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Friend, or Foe?: Tech Staff and Teachers Don't Always Get Along

| Jim Moulton

Relations between tech-support staff and educators is an emotionally charged issue, and I have thought about writing about it for quite a while. But I had an experience last week that made it clear to me it was time to gather my thoughts and ask a question or two.

As you read this, you might wonder whether I understand the complexity of the issue, that there are multiple sides to it. In this posting, however, I am specifically speaking to teachers. I will speak to the tech staff in a later post.

Earlier this week, I was working with a high school teaching staff on purposeful and effective technology integration. The talk turned to filtering of Web content, and I expressed my concern that many school technology-support employees routinely make filtration decisions with little to no interaction with front-line educators. And then I saw something I see way too often: Folks started looking sideways at one another and making comments under their breath, and a general unease permeated the room.

Something was going on. It was immediately obvious this group of teachers did not perceive the tech staff in their school as friendly. Rather than let it pass and carry on with the subject at hand, I said, "OK, what's up? Talk to me. Tell me about the tech folks in your school."

Please let me assure you that some of my best friends are people who work on the technical side, both in schools and in the corporate world. Jeff is coordinator of educational technology for Maine, Carmel works for the state Department of Environmental Protection, and Chris is the chief information officer for a large energy and building-supply company that stretches across New England. All three are tech savvy, and all three are great people. And though Jeff is the only one I have a professional relationship with, each is a person I would not hesitate to get in touch with to ask for help if I was in technical need. And they would help me.

And it is not only tech stuff. In fact, I still remember when Carmel took the time to respond clearly to an early effort of mine to write technical documentation. Though she did not respond positively to my work, she was right. She cared enough to teach me how to do that kind of writing effectively, and it is a skill I continue to use in my work more than a dozen years later.

Over the years, I have met many technical staff in many schools like these three friends of mine. They are folks who are good with networks and with people and who enjoy working with both. They understand that a school is not a business and that the job of the tech-support staff, as for all school employees, is to support the kids through improved opportunities for teaching and learning. They get that operating a school's network as if national security were at stake runs counter to a school's foundational purpose, and so they run a network that is "school friendly."

Let's look on the other side, the area the teachers I was working with that day inhabit. They work in a school where there is an adversarial relationship between teachers and tech staff. I think this is often the dirty little secret of technology in schools. It is something teachers tend to be willing to live with rather than confront: tech-support staff who seem to not like the people they are supposed to be supporting.

Tech-support staff in such settings tend to talk down to educators, as if a teacher's lack of technical understanding makes him or her less worthy. They often work to perpetuate the myth of their importance in maintaining a critical thin blue line -- that without them, the network would fail, the administrators would be at risk of legal action, and the ugly side of the Internet would invade the schools willy-nilly.

Once, when I was attempting to access a wonderful collection of QuickTime virtual reality images at panoramas.dk while on a school network, a director of technology in a relatively large school district told me he had "blocked all foreign Web sites" because he felt he couldn't trust them. "Oh, my goodness," I said to myself as I thought about the curricular impact of this independent act of censorship. "What about all the tremendous content available through the BBC? Ouch."

Now, I must admit that being a director of technology is a huge and often thankless responsibility, and dealing with networks in a setting that includes the messiness of classroom teaching means that stuff will inevitably happen. Kids will mess up and kids will do amazing things; teachers will mess up and teachers will do amazing things -- real life, real school, real teaching, real learning.

But when your job description says, "You are responsible for the network," accepting this kind of messiness is tough because -- let's face it -- stability is the holy grail of network management. So we should not be surprised it's hard to find people who can effectively manage both the complex technical networks and the complex human networks found in the schools of 2008.

So, teachers, how about your school? Are the tech-support folks who manage your network friendly to you and your students as teachers and learners? Sometimes yes, sometimes no? And how do you know? Please, don't just respond yes or no. As an example, can you independently override the school's filter? Do they trust you? Please share stories of how your interaction with tech-support staff impacts your teaching. I will be interested to hear.

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Comments (27)

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Seventh Grade Social Studies Teacher from The American School of The Hague,

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The problem is finding tech people who are/were teachers. Most tech people are interesting in making their networks work for them. Not students or teachers, but what works for them. They don't think like teachers or care how what they do effects the classroom teacher. Since they have all this power over what goes on, they tend to lie and say "that can't be done" or "that wouldn't work" just because it makes their jobs easier. If schools could simply make their mandate clear: if teachers need it to teach, you guys make it work for them" things would be much better. But because they have the technology in their control, they look out for what's best for them. That means blocked sites, controlled access, simple software that doesn't take up to much bandwidth, blah, blah, blah. The "ADMIN" knows even less than a third grader about tech and takes them at their word so they end up controlling everything because of everyone else's ignorance and sit back comfortably doing diddly squat to help teachers and students.

Skar (not verified)

I have had nothing but

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I have had nothing but positive experiences with our two staff tech members on campus. If I have an assignment/lab that requires a filtered website I email one of our techies and no matter what the time frame (now or a couple of days) both have been happy to help and allow access to this site. I also have the opportunity to adminster a test for our district that monitors progress from fall to spring in which students need a username and password set by the testing company (not the district)to take the test. As you can imagine, some students forget their usernames and passwords and each time this has happened both techies have been there to save the day while I assist other students testing. I'm very fortunate to have such a great team and am thankful after reading your article and posts by others how lucky I am.

Skar

Skar (not verified)

I have had nothing but

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I have had nothing but positive experiences with our two staff tech members on campus. If I have an assignment/lab that requires a filtered website I email one of our techies and no matter what the time frame (now or a couple of days) both have been happy to help and allow access to this site. I also have the opportunity to adminster a test for our district that monitors progress from fall to spring in which students need a username and password set by the testing company (not the district)to take the test. As you can imagine, some students forget their usernames and passwords and each time this has happened both techies have been there to save the day while I assist other students testing. I'm very fortunate to have such a great team and am thankful after reading your article and posts by others how lucky I am.

Skar

Kyle Kartan (not verified)

It's all about attitude

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I am a network admin for a Middle and High School.

It seems to me from reading the article and comments that the problem isn't tech staff, it's people in general. In this case, the people that are getting in the way happen to be tech staff. Most of the people referenced sound like they are either poorly informed (and make bad decisions), or jerks. It's difficult finding the right balance between a secure network for the kids/staff, and a network that works. Teachers tend not to understand the position that I am in, or that their simple request may not be that simple.

I implemented a new filtering solution that was a lot more stringent than what we had before. It took a while before I and the staff agreed on what worked best for everyone.

Collaboration is the key, and if either party refuses to work with the other, then nothing will get done. Some tech people may need to listen more, but teachers need to understand the other side as well.

Aaron Raiti (not verified)

Tech Teachers

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In our school we have had many different tech teachers in the eleven years I have been there. Some were wonderful and helpful while others were definately not. I like to focus on the positive so I tend to remember the more helpful ones. In our county the tech teachers hands are tied because it seems the head of our tech department doesn't trust anyone. Many websites are blocked and as a third grade teacher I find it hard to find age appropriate websites that can be used without the threat of them being blocked.
In our school I feel the tech teacher is our friend, it is the head of the department that is more of a foe than anyone else.

Rachel (not verified)

Tech in Kindergarten

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While our tech teachers are not warm and fuzzy, I do give them kudos for always letting us know that they're doing the best that they can. They are responsible not just for network issues and the like but also for providing relevant tech. instruction to our entire school population K-5--and truthfully, I don't think they even like little kids that much. The teachers make sure and contact us, or at least our team leader, quarterly to find out what our objectives are so that they can develop relevant tech lessons to coincide. They also teach keyboarding basics and internet navigation basics as well as basic kidspiration use.

Our computers are set up so that we cannot use any software (we don't have the underlying software to support it. Odd!) and I hate that all of the math, lit. etc, software I'd taken time, money and painful hours of research to purchase on my own I cannot use at all. They say their hands are tied. We can use the internet for educational games however typically when we're all operating on the same server it gets slow.

Overall, while our tech staff loves tech more than students, I do applaud them for doing a difficult job and trying to do it the best they can.

Jim R. Moulton (not verified)

Thanks, Doug!

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I had the chance to hear Doug Johnson give a keynote talk in Mitchell, South Dakota earlier this week and I felt like I had met the tech person I have been advocating for... High technical capacity, solid human capacity. Oh, my goodness. I would urge you to head to his blog: http://doug-johnson.squarespace.com/ from which you can either purchase a hard copy of his book, "Machines are the easy part; people are the hard part" or download the PDF for free. What a wonderful piece this could be to build professional development for all members of a school community around. As I began, "Thanks, Doug."

Doug Johnson (not verified)

Ending the Range Wars

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Hi Jim,

This is a great post on a subject near and dear to my heart. As the director of a department that includes both techs and media specialists, I am very aware of the conflicts in viewpoints, priorities and goals of the two important sides of the educational technology coin.

Personally, I have found collaborative planning to be the only long-term solution to mediating these conflicts.

If you are interested, these presentation handouts summarize much of thinking/writing on the subject:
http://dougjohnson.squarespace.com/storage/rangewar.pdf

All the very best,

Doug

Oh, great meeting you in Mitchell, SD. Hope you got to the Corn Palace!

Jim R. Moulton (not verified)

Working on your advanced degree...

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Lisa -

When sites like puzzlemaker or others are filtered, I talk about putting on your "Columbo" hat. Columbo was the TV detective who would say things like, "Now, Mr. Moulton, you have to help me out here. You say you were out fishing all day today, and I want to believe you. You seem like an honest guy. And yet your rods are all hung on the wall, and each one has dust on it. Help me understand... What am I missing, cause it sort of looks to me like you couldn't have been fishing..."

The bad guy would crack and fess up, never having been "accused," just questioned in a friendly sort of way.

So, how about asking the tech, or better the principal or curriculum coordinator why these sites are filters, how their filtration supports you in doing the best by the largest number of kids. Because you know that is why your school provides Internet access. To help the kids. Tell them you "must be missing something," and ask them to explain why the sites are filtered...

I am assuming you do not have an over-ride?

Good luck!

Jim

Anonymous (not verified)

Tech Staff and Teachers

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After reading some of the postings I feel lucky to work in the district that I do. I have had limited experince with our schools tech staff, but each time I had a question they were willing to help with the problem at hand. I have tried to incorporate some websites and internet games to supplement my material and each time I approached our tech staff they were willing to work with me to find a solution. Many times they went above and beyond and showed me some things that I did not know. I think it is important to get to know your tech staff and treat them with respect because often times they can be a real asset to your classroom.

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Jim Moulton Technology Integration and Project-Based Learning Consultant