Barkin’ dawgs and miserably poor policy. . .

You know, it’s been a helluva’ week for me and I’m fixin’ to drop a bit of a rant here on the Radical. To put it simply, I’m tired of the combustible combination of whiny teachers and ineffective policymakers.

Where’d this rather offensive conclusion come from?

The seemingly never-ending negative reactions to my string of entries about new digital tools. (See Delicious, Twitter #1 and Twitter #2). In nearly every conversation that I’ve had away from this blog, teachers have groaned about how they “haven’t got the time” to learn to use new tools or that “technology is an over-rated distraction” in classrooms.

Mike’s recent comment is a pretty good reflection of the sentiment expressed by colleague after colleague:

Twitter. Hmm. Sorry to rain on the parade a bit, but in the daily rush of trying to teach sufficient material, grading, lesson preparation, etc. I find such diversions to be a luxury for which I don’t have time, rather like video games, etc. Yes, I know Twitter isn’t a video game, but the issue is time and usefulness.

Luxurious (and useless) diversions from reality, huh?

Those kinds of responses—which will resonate with anyone who has tried to introduce new technologies to teachers—always leave me completely bewildered because technology is essentially designed to save users time or to enhance the quality of their lives. Washing machines replaced hand wringers and saved housewives (sorry for the sexism) hundreds of hours. Impatient with the stove top, we invented the microwave. Tired of the donkey and the horse-drawn wagon, Ford and Edsel whipped up a newfangled motorized buggy.

The card catalog was replaced by the computer database. The typewriter by the word processor and then the computer. Fireplaces by gas logs. The 15-Kb modem (didn’t those stink) by high speed connections.  The video rental store by instant downloads and pay-per-view. The inkwell by the ball point. The charcoal grill by the George Foreman. The attendance lady by the  online program that I wrestle with every morning.

Do I need to go on any further? (Actually, I’d love to add to the list.  Got any ideas?  Leave them in the comment section.)

And that is exactly the role that tools like Pageflakes, Twitter and Delicious can play for educators who are willing to do a bit of exploring. Essentially, each of these services provides users with immediate access to content that they are likely to find valuable. Someone in one of this weekend’s Educon sessions described these tools as a way to have content of interest pushed directly to them—eliminating the all-too frustrating experience of sifting through thousands of search hits after Googling.

When users find a “network of learners” who share similar interests, digital tools that facilitate collaborative discovery are an incredible time saver. Consider that while I was reading the morning paper and eating a few sausage burritos at the McDonald’s this morning, I found a great free tool that will help me in a presentation I’m making later this month and a wiki that links digital tools to the research of Robert Marzano.

While these types of resources may not be valuable to you, they’ll be invaluable in my work. And I did NOTHING to learn about them except turn on my computer and listen. Had I tried to search for similar resources on my own, I suspect that it would have taken me far longer. (Heck, I just Googled “Marzano, Digital Tools” and came up with 7,150 search results to sift through. Ready to start digging?)

So I get my hackles up when teachers try to tell me that they “don’t have the time” for technology. If anything, it should be the first thing that they make time for because anyone can “plug in” to a network and learn together efficiently. It’s collective intelligence at its best.

Now, as frustrated as I am with the whiny-ness of teachers, I also know exactly where they’re coming from. After all, I’m a full-time classroom teacher. I’m not sitting back in an office Twittering away my day and playing with my feed reader. Instead, I’ve got 60 kids at my classroom door every morning, a thousand papers to grade, parent conferences to have, and (yes, Mike) even lessons to write.

Time is simply the resource that’s the most limited in every school, yet everyone beyond the classroom seems to hold on to the hurtful perception that the work teachers do away from kids is irrelevant. Few people truly recognize just how much time our work really takes.

No where is this misunderstanding more evident than in the results of the North Carolina Teacher Working Conditions Survey—where the amount of non-instructional time available to teachers (or lack thereof) has been linked to higher rates of teacher turnover and to lower rates of student achievement. Time is regularly the area that surveyed teachers express the most dissatisfaction with—and where school leaders look the most clueless.

Consider the results of this question: “The non-instructional time provided for teachers in my school is sufficient.” Percentage of teachers who agreed with this statement:  45%. Percentage of school leaders who agreed with this statement:  76%.

Crazy, huh? Talk about a gaping maw of misunderstanding!

And that misunderstanding is understandably frustrating.  As policy makers and parents continue to demand more from teachers (gotta love an accountability culture, don’t you?), they continue to fail to provide the kinds of support—especially time—necessary for meeting new expectations. That’s a failure, plain and simple.  As my boy Richard Elmore says:

Accountability must be a reciprocal process. For every increment of performance I demand from you, I have an equal responsibility to provide you with the capacity to meet that expectation. Likewise, for every investment you make in my skill and knowledge, I have a reciprocal responsibility to demonstrate some new increment in performance. This is the principle of “reciprocity of accountability for capacity.” It is the glue that, in the final analysis, will hold accountability systems together (Elmore, 2000).

So where does all of this thinking get me?

To the following two conclusions:

First, teachers must confidently embrace a bit of change: Our profession has earned the reputation of being the “Boys who Cry Wolf.” At every turn, we throw the “I-don’t-have-the-time-or- resources-to-do-my-oh-so-hard-job-well-and-that’s-your-fault-so -woe’s-me-woe’s-me-it’s-just-unfair-we-simply-can’t-do-it- because-we’re-overworked-and-underpaid” card on the table.

To lose that stigma—and to regain professional credibility again—we simply must stop shooting down every suggestion and find the capacity within our ranks to improve our own conditions. We’re not as helpless as we like others to think that we are.

Second, policymakers must step up to the plate: My grand-daddy always used to say, “If the dawg’s barkin’, there’s probably a pine cone in his paw.” Great saying, right? His ol’ hound dog was one tough cookie. When it got ornery, there was generally some real issue that needed to be resolved.

The same can be said for teachers. There are real challenges that need to be addressed to enable teachers to succeed in their work. First and foremost, we need to increase the amount of non-instructional time that’s available to every teacher. Yes, this is going to cost a small fortune—but to overlook the need to invest in a teacher’s ability to grow as a learner is pretty short-sighted, isn’t it.

We also need to invest in the right kinds of digital professional development. Tomorrow is a different world—one that is driven by technology. The rate that content is being created simply outpaces our ability to learn it—which requires a different approach to “mastery” on the part of teachers and students.

Mastery in the 21st Century is primarily about learning to use technology to retrieve, evaluate, synthesize and manage information—and (more importantly) to network with other learners. “Digitally prepared children” will know how to use web-based tools to create, communicate and collaborate around areas of personal and professional interest. They will be creators–rather than simply consumers—of information.

It’s simply impossible for teachers who have little personal experience with technology to effectively prepare children for this reality.

(Whew—glad I got that off my chest.)