Overcoming Faculty's Fear and Loathing: One Principal's Approach

Computerphobia. Computer anxiety. Technofear. Call it what you will, the symptoms are the same. You know that computers are here to stay. The school board has spent piles of money on this machine in the corner of your room, and they expect you to learn to use it. The superintendent has hired a computer giant to do the next inservice session for your staff, and you're sure you'll reveal yourself as a "technopeasant." Your principal wants nothing to go home to parents that hasn't been word processed and sent to her first electronically. And that third grader in the back of the room already knows more about computers than you ever will. Add to this your certainty that if you hit any wrong key on that new Power Mac that stares you in the face each day, you will somehow detonate a nuclear bomb that will end life as we know it…

Not Alone

If you feel your stomach tightening over the mere mention of computer literacy, you're not alone. In fact, you share symptoms of anxiety felt by any number of professionals who have been dragged into a technological world they never anticipated when they first considered teaching.

Such was the case in the Brooklin School, a small, rural K-8 school in coastal Maine. Following years of confrontational debate, the community finally agreed to construct a new school building to replace two 60- and 70-year-old structures. In those older buildings, students were still being educated in ways not much different than when the buildings were first erected.

Months of meetings for dedicated teachers, school board members and community folk involved wrestling with key issues facing education today. From these hours of talk emerged a vision for educating Brooklin children for the21st century. Lists of priorities were articulated, shared and recorded. At the top of everyone's list was the need to provide students and teachers with state-of-the-art technology. It was time to take the plunge.

Small Maine School Is Typical

This move toward a more technological school was exciting to most, particularly to students. Many teachers, of course, knew that computers and technology were critical to a successful education and were ardent advocates for the design and purchase of technology-related space and equipment. But many other teachers were also fearful of the implication this would have in their own use -- or lack of -- technology.

Prior to the new building, the school office utilized a computer solely for word processing, and the principal was seen as a real vanguard when she convinced the school board to buy her a laptop computer to facilitate teacher observations. Scattered throughout the school were a few ten-year-old Apple IIs with graphics that made a Gameboy running on low batteries look sophisticated. For student use, four Mac Classics were located in the center hallway, which also doubled as the place where lunch trays were deposited following the noon meal in classrooms.

It was not exactly the Starship Enterprise, but there was enough technology around for teachers and students to realize that computers significantly change the way we can learn, communicate and demonstrate what we know.

With the opening of the new school came the purchase of a new computer for each teacher's desk, a new one for the principal and secretary, a lab with eight computer stations, and a new computer capable of handling sophisticated graphics work in the art room The entire building was networked for an electronic bulletin board to allow the staff to communicate via computers. A laser printer, scanner and digital camera were purchased, and more than a few pairs of knees were knocking over the thought of now learning how to use all this equipment.

Survey Reveals Fears

As principal of this school, I shared in their trepidation to a degree, but at least I was not a skeptic needing to be converted. I knew that our students would use technology to augment their education in ways I couldn't even imagine, but my own lack of imagination was not the stumbling block for me that it was for many teachers. I began to realize that this anxiety about technology was real, must be acknowledged (but not coddled), and decided to find a way for us to articulate together what the issues really were.

Toward that end, I administered a September and a May Computer Opinion Survey, published by the Iowa State University Research Foundation, Inc. The survey's statements were given to all staff members involved in technology training in our school, and they were asked to assess their level of agreement with each statement.

In September, the following appeared to be true, as reflected in the survey. All teachers agreed that having a computer available would improve their productivity. Most felt that a computer would save time and work, could allow them to get a better picture of the facts and figures, and would improve general satisfaction. Teachers were less certain that having a computer available would improve their general satisfaction, but were almost unanimous in believing that having a computer available could make things easier. No one felt that negative about computers in general, and everyone agreed that having a computer available could make things more "fun."

The staff either disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement, "If I had a computer at my disposal, I would try to get rid of it," and most claimed to look forward to a time when computers are more widely used. Everyone was certain they will use computers, yet three teachers admitted that they avoid using computers whenever they can.

Every possible response, ranging from " strongly agree" to "strongly disagree," was circled when staff was asked if they enjoy using computers. While most of the staff did not feel that there are too many computers around now, a few teachers did. All but one teacher felt that "computers are probably going to be an important part of my life," and the mid-range response (agree-slightly agree) was most used in response to the statement "a computer could make learning fun." All felt that they would gain a great deal of satisfaction from using a computer.

The majority of teachers admitted to being uncomfortable when they used a computer, and most confessed that they get nervous just thinking about computers. Only one teacher felt he/she will probably never learn to use a computer, although two felt that computers are too complicated to be of much use to them, personally. Most teachers admitted to feeling intimidated when they had to use a computer, and most felt that computers were smarter than they.

The gamut of responses was chosen in response to the statement, "I can think of many ways that I could use a computer," and the lack of vision for computer use may well have a great deal to do with computer anxiety or apathy. Why learn to use something if you can't imagine how you might apply that knowledge?

What other conclusions can be drawn from this September survey? Clearly there was a fair amount of trepidation about approaching, learning and utilizing the new technology. On the other hand, an open mind, or at least an "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" mentality prevailed, and acceptance of the role technology had assumed in the educational realm was evident.

On-Site Training Proves Key

For the next two semesters, The Brooklin School staff became involved in a computer course, taught by a university professor who came to the school weekly. This is an important point in considering our successful transition into the new school with its new technology.

Our staff could have enrolled in any number of computer training programs, but having the instructor come to them allowed them to stay in comfortable and familiar surroundings with colleagues they trusted and respected, and enabled all training to be specific to the hardware and software purchased by this school. I believe wholeheartedly that having this training on site made a critical difference in the numbers of staff members who participated, as well as in the quick application of new learning that resulted from the course.

Those who participated in the class had a fairly wide range of computer literacy, and considerable ground was covered over the course of the year. In the class, participants learned to use word processing, database and spreadsheet software, and they became daily users of an in-house electronic bulletin board. Creating and importing graphics was mastered, and the use of a scanner and digital camera were also introduced. Our teachers did a great deal of "playing" with multimedia presentation, and quickly taught and encouraged their students to utilize multimedia presentations as a means of demonstrating content knowledge learned in the classroom. By the time the school's annual Science Museum was held in April, a technology component was introduced. Eighth-grade students created multimedia presentations on their chosen museum topic, and thus presented to the community a science concept along with demonstrating the newly acquired technology to a proud -- and impressed -- audience.

The teacher's course also allowed staff to formulate a beginner and an advanced computer competency criteria for students to be "certified" to use the computer lab during unsupervised times. Once older students demonstrated these competencies, they became teachers for younger students. And within a few months, most of the school's students had achieved at least "beginner certification" in the lab. In the final stages, the school acquired access to the Internet, and before long, teachers and students were taking on the monumental task of learning not only how to use the Internet, but how to appropriately harness its capabilities in the classroom.

Learning and integrating new technology was a tall order for this staff, but their success was a true testimony to the power of life-long learning. Today, virtually everyone uses a computer on a daily basis, and some staff members have discovered unrealized talents with technology. Some have taken on unforeseen leadership roles in this realm. Many have gone from teachers whose idea of technology was a calculator, to teachers fighting over the next issue of MacWorld.

The lights in each classroom get turned on as the teacher enters the room each morning, and the classroom computer gets turned on almost in the same breath. Kindergarten students who once "colored everything on the page that begins with a P" are publishing stories, and their "author's page" usually has a photograph of themselves, taken and printed in minutes with the school's camera and laser printer. It almost feels as if this is not the same staff who began the school year -- the transformation is nothing short of miraculous.

Staff and School Are Transformed

While this outward change was obvious, I was eager to get back to the survey statements, this time recorded at the completion of the year's training. While I assumed many responses would be predictable and would reveal the obvious growth, I was nonetheless pleased to see that the layers of anxiety had been peeled away. While they may not have had much computer facility to start with, the staff had begun the year acknowledging the important role technology must play in the education of today's student. My greater concern, then, became how to get them over their own fears, which I worried might be assumed by some students who waited for their anxious teacher to lead the way. The May survey alleviated all my fears in short order.

Thanks to a full year of professional time to learn, to experiment, to make mistakes, and just to "play" on the computers, staff and teachers all now claim to actually enjoy computers. In the re-administered survey, they almost unanimously agreed that computers were probably going to be an important part of their lives, and no one felt uncomfortable when they have to use one. I was equally pleased to see their level of confidence rise, for unlike the September survey, no one admitted to feeling "intimidated" by the computers, and no one felt computers were "too complicated" to be of much help.

And perhaps best of all, everyone agreed with the statement, "I can think of many ways that I could use a computer." May they now only be limited by their -- and their students' -- considerable imaginations.

Shelley Borror Jackson is the principal of The Brooklin School, a K-8 school in Brooklin, Maine. She has been a columnist for the International Reading Association and usually writes about literacy issues.

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/1997 issue of THE Journal.