working with school districts to make sure that its online programs can be counted toward the required training that teachers must complete for their districts each year.

The Elizabeth Forward School District, nationally regarded as a pioneer in integrating technology into learning, plans to build a “micro-credentialing” system into its training programs, Superintendent Bart Rocco said. Under the program, teachers would get credit for mastering new technology skills.

“We know that’s a big piece of it, getting the credit,” Mendoza said.

From personalization to on-demand training to credit, Common Sense’s efforts are focused on moving the nation’s teacher corps past the tipping point, and enabling the majority of teachers to use technology successfully.

“The innovators, the early adopters, they’ve got it, but how can we shift this big middle of the curve over as well?” Mendoza said.

This story was produced by the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.