Ever wonder how you’re supposed to keep up with all the EdTech out there? You know you’re a good teacher, and you work very hard to do the best thing for your students, but expecting you to be a technology specialist while taking care of your student’s needs is just plain unfair. Staying on top of things is already a personal struggle; staying on top of every new thing just seems unreasonable.
If any of what I wrote strikes a chord, then this interview with Julia Thompson may be just what you’re looking for. Julia has been teaching for more than 40 years and has figured out more than a few things about teaching. I asked Julia about her experience during the evolution of EdTech and how she coped with it. She also gives some heartfelt advice to new teachers about navigating the EdTech landscape.
In addition to being a successful teacher for 40 years, Julia has written numerous books including The First-Year Teacher’s Survival Guide and The Discipline Survival Guide for the First-Year Teacher. She is also a prolific blogger and an author of e-courses. If that wasn’t enough, Julia was also nominated to receive the Bammy Award in 2015, wich is a prestigious honor bestowed on educators of all kinds once a year.
I started my interview with Julia on the phone and then finished up over email. In the text below I make reference to that first phone conversation, but always in a context that you’ll know what she said.
I’d like to talk a little about when you first got bitten by the teacher bug. Earlier you mentioned that teaching was supposed to be a fallback if being a professor didn’t work out. Can you describe the moment when you knew that teaching younger kids was what you really wanted to do?
When I was student teaching, I did not expect to have fun or to connect with students. I thought it was just something that I had to do. However, student teaching was exhilarating for me. I loved every second of it. I loved being with the kids most of all. (Still do.) My students were nice kids–very patient with me and extremely helpful. I really, really wanted to do the right thing by them and be the best teacher I would be.
Once, when I was trying not to be terrified while being observed by my supervising teacher, I had my back to the class writing on the board. When I turned around, there was a tiny note on the desk, “Your pants are unzipped.” I quickly zipped and have remained forever in debt to the student who was watching out for my nervous young self. I have often thought how fortunate teachers are to be so often saved by the grace of students who overlook all of our adult silliness.
Younger students tend to have a joy for life and, even though they would like for us to think they are jaded, they are really often innocent–even those whose home lives and out-of-school experiences are not always positive. I am glad I get to hang out with them five days a week.
We talked a little about the conversations around EdTech when you first started teaching. You said the use of calculators for grading was the big topic. What were some other EdTech topics during that time?
I have always loved EdTech–partly because students are also interested and willing to help out. When I was first a teacher, it was fun to make slides and show them on a large white screen that I had to pull down hoping that it would not fall on my head. It was also daring on my part when I first started playing cassette tapes in class–Sting was a big favorite. When the kids all started getting graphing calculators and could write stupid stuff with the numbers in various configurations instead of using them to calculate, that was fun for me, too. But then, I am not a math teacher–they were probably pretty irritated by that.
The first game I ever recall playing with kids was Oregon Trail. They loved it. I remember taking workshops on how to use it in class–how funny that seems now. It was also always a struggle to get to be one of the cool teachers who was allowed to keep one of the few overhead projectors in his or her classroom. I loved those when they were really popular.
It was fun to use the transparency sheets for kids to take notes. Another big change for classrooms came with the shift from slate board to green boards and then to dry erase boards. COLOR! How cool was that! I kept all of my markers in a little plastic bag so that they would not dry out. When schools started using photocopiers instead of mimeograph machines, we rejoiced!
No more smeared purple ink on clothes!
And I can’t even begin to describe how exciting it was when we first had electronic attendance programs and then grading programs. It is so quick just to plug in numbers and not have to spend time on the math. However, like many teachers, I can still subtract any number from 100 in a nanosecond after grading thousands of papers!
What was the first Ed Tech tool you truly embraced?
I have to admit that I was an early adopter of the word processor. I have lousy handwriting and typing–even on an electric typewriter–was a chore. To be able to just type quickly and to have my handouts look professional made a huge difference for me. Being able to use a keyboard to produce documents is still something that I value to this day. I am really thankful for how much time a word processor of one kind or another has given me.
When we talked on the phone I was really struck by your philosophy and experience concerning how you connect with your students. If just connecting wasn’t hard enough, you’ve also taught in challenging inner-city locations. Can you tell us a little about your struggle to connect with and understand your students?
When I was just starting to teach, I did not realize that the class should be about the students–their needs, their strengths, their weaknesses. Instead, I planned lessons that met the curriculum goals, but did not appeal to my students because they were not really a factor in my planning.
I had days and days of miserable, nightmarish situations where students were disrespectful, hateful, and rude to me and to each other before I stumbled upon the fact that they were not bad kids, but instead, were not motivated at all. I stopped expecting them to be like my idea of what students should be and took a good look at what their strengths really were.
They were really cool kids whose abilities and quirks were not being recognized and honored by me at all.
Gradually, we learned to work together. By March, our class was so productive and positive that we made the local news as a bright spot in an otherwise troubled school. By seeing my students as individuals and not as troublemakers with an agenda to make my life miserable, everything changed for them and for me.
Do you have any advice for a new teacher starting out in a tough situation?
Learn everything that your students are willing to share with you about your students so that you can reach each one. Be patient. It takes time to build relationships. Focus on what kids can do instead of what they can’t if you want to move them forward. And, learn how to step away from school at the end of the day.
If you teach 24/7 you will be burned out in a year or two.
Balance between personal and professional lives is an important key to success if you are a teacher.
In one sentence, how would you boil down your philosophy and approach to connecting with students?
Never forget that everything you do to help students achieve success will enrich and empower them, but also your community and yourself.
Do you think teachers should keep up with the latest EdTech trends and tools?
I definitely think it is a teacher’s job to stay up to date on all the latest tools in EdTech. Often a school district will have its own initiatives that will help teachers–Google Classroom and all of the apps associated with it comes to mind.
There are also lots of other ways for teachers to find out about the tech resources that can help us help our students and make our jobs easier. One of the most common ways is, of course, word of mouth. One teacher finds what works and shares it with a colleague and the good news continues as the sharing continues. We also learn from new teachers who have been exposed to different technology at previous schools or even first-year teachers who bring fresh ideas from college courses. ISTE is another terrific resource and one that lots and lots of teachers find really helpful.
There you have it, the words of an experienced talented educator. If you’d like to connect with Julia Thompson you can connect with her on Twitter through @ and you can find out more about her current endeavors on her website http://www.juliagthompson.com/.
I hope this article can uplift and inspire you to be an even better educator than you were before. Remember, education technologies are not an end in and of themselves. Think of them as tools to aid you in your teaching endeavors or to make you lessons more effective, if they don’t accomplish one of those goals then move on.
As always remember to…
Connect, Engage, and Enjoy!