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Teacher's Productivity Hampered by technology. No love.

Greetings Programs, I am a User. (Sorry, I rediscovered Tron the other day... Anyways...)

Background: I am a math teacher. High School Math Teacher. I am a engineer. I like elegance. I like usability. I like duct tape. I like being able to come up with my own solutions. I also like to not re-invent the wheel as I have other things to do. Lesson Plans, Grades, Re-takes, filing, parent meetings, staff meetings, continual professional development, making worksheets, tests, learning guides, and that secret side of a teacher called a dating life.

I use macs. I use PCs. I use unix/linux. But my preferred choice is the mac. Why? Because I have one at work and one at home. I was raised on it and unix. I lived in a house that lived by the Customer Calendar (Advertising), so I know products from Adobe and Quark. I like pretty buttons. I am a computer engineer, so I know how the things work. I know I can program my own stuff, but again... I don't like re-inventing the wheel.

The multi-prong Problem:
I have found it increasingly annoying to hear from on high that we need to integrate more technology in our classroom, yet most new teachers and old teachers are still using old standbys because we don't have the time to use and troubleshoot our way through technology. Making worksheets by copying and pasting by hand. Building test questions from book programs that only work on PCs or OS 9 on macs. Wanting to use videos from the internet only to find they are blocked. Wanting to post information to a website or build my own website to find that FTP is blocked or that online-services are clunky, restrictive, and cumbersome. Granted that I am lucky enough to have a computer, a projector, and an ELMO (videocamera hookup to a projector.) But for the love of turtles! It seems that the industry ignores us!

I use a program called Planbook (http://www.hellmansoft.com/) which is bloody Brilliant. Buggy, but hey, Its an honest to god teacher made, teacher driven, program. Planbook also allows you to publish your lesson plans to a website so that students can access notes, worksheets, and the like. Problem: Mostly local, my district constricts my FTP access-to no access. A solution? .Mac. Yet.... there are problems with a .Mac. I still haven't really figured out how the iDisk works so I can publish my handmade webpages and my planbook pages. I want a manual or book or site that explains to me how it works! Apple help pages are bloody infantile.

My options for making tests and worksheets are Appleworks at school with the equation maker, InDesign and MathType at home. I cannot install applications at school. Tho, I cheat with planbook because it is a stand-alone app that does not need Admin-privaleges to install. I make my test(worksheet/notes/whatever) in InDesign, print it out, vaguely remember to make a pdf version, perhaps upload it to my school virtual disk. And if I want to make any changes (small or large) I have to do it by hand at school. Whiteout and hand written examples, instructions for the win!

During class, I write out notes on the Elmo. Plain ol' paper and pen on a notepad. I can then cart it home and scan it into Acrobat, into a pdf, use planbook to upload a copy to the day of the lesson and yay! print it out when a student needs notes. I'm a nice math teacher, I provide online copies.

Problem? I have to do all this at home. Let's face it, the last thing I want to do when I get home is to immediately go back to work on paperwork that can be done in the classroom. I would rather be able to do it in my classroom the moment after class is done. Scan, pdf, post, done. Can't install acrobat on my computer. License issues and all that implies. Need a scanner? I bought a 3-in-1.. i can hook it up! But Im scanning to jpgs... that can be saved as pdfs that are HUGE. What am I missing?

A lot of my issues stem from the limitations (or invisible limitations) of my districts computer policies. I can't control my district IT, I can whine at them, write them letters, request things and so forth but if that is going to take time away from me making sure next day's lesson is done and useful-forget it! I have found some workarounds but they are all duct tape workarounds that don't simplify matters.

Am I looking for a silver bullet?

No, I am looking for people who have access to ideas, tricks, stand-alone applications, Productivity tips. Websites, anything that can be not blocked!

43folders has helped me with time-management, lists, engineering and software paradigms.. But now, I would like you to help me become a better organized, productive 21st century teacher. You all had a teacher you loved, what have you found that would bring your teacher into the 21st digital century?

<3 Thank you for surviving this post. Salindger

Updated 01/27/08, 22:55: The responses I have received are fantastic. Really, you have all given me awesome responses. Unfortunately, I've already seen one response on the web that has painted me as fossil and as someone who clearly doesn't care about technology nor her students. :< I'm sorry. I'm only human. ...Tho, I would have to be around a long time to be fossilized. Is 28 years enough time for me to become a fossil? ;) <3 Salindger

Updated 01/28/08, 05:45: I don't know if I am allowed to do this. Sorry Merlin! But I was browsing through del.ico.us and found people who have linked this article and have linked other useful articles, such as this: Back-to-School with Web 2.0 It's almost two years old. I would not have found it!

<3 Salindger

Updated 01/29/08 21:45: The Response has been overwhelming fantastic. I've already begun to implement some ideas in my off-time. As a student and user of technology-I am no stranger to the idea of "if you want to learn something, you have to spend time doing it." In the long run, a lot of time spent learning, doing, and struggling through a concept, a practice, or a problem-does yield significant and useful results. All teachers know this. All Successful adults know this. That is what we struggle to teach our young ones.

Many of you have been generous to divulge your regions, your history, and passions with me. Tis rude of me to not do the same. I teach in Oregon, I have only worked on my craft for 2 years, and I am the type of person who wants talk about a problem, analyze it, then do something about it. In a large department of, ah, well informed and learned scholars-sometimes the doing takes a little longer for it to happen.

I engage in many discussions with my companions about vertical and horizontal alignment. There is, almost, a naive perspective that once we set down our goals on paper... it is permanent. It is set. How deliciously and dangerously wrong we are to think that-but it allows us some sanity and a goal that is achievable in a short amount of time. It just seems after we practice for a while to almost reach our goals-we go back and change everything. :/

Learning has to evolve, just as our use of technology has to evolve. I have ambitious ideas, I have cool calculators and CBRs, I have friends who want to come into the classroom and talk about their work, and I have my TI-85 and slide-rule to hang around to remind students that we still went to the moon on nothing more than a slide-rule, some vision, and a lot of careful planning. (And thats why we still need to learn about logarithms cuz your phone won't work without them! )

I have shared your responses with my colleagues and they are all looking towards me to implement the ideas and see how I fare with them. And since I am a gadget girl... That means they get to play with my toys.

Really, I don't want to lose this conversation. I don't want it to end either.

<3 Salindger

TechTalkWRLR's picture

School IT Director Viewpoint

I'm not sure what area of the country you are writing from, but after being a Director of IS for several school districts in Illinois over the past decade I can assure you that you are not alone.

The unfortunate thing is that it's usually the IT department that takes the heat and the suffers the pains of frustration that you so clearly expressed ... whether we have much control over the situation or not.

I'd like to discuss just one point that you state repeatedly brings you grief - that you are consistently blocked access to sites that you want to get to. And all the whining (your words!) and letters that you send have no effect. Let me share with you my perspective on why this is:

Internet blocks are primarily put in place in school districts in order to satisfy the government's requirement for a safe environment for children to explore the web - ref CIPA. The libraries fought it and lost. The school districts merely suffer it, because without complying with it you voluntarily forgo tens of thousands of dollars (and on up, depending on the size of your district) every year in fiscal support. Richer districts can ignore this requirement, as they don't receive or need funding from the feds. Different school districts also apply different policies, as there are no firm and fast definitions of what constitutes 'safe' internet access.

In addition, we block access to many external avenues as a simple CYA event. None of my friends or colleagues have ever been called into court to defend that they were blocking too many web sites ... but many have been asked to testify as to why a specific questionable site or means of access was left open. You opine that you can't control your IT Dept.; well, conversely we cannot control a teaching staff that has too many kids to watch, on too many computers, with not enough training or experience in what is appropriate behavior to protect not only themselves but the systems too.

Which hits on another reason we block as much as we do; we also are overworked and overwhelmed with minimal resources. Without filters on network access, those resources get applied to everyday problems like viruses, P2P and FTP clogging valuable (and minimally available) bandwidth, 2nd graders searching on "hairy" potter, and so on. And of course there are the many teachers who feel that their situation is unique and that they have special dispensation to install whatever piece of software makes them feel productive that day ... until the inevitable happens and they need more RAM, more CPU, or the software itself falters and they require assistance from the dreaded and unresponsive IT Department.

Not to complain too much (OK, maybe it's too late!), but at my last district I was managing a WAN comprised of 10 buildings supporting >1800 PC's, 650 full-time employees, 3500 students, bus service, food service, student database systems, VoIP, cell phones, yearly and quarterly funding requests, and of course all the 'paperwork' side of life - such as budgeting, e-rates, 2ce monthly board meetings between the state and our local boards, complying with new and more complicated NCLB data requirements, regular daily meetings with buildings, helpdesk requests and etc. My staff? Why, I had one lead tech, a secretary, and 6 half-time librarian/tech assistants with minimal background in technology.

Imagine trying to maintain working systems in that environment and you will immediately begin looking for lockdown solutions that will ensure some homogoneity of computing environment for support. You will also look for ways to minimize your intrusions further out than simply at the firewall or mail server. And remember, you're trying to do all this with a total budget of less than $-ridiculous. Oh, and did I mention that you're running your VoIP and data over the same 1.5MBps line to support a building of 125 employees? Sure - let's give everyone FTP and P2P access and install google earth while you're at it! ;)

So what and how can you change things? Yelling at, whining, and writing letters to IT won't do it. They already know things are tough and agree with you. Instead, bring this situation up with your superintendent of schools. Bring it up with the school board. Identify lack of resources and solutions to provide quality education. Importantly - look not only at what you can provide to your own classroom, but if it works there - share it! You are a teacher, take what you have learned through your various struggles and teach those around you. If you can get the software and access that has worked for you made into the District standard you have not only helped yourself but every other teacher - and student - there.

But beyond that, keep an open mind - it's highly probably that your district already has solutions to the problems that you are having; they just haven't been capable of, or well staffed enough to effectively share them. Talk one-on-one with your IT Director in a formal setting with some goals ... bring things like "I really want to be able to do my lessons online and in the classroom - can you help me accomplish that?" to the table.

To close this (far too long) comment out - My biggest complaint as an IT Director at school districts was not that so many teachers came to me with problems; it was that so many came to me with "solutions." Basically, they didn't want to hear that we had spent time and manpower implementing [fill in the blank here, e.g., lesson planning software, teacher webs, vpn solutions, whatever] - they wanted us to support whatever their favorite solution was.

Are the solutions teachers come up with sometimes better than the ones that the superintendent backs, the school boards approve, and the IT department laboriously puts into place? Yes, definitely, but trying to provide for all teacher's requests would effectively mean providing for none.

PS ... as a quick aside I eventually gave up, recommended outsourcing my position (putting me out of a job) and going back into corporate. I don't think anyone there is any happier, except perhaps me!




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