I’m a teacher and whereas I used to think my students couldn’t learn without me, I’m no longer so sure.  Recently I found myself asking the question, “do my students still need me?”  Sure I show up each day, display notes, video or other lesson materials on a board, and lead a class, but in a digital world where information is so readily available am I needed?

The scenario that prompted this question was this: a former student contacted me over my much coveted Spring Break to ask me how to make a website for his Dad’s business.  (I teach technology classes, by the way, including Web Design to middle school students.)  Again, this was a former student.  I taught him last year when he was in 7th grade, and he has not taken my Web Design class.  He only knows I teach a Web Design class.  This student, Chris, wanted to spend his Spring Break building a website for his Dad’s home building and re-modeling business.  I was taken aback when I saw his email requesting my assistance.  My initial thought was that there was no way an 8th grade student would be able to build a professional website for his Dad’s respectable business without ever setting foot in a Web Design class, especially in a week’s time.  Although I was skeptical, I like Chris and admired his ambition, so one sunny afternoon I sat outside on my patio and called him.

Our discussion was brief, and in that short time we discussed his Dad’s website needs.  I gave him advice about website-building platforms and their various features and limitations.  I ultimately recommended he try Weebly Pro.  We discussed the cost of this service as well as the process to obtain a domain name.  I did not teach him how to do one thing, but instead used my knowledge and experience to guide him to the right resources based on his needs. The how part was entirely in his hands.

I expected Chris to contact me again either over Spring Break or the following week with questions related to how to build the website.  He didn’t call or email.  In fact, the next time I talked to Chris was in passing in the hallway at school.  He stopped briefly to tell me he had finished his Dad’s site and that I should check it out.  I checked it out later that afternoon and was absolutely amazed at how professional the site looked!  It had a custom domain name, custom logo, high resolution image slideshows, social networking icons, and an interactive contact form.  Although I was so proud of Chris, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of doom.  What about all those lesson plans and resources I’d spent hours creating to teach my Web Design students?  Chris hadn’t seen any of my presentations or examples, yet his website was as good if not better than some work my Web Design students were creating.  Was all my hard work for nothing?  Could my 8th grade students really teach themselves what I’d been working so hard to teach them?

The answers to these questions had to be “no”, right?  Otherwise, why even have well-educated and qualified teachers in the classroom?  As I pondered over these questions in the following weeks, I made a point to pay more attention to my own teaching.  Where was my assistance most valued and needed, and what could students do more of on their own using available digital resources?

I experimented more with how I spent my time lesson planning and teaching.  I spent more time finding and evaluating digital resources instead of creating my own resources.  I also spent a lot of time pondering creative ways to fully engage my students.  Chris was obviously so dedicated to creating the best possible website because it was for his Dad’s business.  This meant that I had to allow for more flexibility and choice in my classroom.  I’ve always been flexible and given choices, but I wanted to try giving more choice so that learning became truly personalized.  Admittedly, there were days when my classroom felt chaotic because students were each engaged in different activities.  I suppose it was organized chaos, but chaos nonetheless.  I am a career-status teacher.  There was a time as a beginning teacher when the thought of chaos, organized or not, would have terrified me especially if it were noticed by mentor teachers or administrators.

On that note, I also found myself sitting at my desk more as opposed to standing in front of the classroom talking.  This was a big no-no in my teacher education training program!  Fear the day when an administrator walked in and saw a classroom of students with a teacher sitting at her desk!  Teachers have been trained to stand and walk around constantly monitoring students.  But wait!  I teach in a one-to-one computer environment and have a program on my computer that allows me to see and interact with every device.  My students have also learned to G-chat questions to me which is particularly helpful for my shyer students.  With students working on various activities at various paces, I can keep up better and interact more using the available technology.  Don’t get me wrong, I still circulate the classroom, but when the class is at its busiest, I need to be at my computer.

Other observations are as follows:

  • Not all digital resources are created equally.  Although my students and I found a lot of available material online, I was needed to vet them.

  • It is ok to not know all the answers! The teacher can’t be the expert on everything students want or need to know. Have you ever had a moment as a student where a teacher told you something that you didn’t believe was quite right, or, the flip side, as a teacher have you ever answered a question incorrectly or not at all because you just weren’t sure of the answer and didn’t want your student to know? With the World Wide Web at their fingertips, students can very quickly find an answer and know whether or not their teacher is correct.  This can be so hard for some teachers who are accustomed to being the expert in their subject area.  In an ever-changing world where answers we once knew to be true change or evolve, we must be adaptable.  It is advantageous to teach students how to find their own answers as opposed to receiving them directly from the teacher.

  • Get personal!  Digital resources make personalized learning so much easier by providing more options and greater flexibility.  Know your students and where to send them for more information. If students know where to go for what they want to know, they will challenge themselves and achieve a much deeper level learning.

  • Teachers are needed to motivate and inspire!  Students experience frustrations and failures.  As young learners, they need someone to teach them that failure is part of learning and help them get re-focused and goal-oriented.

  • Don’t fear the unknown.  It’s ok to experiment with new ways of learning and teaching using the multitude of available technology resources.  Not everything will go as planned, but the successes you experience will far outweigh the failures.  Students must know it is ok to try new things, and what better way to learn that than for their teachers to show them.

  • Students need teachers to provide a safe and structured learning environment.  Learning may take place with digital resources, but without a structured learning environment where teachers and students collaborate effectively, students will not be able to make the most of what they have learned.

  • Students need guidance from their teachers.  Even though Chris built the website largely on his own, he undoubtedly had the guidance of his father who had a vested interest in Chris’s success.  Not all students have this type of support and need someone, their teacher, to be invested in their success.

  • Even though it takes time to implement change in a classroom supportive of 21st Century Skills, that time will be gained back later.  Using technology tools effectively and efficiently ultimately saves time for both teacher and student.  It is increasingly important to spend precious planning time finding and evaluating digital resources as opposed to creating them.  Also, technology tools allow us to share information rapidly.  (This blog, for example, is a great way to learn from teachers all over the country.)  Using shared information from knowledgeable professionals saves time otherwise spent on finding the information yourself.  Share, and share alike!

Just recently, I ran into Chris’s parents at a baseball game.  They made a point to thank me for all the help I gave Chris with his Dad’s website.  Their exact words were “he couldn’t have done it without you.”  Even though I felt as if I’d done little or nothing to help Chris, being able to point him in the right direction was what he needed most and I had done that.

In conclusion, my answer to the question, “do my students still need me?” is yes!  They may need me more than ever to help them make sense of all the information that is available to them. I believe that even though teachers are greatly needed, what we’re needed for is changing.  It is no longer sufficient to impart our wisdom to young minds.  More importantly, it is our job to manage what, when, why, and how our students learn.

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