Most U.S. school districts are approaching their third decade of trying to successfully integrate technology into their classrooms. And during this time, districts have spent large sums of money purchasing classroom technology equipment. But training teachers to purposefully use these digital tools with their students has been far more difficult. And by purposefully, I mean for communication, research, creation and presentation functions, not simply for computer-based drill and practice.
There have been some pockets of success — both at the district and school levels — but there are only a few replicable teacher training models that school district leaders have been able to employ with confidence. The technology coach model is one that works.
Districts use technology coaches in various ways: Some serve several schools throughout the week, and others are assigned to single schools. But the common goal among technology coaches is this: Work with teachers to develop technology-enhanced lessons and instruction, while providing in-class peer mentoring.
Results from a 2016 Education Week teacher technology survey, included in the publication's June 9, 2016, article on technology coaches, show what type of teacher technology training they really need. Just 76 percent of the respondents value the most common form of teacher technology training — district-sponsored technology courses — while 97 percent value the ideas shared by other teachers. So if tech coaches are able to fill that “valued colleague” role, they can have significant impacts in schools.
A 2015 Edutopia article provides a good overview of how the technology coaching model was successfully implemented in one Pennsylvania high school. The article also describes elements of the Before, During and After (BDA) coaching protocol used at the high school, and widely in other districts as well. This BDA process provides the coach and teacher with a clear construct to define their roles, to plan and execute their work together, and then to reflect and refine.
The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) has also developed a useful set of standards for technology coaches. These six ISTE standards cover topics including visionary leadership; teaching, learning and assessments; and content knowledge and professional growth.
But in adhering to the ISTE standards, districts may struggle to find well-qualified teachers to work as technology coaches. From my experience, many teachers are good at using technology. But too often these “techie teachers” are more conversant on technology and less so on leadership and thoughtful pedagogy. So when they’re hired to be technology coaches, they either don’t have the ability to meet teachers at their individual skill levels, or they’re unable to adapt their own tech knowledge to the teachers’ particular needs and content areas.
Districts can help mitigate these issues during the hiring and onboarding processes by developing a detailed job description that clearly defines the technology coach role. And once hired, they can follow up with a thorough and ongoing training program to ensure the new coaches have the skills and support networks necessary to be effective in their new positions.
Technology coaches aren’t free, so unsustainable funding has also undermined many districts’ tech coach programs. Districts often fall prey to competing priorities for their limited resources, and auxiliary classroom positions — like coaches — get cut or reallocated. It’s therefore doubly important that these positions are filled with highly qualified teachers who can become invaluable resources to their districts and schools. In doing so, these tech coaching positions will hopefully have a high survival rate during yearly budget reviews.
It’s no surprise that good technology coaches are prized in schools. Like the life coaches, fitness trainers, financial planners and fly-fishing guides some may employ, a knowledgeable and invested person working to support our personal and professional growth can be a huge asset. Given the investments school districts are making in technology infrastructure and devices, the relative costs of technology coaches may be a bargain.