George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Over the course of two years, I, along with the Burlington Public Schools tech team, had the opportunity to meet and connect with over one hundred schools. These discussions would usually involve what device works best in the classroom and how the iPad is affecting teaching and learning outcomes. Frequently this conversation focuses on the most effective hardware for teaching and learning. While this is an important decision to make, it should not be the focus. In fact, the best devices a school can employ are great teachers.

Smashing the State of the Art

We have reached a point in education technology where devices are, for the most part, adaptable. Most of the programs a school uses throughout a typical day are web-based, and hardly anything is stored locally. At Burlington Public Schools, our Director of Instructional Technology, Dennis Villano, likes to take someone's iPad and make the motion as if he were going to smash it into a million pieces.

This hypothetical simulation is a great example of how little hardware actually matters any more. While both the iPad camp and the Chromebook camp will argue how their respective device is superior, I can easily envision both working well for a variety of content area classrooms. In fact, the idea of going all in with a singular device is beginning to evolve. What school districts and administrators should control are the ways in which they create and foster a culture of adaptability before instituting a 1:1 environment.

As I mentioned earlier, the best device a school can roll out is a teacher who can adapt to new and emerging technologies, does not always require formal training for learning and staying current, and is not tethered to a product (such as PowerPoint or a SmartBoard) in order to teach. Education technology will continue to progress, and part of this evolution will be for students and teachers to stay current with both curriculum and digital literacy. Even in the absence of technology, a great teacher will continually seek out ways to engage his or her students in great lessons, simulations or challenges.

Innovation on the Fly

To illustrate the points I’ve made, I'll share a true story. A few months ago, our high school had a visitor from Perth, Australia. She expected to see iPads being used to engage and instruct, but what she actually saw was fly swatters. Yes, fly swatters.

We walked into Todd Whitten's class and witnessed two students at the front of the board slapping fly swatters over terms projected on the wall. The concept was novel, yet effective. Some students were using their iPads to record the review via Evernote, while others watched their classmates have a debate at the board over the subject at hand. Basically, Todd was providing a prompt, students had to slap the term on the board that coordinated with that prompt, and then discuss or debate their reasoning. Regardless of the devices or applications, the students were engaged. And I am certain there are many other classrooms out there like Mr. Whitten's. I'm certain that the use of technology can be veiled by innovative learning goals and objectives. I'm certain that Todd did not need mandatory training on the technology he and his students were using at the moment to create an engaging lesson.

The simple point is that Todd can adapt to the environment and challenges he faces as an educator -- which is why his classroom desk design is never the same. He not only adapts personally to new and emerging technologies and teaching strategies, but he also challenges his students to adapt to different classroom designs daily. This is what being a "21st century educator" should look like.

Contrary to my assertion is the sentiment that teachers don't have enough time to learn new things, or that professional development must come during contracted hours approved by a union. And that is fine. Eventually these "educators" will be replaced as quickly as the technologies and progressive pedagogy (alliteration breakdown: say it five times fast!) they refute or hold onto for dear life. What will sustain through all the changes is the teacher who is constantly curious, driven by the possibilities of his or her classroom, and never satisfied with repeating lessons and practice. Devices come and go, but progressive teachers who adapt will last longer than any device.

Self-Paced Professional Development

Here are some options for self-paced, learn-when-you-can professional development. Your district will not hand you these options, but I encourage you to seek them out.


iTunesU is an iPad-based repository of courses, lectures and resources for teachers and students. The content can be accessed exclusively on the iPad, and the material is all vetted for accuracy and copyright. Courses can be accessed or created by individuals or teachers through iTunesU Course Manager. Course manager is only available on the Apple platform and when using the Safari browser.


Coursera is a free online course catalog that allows anyone in the world take courses from some of the best instructors on the planet. Coursera does not offer accreditation for teachers yet, but they are advocating for this issue. Regardless, this site is chock full of courses that anyone can take at any time.


Google+ is emerging as a credible venue for professional development and anytime learning. It's a free platform, and if you work in an organization that employs Google Apps for Education, you already have an account. Google+ offers Google "Hangouts" as the venue for presenting professional development sessions. The best part about this option is that Hangouts are archived on the YouTube account of the author or group.


Everyone in education loves Twitter. Twitter can be a great venue for learning if you organize it and filter it (I recommend TweetDeck). Jumping headfirst into something like #edchat will only confuse and overwhelm you. My recommendation is to use Twitter sparsely at first. Find a few educators to follow, and spend a good amount of time listening, reading and processing. Follow Steve Anderson, Kristen Swanson, Alec Couros, John Spencer, Lyn Hilt, Rich Kiker, Dean Shareski, Joyce Valenza, Kyle Pace and Edutopia -- to start. But start simple and listen to what the aforementioned educators have to say.


EdCamp is the standard professional development for education. I've attended and organized several EdCamps and find them to be the most rewarding experiences that I've had in education. I've made great connections and friends as a result of this format, and it is professional development that allows everyone to participate and have a voice.

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TODD SENTELL's picture
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"


Beulah is the principal of the lower school. She asked me if I could do a one-on-one with a 1st grader named Benjy on Wednesday.

I said sure ... and what's he gone and done.

Beulah said he's been real disrespectful to his teacher. Philomena, Beulah said, is about to pull her hair out.

I conjured up a picture of Philomena pulling her hair out.

Beulah said he's real smart and he's never done a one-on-one so be ready. Then Beulah said real shaky, I'm not sure what to expect.

I said I look forward to meeting him.

You have to be real confident with kids. Even the itty-bitties. That's what they call the lower school kids around here. Itty-bitties. Fifty pound itty-bitties can raise holy you-know-what just like the rest of them. You'd be surprised. On Wednesday morning I walked into the lower school building and Beulah was sitting in her office. She motioned for me with a yellow pencil in her hand to come in there.

I walked in there and sitting on an old wooden chair was a little boy. He was crouched on the seat with his legs and feet underneath him looking up at me with big, almond shaped eyes.

The first thing I thought was that he was a porcelain doll.

We walked to that conference room in the administration building and I didn't tell Benjy he looked like a doll but he could have fit into his own backpack. Benjy said in his little doll voice that he'd never been to a one-on-one before.

I said I'll be with you all day to help you get your work done.

He said he didn't need any help because he was a real fast worker.

I said that's okay, too. Just let me know if you need me. I'll be right there.

When we walked into the administration building the receptionist and another lady were standing around talking and drinking coffee and I said ya'll meet Benjy.

They said real sweet ... Hey, Benjy.

When we walked into the conference room Benjy said he'd been in here before.

I said what for.

He couldn't remember but he was sure he'd been in there before.

I said okay.

There was a fly in the conference room and Benjy started focusing on it instead of a pile of work he needed to work on. He said that looked like the fly that was bothering him yesterday in the lower school.

I said are you sure it's the same fly.

Benjy watched it fly around and then it landed on the table in front of us and then it would fly around some more. He was really watching that fly. Then Benjy said he was pretty sure it was the same one.

It was hard for Benjy to concentrate on his work with that fly flying around.

I rolled up the Living section of my newspaper and wanted to kill that fly so bad. I roamed that conference room with bad intentions. The fly wasn't letting us get our job done. I knew Beulah might appear at any moment and this would not look good--me and Benjy watching a fly fly around.

Benjy was watching me try to murder that fly. He said a one-on-one wasn't that bad because he was finally getting some peace and quiet.

Breathing heavily, I asked him what he meant by peace and quiet.

He said down at the lower school it's so loud he can't concentrate. He said it's noisy down there.

All I knew was he was not being nice to his teacher. I figured he was probably the cause of some of the noise, too, but that was me conjecturing.

He said he had come to Georgia from Kansas. I watched him work a few math problems while I chased the fly around. He did the math problems as fast as that fly. I said something about how fast he was doing his work.

Benjy said I'm a fast thinker, too. He said I'm good even when I do my work fast. Benjy said he was the fastest worker in his class. And then he said I can tell if someone is fast or slow by looking in their eyes.

When he spoke he pronounced every letter of every word. Precisely every letter. I have never met a seven year old who was more articulate than him. He was so articulate it was unnerving, especially with that doll voice.

But he didn't look in my eyes when he talked and we talked a lot. All day he looked just off to the side. Like he was looking at my right ear. I asked him about it later because it was bothering me so much. I said you're not really looking at me are you. You're looking right over here. I held my hand up behind my right ear.

He said that's right. I'm not.

That afternoon, after Benjy's father picked him up I asked Beulah if she noticed he didn't quite look you in the eye when he talked.

Beulah didn't say anything. It looked like she was trying to recall if she ever noticed.

I told Beulah I was sure of it.

She said you know ... I think you're right.

Then I said he's one of the smartest kids I have ever met.

Beulah said he was. But boy can he sure raise you-know-what.

I opened my notepad and read Benjy's answer to a question he was supposed to answer for me by the end of the day. He was supposed to tell me--Beulah, ultimately, through me--what he would do differently tomorrow. The first thing he said was, I don't know.

I told Beulah I said to him you need to do a lot better than that.

Beulah smiled.

Then Benjy had said: I'll try to behave as much as I can. I'll try not to argue. I'll try my best when working. Be the best I can. I'll help others if they need it. I'll show courtesy and respect.

His very words. From out of that child's mouth.

After I was finished reading all of those things Beulah took a deep breath and let it out real slow.

Niels Jakob Pasgaard's picture
Niels Jakob Pasgaard
Teacher and educational philosopher

Thank you for this post! I agree that the teacher's ability to adapt to different technologies is of great importance, as is her ability to assess the usefulness of different learning tools in different forms of teaching. I have developed a framework for this kind of assessment, which you might find interesting:

David B's picture

Except for the anti-union rant at the end, you're spot-on.

Teachers are the most important part of any classroom. Respect them as professionals, give them the tools and resources to do their job, and they can be successful. Technology becomes secondary when teachers are allowed to be successful.

Treat a teacher as incompetent and they will fall back on rules. Offer professional development that is, at best, useless in the classroom, and they'll balk at doing it outside of contract time. Offer them opportunities to expand their teaching practice in new, dynamic, and practical ways, and you'll have them showing up on Saturdays.

Let us be curious. Don't limit our ability to reach our students. Allow our creativity; don't script every moment as if we're incompetent. Give us meaningful professional development, not the fly-by-night which is too often offered (and fought). And you'll see that teachers and students will succeed. And Technology will often be part of that success.

TODD SENTELL's picture
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"


Instead of substituting, I was asked asked to come in to do a one-on-one session with that Spurlock kid.

A one-on-one session is where a kid's teachers and principal and assistant principal take a big break from each other for a full day, or sometimes for two or three days, because things aren't getting any better for anybody and undone work is piling up or his attitude is sucking the life out of everybody ... or both at the same time. In other words, it's the big time-out. The school's substitute teachers are the ones called to perform one-on-one sessions.

I was asked to do the one-on-one with Spurlock in the conference room in the administration building.

There's a real nice conference room in the high school building where some other substitute teachers do their one-on-ones and I had asked Spurlock's principal, Lurlene, if we could do it down there but she said no because the conference room in the administration building was closer and it was easier for her to check on us in there. She said if we were in the high school conference room then she'd have to walk up and down that big hill and she didn't want to walk up and down that big hill. This is how the mind of a common-sense principal works.

Lurlene also said to me if Spurlock doesn't get his act together then she was going to start the kicking-his-fanny-out-of-the-school process. This Lurlene woman said this to me in the privacy of her office and I figured if she started to use even mild cuss words with the school's new substitute teacher then that meant I was making my bones around here. I hope so. She scares me, too. She's what you call a disciplinarian.

The conference room in the administration building has a couple of big tables shoved together and a bunch of chairs and a microwave and a refrigerator. On the wall is some artwork from some students that went there fifteen years ago that is still extremely abstract fifteen years later.

In a one-on-one you sit there with the kid and help him with his work if he asks you to from 8:15 to when the bus leaves at 3:15 or when one of their parents picks them up. Sometimes babysitters or nannies pick up kids.

In the one-on-one session the kid is supposed to settle down and shut up and get caught up on their work. You can't even go have lunch with your class. You both have to eat lunch right there in the room. Man, do you start looking at that clock on the wall starting around 8:30 and wonder how in the heck you're going make it to 3:15.

I had already read the newspaper and had started in on a book about Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers Band. You can be a genius at a lot of things in life and he was a genius at playing the guitar.

Spurlock was doing his work real hard and he was being real quiet and I felt proud of him.

Some people say they can see the grace of God wash down over people who need it real, real bad. I pretended seeing the grace of God washing down over Spurlock because if he didn't hunker down over the next couple of days and if he got kicked out by that Lurlene then he'd probably have to go to some huge public school and they'd beat Spurlock up during the first few minutes of homeroom of his first day. He's that annoying.

I swear to God my eyes teared up just a little because I thought the grace of God really did wash over him a few moments later--it looked like someone had sprayed room spray over his head from about six feet above him--and even before then I still knew Spurlock was special and he could do it.

But I think sometimes you don't need God or room spray or whoever to help you do something. Just up and finally dang doing something yourself can work just fine, too.

It was a long time before lunch time and a whole bunch of women who work in the administration building were already coming into the conference room and taking things out of the refrigerator and putting them into the microwave. The door of the microwave clanked when they opened it and clanked when they shut it.

They seemed embarrassed about coming in there a lot to get food.

While it's being micro waved, macaroni and cheese does not smell as good as it does when it's sitting in a big bowl in front of you at your grandmother's house.

One time a woman who had already fixed herself something to eat came in there a little later and fixed her another something else to eat. It still was a long way away from lunch time. She said to me you must think that all we do around here is eat.

I said you read minds real well.

The lady said ... Well just look at us. She got her food out of the microwave and walked out. All those women who work in the administration building do not look like Olympic marathoners one bit, so I'll have to agree.

Spurlock said what if those fat women got paid for the amount of food they ate.

Later in the day, Spurlock's math teacher, Billy, came in there and gave Spurlock some papers and told Spurlock he'd like for him to try real hard and get this done. The teacher said it was work from August. The month we were in was November.

I heard they finally broke him. I heard Spurlock got that work from August done. He started acting nice again in his classes toward his teachers and the other kids and generally got his act together so they didn't kick him out.

But it's a day-to-day thing with some kids and everybody knows that and is cool with it. Sometimes it's a moment-to-moment thing and everybody's cool with that, too. Alert for it. Alert as heck for it. But cool about it. Can't get all panicky.

Good teachers and principals are like combat squad leaders, I'm learning. Cool and constantly watchful and caring all the time. That's what I think because that's what I've seen so far. From every one of them.

Tracy S's picture
Tracy S
High School Math Teacher

I definitely agree with your title, The Best 1:1 Device is a Good Teacher! Unfortunately it seems that many schools are hiring new teachers because they are excited about using technology in their classrooms, they get the job, use technology, but not in a way that helps students to learn. One of the teachers I work with is having her students use the SmartBoard to take attendance. Good idea, but if that is all the SmartBoard is being used for, it is definitely NOT enough.
I have seen wonderful things from other teachers with the use of technology, making videos, wonderful PowerPoint presentations, etc. yet they spend so much time on technology that the required standards are not being taught.
I appreciate the list of self-paced professional development ideas. My school is going to a 1:1 laptop initiative in December (this has been pushed back multiple times, so I am guessing it will really be May). We will receive no professional development on how we can use them in our classes, we are expected to figure it out on our own. Thanks!!

Sandra Wozniak's picture
Sandra Wozniak
President, NJ Association for Middle Level Education

I recently heard an educator compare the ability to drive a car, with the ability to use a computer/tablet, etc. His point was that you can rent any car and still drive it - no training necessary. Are we approaching that flexibility in our teachers with technology?

KillionLaura's picture
Pre-Service Early Childhood and Special Education Major

I think that while we do have all of this fancy technology that can help us create better classrooms and can help adapt assignments to our students who may struggle, nothing can beat a well equipped teacher. Teachers who understand when to use technology and when to stay away from it, can be valuable in the classroom. From my own experiences, nothing beats allowing the students to interact with tangible items rather than something on a screen.

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