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Blunt Advice for Harried Ed-Tech 'Coaches' Offered at ISTE

Philadelphia

The job of the school technology "coach" is to help teachers and administrators become comfortable, competent, and ideally, creative working with digital tools.

If only it were as simple as it sounds.

In practice, the nature of the job requires flexibility, toughness, and a lot of diplomatic skills, a speaker at the International Society for Technology in Education conference told attendees on Tuesday.

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Alyssa Tormala, an English teacher and instructional tech coach at private St. Mary's Academy in Portland, Ore., offered practical tips to a roomful of district educators and tech specialists on how to navigate the joys and despair of coaching.

As schools have become increasingly reliant on all kinds of tech tools, many have designated formal or de facto coaches charged with counseling teachers through often profound changes.

Organizers of ISTE 2015 appear to have taken notice. A number of sessions at this year's conference offered advice to coaches on how to perform their jobs effectively. Tormala's session was packed to capacity, forcing event staff to turn dozens of educators away at the door.

Tech coaches typically cope with a bevy of challenges on the job,  Tormala explained.

Many of them are expected to know how to fix any breakdown with any device, or any loss of connectivity—and right away. They're expected to introduce new technologies, often devices, and work not only with teachers who are eager to learn, but those who are resistant. In some school districts, they're juggling tech coaching duties with responsibilities for classroom instruction, as is the case with Tormala.

Tormala's school launched a 1-to-1 computing program a few years ago, and has been phasing it in. Much of the advice she gave at ISTE grew out of her own experiences at her school.

Among her recommendations to her coaching brethren:

  • Work as "informed collaborators."

Tech coaches are often forced to wear multiple hats, but this might be their most critical task. Informed collaboration means when working with teachers, they make it clear they know the technology—though they may not claim to be experts on everything about it—and they're comfortable trading ideas about how to use it with classroom educators.

"Let's figure out what you want to do in the classroom," was how Tormala described the role, and how "can I offer you suggestions?"

  • Coaching doesn't play out on an orderly schedule (and your bosses shouldn't expect it to).

When tech problems erupt, or teachers want general advice, they tend to want it right now.

Teachers stop coaches in the school hallway for advice, or between classes. When coaches try to set restrictions on the times when they can help their peers, it can create friction, such as teachers complaining they're not available, she said.

When "real coaching" occurs, Tormala said, it's usually a "water-cooler conversation."

  • Find your "village."

Coaches need help from administrators and teachers who will support them and urge them to keep going with important tech projects (and offer honest critiques of their mistakes) in the face of resistance.

  • Know who's really in charge of a school.

Who are the most influential people others will follow, in either embracing or resisting new technology? In some buildings, it's the principal. In others, it's a veteran teacher. Coaches need to court those leaders.

  • Keep P.D. short, engaging, and choice-based.

Teachers are likely to respond best to professional development when they find it fun, and when they're convinced they're going to have real input into how technology's going to be used in their classroom.

  • Know what your job is, and is not.

Some tech coaches are asked to be the fix-it people for nearly everything in a school. One attendee at Tormala's session recalled getting asked to investigate a building's power transformer; others were counted on as experts on overhead projectors and microphones.

If tech coaches' primary jobs are to help their peers master technology, they shouldn't be afraid to "stand firm" and tell administrators not to dump other tasks on them, Tormala advised.

And when working with teachers, tech coaches have to be prepared to sell them on why the tools they're being asked to master will help instruction, and learning.

"I can't force teachers to do anything," Tormala said. "It needs to be a program of invitation and attraction."


See also:

'Flipped' PD Initiative Builds Teachers' Tech Skills

Why Ed-Tech Is Not Transforming How Teachers Teach


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