By Penny Bach Evins
Lower School Head, Isidore Newman School, New Orleans, La.
(M.Ed. ’96 Counselor Education)
The last time I was a student in the formal sense was about fifteen years ago. Curry did a fantastic job, thanks to the professors and partnerships with local schools, agencies, and individuals of preparing me for the real world of education. Like many of my peers, I sat in Dr. Sowa’s Stress and Stress Management class, Dr. Pate’s Legal and Ethics class, and others that gave me life skills and career information.
Moreover, the gift of trial by fire in a school setting before I thought I was ready was invaluable. But all of this, of course, was before the advent of smart phones and ubiquitous technology in all walks of life. How can we most help educators who are interested in time-management survive work that refuses to stay at work?
My training was in counselor education. I have served as a lower school, middle school, and upper school guidance counselor. In addition, I have served as a middle school head, and now as a lower school head. In each of these roles, much of my work occurs without the three dimensional human being or person with whom I am communicating in front of me. The school day ends and entirely different parts of the job commence. Of course, planning and grading has always gone home with us after the workday ends. Now, however, cell phones and email make it possible to call on teachers and administrators from any place at any time. Sometimes the issues are important and urgent; however, frequently the ease of communication usurps the filter regarding the need to communicate. It is a common conversation theme amongst educators that the new norms of communication have created a need to have clear boundaries and policies regarding communication and those in the profession of education.
8:15 a.m.: “Do Soffe shorts meet the uniform guidelines for a dress down day?”
1:15 p.m.: “Is it true that the cafeteria is no longer serving juice?“
9:45 p.m.: “My son told me that he wasn’t allowed to see the questions on the smart board during his math quest today and I am wondering why this was so?”
Worried, hurried, and invested parents now have the ability to contact and communicate with those who mentor and educate their children as learners, citizens, and friends without having to schedule or wait for a parent/teacher conference. A response is expected and we owe parents the courtesy of timely information. At the same time, what we write can be altered, misunderstood, and forwarded to the masses in a way that face-to-face conversations did not invite. New policies and procedures are necessary to create boundaries and facilitate sanity in our careers as educators.
I hear the voices of my U.Va. professors, “Keep it simple and use your instincts.” The child’s best interest is paramount. This must remain central.
Teaching is unique among jobs in the modern world in that it requires being in a specific place at a specific time. As much as we endeavor to make technology work in a positive capacity for our students, we should never agree to allow it to jeopardize the precious human interaction we share with our students. Parents send their children to school in order to learn how to connect with other people, how to learn in tandem, and how to build relationships. In sum, our space is a precious place where kids negotiate in healthy ways with other kids and their teachers.
I can hear some in the audience muttering that Kahn Academy is the future classroom; however, we cannot teach phonemic awareness from a monitor and have the same connections with a budding learner as a whole child as we can in a kindergarten classroom where Carol Tomlinson’s practices of differentiation are abundant and the heart of the child, not Skype, is front and center.
It is critical that we let parents know that the primary responsibility of our teachers involves interacting with and instructing students, rather than responding to e-mails and voice mails. We must not allow the instant response norms of our society at large to infiltrate the school setting. Don’t get me wrong, I agree with what Chris Whittle articulated to me fifteen years ago: Technology is the new pen and paper and fantastic, at that. However, parents send their children to school, our schools, in order to learn how to connect with, learn in tandem, build relationships and negotiate how to share a swing and solve complex math equations with other human beings. Technology can get in the way of our teachers’ ability to guide and monitor such relationships.
Having set times during which faculty are expected to and allowed to respond to e-mails will give them a necessary hiking map on this beautiful, but potentially treacherous journey as an educator. Letting parents know that teachers’ primary role is interacting with and instructing their students rather than responding to e-mails or voice mails will let parents know that the instant response norms of our society at large do not pertain to the sacred world of schools.
As educational leaders, we must hold tight to the essential parts of our job and let go of the rest, when need be. Even the most well-thought-out lesson plan can go astray if a teachable moment rears its beautiful head. In the same vein, it is imperative to remain in touch with core values and the call to serve through human contact that brought us into the field of education in the first place. An instantaneous response to an upset parent involving the latest technological tool is satisfying and may make us feel professional, but Dr. Franks, my Elementary Counseling Professor and advisor, originally allowed me to see that it couldn’t be nearly as valuable as maintaining eye contact with a child who probably benefits more from the attention in that moment when we feel tempted to start clearing the inbox.
Is technology fun, fascinating, applicable, and necessary as a tool in our classrooms? Yes! However, there is a time and a place for everything. The carpool line is meant for greeting a child with a smile. The use of a smartphone in that setting is toxic. “Stop and think, before you act” is the lesson we repeatedly impart to help younger students develop self-regulation. Perhaps educators and parents should review this valuable lesson. We should all learn to do better in school and encourage rules that make technology work for and not against our kids and ourselves.