Tennessee: Technology Coaches in the Workplace: Professional Development Takes a New Spin in Tennessee

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Taking a year or two away from regular classroom teaching duties, Tennessee's technology coaches are the key people in a varied and innovative site-based professional development program launched with the state's competitive EdTech grant program. Like their athletic counterparts, these tech coaches are experienced players in the game that they teach their team. Despite what most people think, however, the game is not technology. Tennessee's EdTech Launch grant program sets out to enhance the education of children through technology. In this effort, technology is simply a tool that all the team members must learn to understand and use.

The technology coach's job is to make sure skilled professionals have structured opportunities to experiment with technology in the context of curricular goals and to adapt their own teaching practice to make use of technology in ways that support student learning. The program is implemented differently in every school, but each shares certain characteristics such as:

  • A full-time technology coach;
  • Professional development designed around curriculum;
  • Individual and small group meetings to share practices;
  • Regular reflective journaling with individualized feedback; and
  • Celebrations of success that highlight student results.

All of this sounds well and good, but why has Tennessee opted for this approach to EdTech?

Like many other states, Tennessee has seen technology initiatives come and go. It even structured its Technology Literacy Challenge Fund (TLCF) grant program to encourage a large number of teachers to use Internet resources in everyday instruction. But Tennessee saw no wholesale embrace of technology as an effective tool for everyday teaching. Tennessee invests its funds in statewide Internet access for all schools, but technology funding at the local level remains a discretionary item. We needed something to break the ensuing stalemate - to get all teachers in a school using technology as part of daily practice to enhance student learning. We needed something that would cling to a school's bones once the program was over. We needed something that would become part of a school's character - much as technology has become an undisputed presence in today's business world. We believe that technology can play a critical role in enriching every child's opportunity to become master of his or her own learning.

To do this, the state asked the question, "What could we do to get an entire faculty integrating technology on a commonplace basis?" The first and obvious answer was simple: having enough technology to make it possible. But behind the obvious answer lay a far more daunting challenge: We repeatedly saw that teachers who already had a wealth of teaching methods only tended to dabble around the edges of using technology. Even when it was a professional research, communication or presentation tool for teachers, technology still was not something the students were regularly using as a creative learning tool. The state hypothesized that a full-time indigenous technology coach, working all year with the teachers in their own classrooms, and in small planning teams examining the curriculum, might bring about school-level systemic change.

Selecting a coach from existing faculty is not without problems. The coach is thrust into a position of peer leadership, where coping effectively with quasi-authority issues is not always simple. However, a coach who is already part of the faculty and who has taught the same children in others' classes is far more credible and more readily accepted than an outside expert would be in a professional development role. Nevertheless, providing a classroom teacher with such responsibility in a new role could be a formula for disaster unless the state was confident that the coach really understood technology integration. Too important to leave to chance, and knowing that artfully worded grant applications can disguise reality, the state designed an intense training program for the new technology coaches in concert with instructional design specialists working under the auspices of our R*TEC (Regional Technology in Education Consortia). Conducted shortly after the grant awards, and then again as the school year is under way, the workshops build the spirit of community enterprise among the coaches.

As Tennessee awards its third year of technology coach grants, another key element emerges as critical to success. The school's new venture requires constant formative assessment practice so that the coach is able to adjust the program's focus over time. Thus, the grant requires all coaches to keep a weekly reflective journal that the state program director reads every month. The state takes seriously its responsibility to use the journals as a lens through which it develops a nurturing relationship with each coach. The rich dialogue between the coach and the director further helps the state steer the enterprise on a more global level; thus, emerges the future.

As the state works carefully with each EdTech grant school, it faces the question that begs every innovation: If such a program works, can it be taken to scale statewide? In deference to the fiscal realities that plague state governments everywhere, Tennessee cannot realistically promise a full-time tech coach and optimum hardware installations in every school. Sending half of the EdTech funds to districts under the formula award process further dilutes the degree to which the coach program can saturate the state. So how will the state cope with this reality?

The strategy is to invite the EdTech Launch schools, and their forerunner pilot schools, to apply to become professional development centers. Just as their own coach led them in using ordinary technology tools to enrich the student learning experience, so would teacher cadres who work with teacher teams from other schools in their geographic region. In keeping with the "launch" theme of the EdTech program, which Tennessee first piloted in the final year of TLCF, the professional development centers imagined for the 2005-06 school year are called "Orbit" schools. Rather than resting solely on the shoulders of a single technology coach, the Orbit centers will orchestrate teachers from various grade levels in a variety of disciplines to provide ongoing practical professional development to those who are ready. The Orbit plan will make it possible to come full circle in providing technical assistance to those districts whose EdTech formula money might otherwise be spent in unfocused ways. To prepare for cooperative agreements between school districts, the Launch program embraces school mentorships. Therefore, those who have gone before help new grantees in any number of supporting roles, sharing effective practice in a form that classroom teachers can immediately access. What is so exciting is watching the web grow across the state. It is schools and local school districts that own their programs. Providing the catalyst for site-based programs that utilize and develop the expertise of teachers coaching teachers is the unique vision that characterizes what Tennessee has undertaken with its Title II, Part D competitive grant program.

And to think, this started with a few teachers taking a year or two away from regular classroom teaching duties in order to help their peers truly integrate technology in very ordinary, everyday ways. Technology coaches in Tennessee are making this happen, and the teachers they work with are amazed at how far they've come. But the children in these schools are the true beneficiaries. As one coach recently observed in a journal entry: "This year has taught me that as teachers we were making technology use way too hard. We may be unsure of technology but our students are not. If we will simply give them the opportunity for computer use, they will take it from there and need very little assistance from us."

Online Resource

The "Technology Coach Handbook" is a publication that the Appalachian Technology in Education Consortium developed as a result of their work with our technology coaches. It is designed to help technology coaches, technology resource teachers, curriculum integration specialists, technology coordinators and district instructional technologists integrate technology into K-12 curricula. The Handbook is available online at http://techcoach.memphis.edu.

This article originally appeared in the 07/01/2004 issue of THE Journal.

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