4 ways to help build teachers’ technology skills

Technology is more important than ever, so school leaders have to find ways to help the most tech-adverse staff adapt to this new way of working, says Jennie Devine

When schools in Italy closed last March owing to Coronavirus, there were two major sources of stress among staff: the logistics of childcare while working from home and how to implement online teaching.

As a senior manager, I was able to support the first concern through understanding, helping to arrange schedules, and showing my appreciation. As for online teaching, though, it was a different story.

Many teachers relished the new challenge but there were some who felt overwhelmed by online teaching because they “don’t do computers”. Tackling this was a vital part of senior managers’ roles. And even when we returned to the classroom, we knew that remote learning could return at any moment.

Here are four ways that I found helped boost teachers’ skills, which remain as relevant now as then.

1. Help them realize that they have more skills than they think

Applications and programs have developed common vocabulary and iconography for commands. A hard disk equals “save,” a magnifying glass means “search,” a house icon takes you “home” and so on.

Realizing that digital language has become reasonably standardized can help less confident staff realize that they can use basic commands in almost any new software.

This is especially important to reiterate for teachers who may have dabbled with computers several years ago. It can be slightly counterintuitive for older teachers to realize that programs have become less complicated to use, even as their functionality has increased.

This mindset change can be a key first step forward.

2.  Don’t put your best person on the job

It might seem tempting to have the most confident computer user take on mentoring a newbie; their mastery and integration of technology will be an inspiration.

This was my thinking when I paired up the tech superstar with someone who still mistrusted email. However, throughout the sessions, it became clear that the one teacher was so far advanced that it was extremely hard for her to start, essentially, from scratch.

Additionally, her prowess with the computer intimidated the colleague, who felt inadequate, and any reassurances of “Don’t worry, this is easy” just led to self-recriminations when the task proved challenging. Through no fault of their own, this combination actually made the problem worse.

I changed tack and asked someone else to step in, someone who was tech-competent, was a good problem solver, and who had a positive attitude towards learning how to further use technology.

This provided a great role model as their relative lack of expertise, combined with a desire to learn and ability to deal with hiccups, provided emotional support and a pathway for the learner.

3.  Explain that most tech nightmares can be fixed

Due to the general horror stories about people “losing all their work” or “erasing all the files,” reluctant users of technology live in fear of making major, unfixable errors with technology.

As managers, we must create an environment where it is OK to make mistakes. Furthermore, when helping teachers acquire new skills, it is important to show them what can go wrong and reverse the problem.

Folders get put inside other folders, we accidentally delete all our emails or erase a document we are working on. But search bars find files, items in the bin can be retrieved, emails can be recovered, and the “undo” function on Word and other software means most “lost” work is not lost, just temporarily invisible and quickly returned.

If staff is shown that catastrophic errors are not what they seem and are actually easily solved, it will put them at ease.

It is also important for them to have a clear support network. Who should they contact if there is an issue?

Make clear that they are not alone and that, whether it is a word-processing issue or a smoking computer problem, they know who to ask.

4.  Balance what they want to do and what you need them to do

Staff members need to access emails, enter grades, complete paperwork, and write reports on computers.

However, trying to undo the psychological stress of years of computer avoidance is a long-term process, and a straight path is not always the best.

Speak to the staff member at the outset, ask them what they would like to be able to do, and set that as an initial goal, perhaps even prioritizing their personal goal above some school goals.

One of the teachers who shunned tech was keen to be able to take photos, save them to the computer, and put them in a PowerPoint to parents. Though this meant delaying some school goals, the newly found confidence this teacher had after their success paid dividends in terms of a change in attitude.

Her next PowerPoint included music and videos she had taken of the children.

Though the process of acquisition of digital literacy can be a long and frustrating one, helping staff members tackle that mountain can be extremely rewarding for everyone involved.