Teaching Teachers: Considerations for Design

When I was in college, I couldn’t wait to get into my own classroom. The learning and camaraderie was fun, but I just wanted to be in charge and put all those things I was learning into action. Theory is one thing, but I wanted to see it in practice. I wanted to be in charge. For that reason, I know I developed some of the same behaviors antithetical to learning in my own classroom that I now struggle with when I work with teachers. One of my goals is to design instruction that helps my own students, most of whom are teachers, to overcome some of my own poor behaviors.

Teaching can be a lot of fun. One of my favorite parts of teaching is seeing kids learn something new. There’s no audible “click,” but often it seems like you can actually see that change when a kid processes something new and develops a new understanding or adds something new to their repertoire. It happened a lot with my middle school students, but I could still experience it with my high schoolers. That’s not always the case with adults, though, who tend to be more resistant. Typical of adults, it shouldn’t be surprising that with so much learning going on in my own classroom, that the one that was most resistant to learning was…me.

It’s not like I shut out the possibility altogether, but there’s a strange switch that occurs with many people when they move from student to teacher. I know I went through it, and I run into it time and again with the teachers with whom I work. I’m not sure how it happens. It may be an artifact of our school culture, but happen it does, at least in many cases.

In most schools, teachers work alone. The bell rings, they close the doors, and it’s time to get to work. They’re in charge and what they say goes. There’s a saying in education, “don’t smile until Christmas,” and I’m not the only one guilty of perhaps embodying this philosophy a bit too strictly.

Now that I work with teachers and even teach teachers, some of these strange cultural behaviors are more readily apparent, and they really make me struggle as I try to learn from and help my teachers learn new things. Following are some behaviors I know I’ve exhibited that are now challenges I face when designing learning for teachers.

I don’t know it all. There was a time when teachers may have known it all—or at least all the content they needed to impart for a test or entry into a career. But there’s more to teaching than just the facts and figures. Many of the teachers I run into truly do know all of the facts, figures, and processes covered in their curriculum. But it astounds me that I run into many who can’t tell me why they’re important. Why study math? Science? Social studies? Some of the answers I receive are astounding, and not all that convincing.

In my first classrooms, I tried to know it all, and many of my students expected me to, but now it’s different. I’ve seen that not only that I don’t know it all but that I never really will. There’s just too much to know! And more to know day after day. So now I tackle my online instruction as an opportunity to learn rather than a requirement to teach.

I learn new things from my students and the teachers I work with every week. They share their experiences, new resources they’ve found, and we sometimes work through problems together. The process really helps me, and I believe that those who are willing to work with me in this way also benefit. I tell my students that activities are a conversation, and if I misinterpret or misunderstand something, they should let me know. We should talk about them so we both better understand each other. That said, I rarely have a student speak up or contradict what I say or comments on their work. Why? Well, they’re almost all teachers and many are still playing the know-it-all game.

One of the most powerful things I’ve learned to say, albeit reluctantly at first, is “I don’t know.” But I can’t leave it at that. I may not know, but we can figure it out together, or you can help me to learn it. That has been a great benefit. There’s been one more benefit to realizing I don’t know it all. A tremendous burden has been lifted from my shoulders because one thing I do know now is, I don’t have to know it all. Whew! Now if I could just convince a few others…

I’m not always right. This is a tough one. The stereotypical image of a teacher is of the all-knowing font of knowledge that has the final say. Being the final authority is an approach I probably did take more often than not when I first started teaching, but it’s really a trap. I know why I did it. It made me appear to be the authority that my students could trust. But if you want to wear those shoes, the first time you aren’t right, you then spend most of your time doing damage control and you never really gain that trust back.

This issue comes to the forefront when commenting on the work others have done. Outside of the classroom, this is pro forma. I remember the first paper I wrote for my new “corporate” job (I use quotations because I worked in a non-profit with a lot of other former teachers, so it was more corporate than a school, but not entirely so). I had just published my dissertation and thought I had this writing thing down. The paper I got back was covered in red pencil from an editor. I was livid! How could this be? I had a Ph.D.! I was the expert!

In the end, what happened was I learned that while I knew a few things about educational technology, our editors knew a lot more than I did about writing, especially writing for different audiences. Their comments weren’t intended to be punitive, but informative. Sometimes they were intended to make me think deeper about my topic and maybe to consider different perspectives. They were actually trying to make me sound better, perhaps smarter, and to make my writing better so people might think I was always right (well…maybe right most of the time). I began to trust them and rely on their feedback.

Giving feedback to teachers is a challenge. If a teacher works under the mindset that they are always right, even a simple question can shut down communication. At least once in every class I teach I have students tell me they are struggling with my class and feel like they’re failing. Generally, they have the highest grades in the class and are exemplary students, but I may have posed questions or even taken a point or two off an assignment. To those students, less than perfect is failure. I gave up on perfect long ago and am much happier for it.

In terms of design, I try to be very confirming with my feedback. I try to pose questions rather than make statements, pull in references or data, but even those can cause some people to raise their shackles. Very often, however, I do have students that make erroneous statements or flawed or conclusions. At this point, I’ve taken the stand that it’s better to let them know than to let it slide by. It can take its toll on communication, but communication has to take a back seat to learning.

I can’t do it alone. A former colleague of mine once said, “Collaboration is an unnatural act conducted by two nonconsenting adults.” It may seem that way, but collaboration has become one of the most necessary skills for success in the world of work—in just about any occupation. It should also be true in education, but many of the educators I work with don’t see it that way.

I have to admit that working in cooperative groups was one of the most difficult things I had to learn once I left the classroom and worked in “the corporate world.” But the truth is that since I don’t know it all and I’m not always right, having other people who knew things and could do things I couldn’t do actually made me more effective. Our skills and knowledge often complemented each other. In this case, I really believe that the sum of the parts was greater than the whole, especially since collaboration can lead to creative solutions or opportunities that I just couldn’t come up with on my own. I just didn’t have the experiences or knowledge to do so.

The 21st Century Skills movement has encouraged educators to provide students the opportunities to collaborate and build collaborative skills, but I find few teachers willing to work collaboratively themselves. At this point, I encourage but don’t require collaboration in my online courses. When collaboration is an option, I try to provide structures for collaborating, perhaps job aids or templates, and I encourage collaborators to reflect on the activity. What did each person do? What did they bring to the table? What was the benefit? Collaborating with someone new, however, seems to still be a challenge, and until the participants feel comfortable and realize they don’t know it all and aren’t always right, it can be a slippery slope to traverse.


I’m still working on these factors in my learning design and consulting work. Sometimes I think I should go in and pretend to be the all-knowing font of knowledge who can’t be wrong—I think teachers expect it of me. But it’s a loosing game in the end. I’ll keep plugging away and hope you share some ideas you have for designing better learning for teachers.




Bringing the World to Your Language Classroom: The ePals Global Community

ePals logoLanguage teachers have long had a variety of technology-based resources available to support their instruction. Language labs with audio and video recordings, texts and workbooks, and other supporting materials go well back in to the era of analog media, and the digital revolution has only increased the number and type of interesting and helpful resources available to support language acquisition in today’s classroom. When I ask language teachers what needs still remain, many respond that it’s difficult for them to find native or fluent language speakers that their students can interact with. Most have access to a wide range of print materials and recordings they can use with their students, but finding a way for students to really engage with fluent language speakers remains a challenge.

In researching options over the past year to determine how language teachers might use technology to address this need, my paths kept crossing with Dr. Rita Oates, vice president of education markets for ePals. I’ve known about ePals for years, but there was some sort of synchronicity with our crossings, from her presentations in this world at the national ISTE technology conference in Denver last summer to my attending a session she presented in Second Life last fall. When we both appeared on the roster of an online learning Ning this Spring, I thought it was a sign I couldn’t resist and asked her to share some information about ePals and how educators from across the world are using ePals’ services to connect schools, classes, and students, especially in support of language acquisition.

More than a Pen Pal

In the textbook I co-authored and in workshops I present, I use ePals as one example that I encourage teachers of all disciplines to investigate, because the global connections it provides support multiple content areas and learning goals. In fact, ePals may best be known for successfully connecting classrooms from across the world so students (and teachers) can learn from each other and gain a better understanding the nuances of culture, society, politics, and exploring everything from what kids in other countries do for fun, have for lunch, and learn about in school. In fact, to date, ePals has connected more than 600,000 classrooms (that’s just classrooms, not people) in more than 200 countries or territories—for free! They have more than 2500 new schools sign up for their services every month.

Students from Sarah LaComb's French class in New York meeting their ePals form Arras, FranceStudents from Sarah LaComb’s French class in New York meeting their ePals from Arras, France

That all sounds good for some kind of classroom sharing, but in communicating with Rita, I wanted to know if ePals offered specific services that could help meet that one big need—providing access to native or fluent language speakers. She responded that this is one of the two main reasons teachers sign their classrooms up for ePals, the other being English as a second language teachers in countries where English is not the primary language looking for English practice for their students. If you think about it, it’s the same reason, really, with interaction with native language speakers being the ultimate goal. Need…meet solution.

Example of a French class in Spain seeking ePalsExample of a French class in Spain seeking ePals

The Menu: Taste or Feast

ePals offers a variety of services for educators, many for free, with new services developed and offered based on input from the educators that participate in its programs. One of the most common starting points for new members is the ePals Global Community, which is the traditional classroom connection that many people associate with a pen pal connection. But, of course, it has a 21st Century twist.

The ePals Global Community was built by educators for educators, so the sharing has learning outcomes in mind. The primary resource for sharing is e-mail, which might be common in American schools but not so in all participating countries. ePals provides a secure, filtered e-mail environment to support communication that includes several levels of protection for students. They hold TRUSTe certification, an especially rigorous data security certification, that makes them well suited to work with children of all ages, including those younger than 13. (According to the Children’s Internet Protection Act, parents must provide consent for children under 13 to enter data to an online service, which is why sites like Facebook do not allow these younger people to participate.)

Teachers can choose to moderate all, some, or no messages before they are sent, and can request to receive notification of all or just questionable communications. ePals also offers the option of an online translation solution that supports 58 languages, and that number keeps growing. Many classes go beyond exchanging short e-mail messages and share everything from poems, stories, multimedia presentations, to video. Others have incorporated videoconferencing for real-time interaction, which obviously requires some coordination depending on time zones and school calendars. You can view a short video presentation by students with emerging Spanish skills from Darlington Community High School in Wisconsin at http://www.epals.com/media/p/236857.aspx.


The Teacher View of ePals Message Center

The Teacher View of ePals Message Center

There are also student forums that are organized by topic and a Student Media Gallery, which provides a safe and secure place for teachers to post student work. Students can communicate with other students from across the globe on a range of topics that they find interesting, from the impression of Justin Bieber’s hairstyle to the impact cheating has on schoolwork. The forums are moderated by real people and nothing gets posted without review. Oates notes that music and sports are some of the most popular topics, however, the single most popular social issue based on student responses is “Do glasses make you a nerd?” So while the teacher-moderated communications in the ePals Global Community may be more formal and stress the use of academic language, the student forums provide a level of engagement through social interaction with other students with similar interests.

Teachers can choose the purpose and intensity of interaction, from once a month, once a week, or several times a week. It just depends on what they work out with the teachers they collaborate with. For example, one teacher required her students to compose three sentences twice a week to share with students in their ePals collaborating class in Italy. Oates recounted that the response from Italian students would often incorporate cognates that were familiar to them but not so much to the American students, who often had to look them up in order to reply—emphasizing the difference between academic and social language use and building connections between the two languages. (As an interesting aside to that particular story, the scores for the American students on their tests of English writing improved so much after the experience that the teacher was investigated by the state to ensure that the students hadn’t cheated!)

Teacher request for connecting via languageTeacher request for connecting via language

How to Get Started

One of the best ways to get started is to visit the ePals website at www.epals.com. The home page scrolls the news ePals classrooms so you can see where the classes are located and view a profile with the age and grade level and number of students in each class and the type of interaction the teachers are looking for. A search feature allows you to find additional classrooms from the hundreds of thousands that are registered in the system based on location, grade, interest, and other parameters. You can also sign up your class on the ePals website but all new members are reviewed and must be approved before their requests are posted or they are able to participate in any activities.

If you’re not sure how you’d like to interact with another classroom, ePals has some suggestions and offers other products and services that could serve as a focus of a project. For example, in2books is a curriculum for grades three through five that incorporates eMentoring, and the ePals LearningSpace is an online collaborative environment that encourages the sharing of curriculum and supports common Web 2.0 tools, like blogs, wikis, and forums. New services are developed and delivered based on input from ePals uses, so you can have a say on what additional services might be helpful.

One of the many projects ePals offers participantsOne of the many projects ePals offers participants

If you need more information, it’s likely you’ll run across Rita or one of the ePals team members at a conference, but in case you don’t, you can attend a free webinar to learn more about ePals. Rita actually presented the webinar I attended. To sign up for the ePals 101 webinar, sign up at http://epals.101.sgizmo.com. Get other questions about ePals answered at support@corp.epals.com.

There are other electronic pen pal services that you can investigate, so compare and find the solution that is best for you. I do want to thank Dr. Rita Oates, however, for working with me and sharing information about the technology-based solutions ePals provides that language teachers may want to use to address the critical need of student interaction with native or fluent speakers. It was nice to move from an awareness of the program to a better understanding of how teachers are using these services in their classroom. If you’ve used ePals or a similar program, I’d enjoying hearing about your experiences, as well.