“Tech or Die:” A Response

Dangerously Irrelevant, a technology and education blog, posted a strong opinion that we should not just accept that some teachers eschew digital technology because they are either oblivious to it  or choose not to embrace it.

To the post itself, I reply that I agree with the sentiment that digital technology is important to teach.  I have to admit that I did not appreciate the slightly over-the-top tone.   The conversation in the comments is frank and nuanced though – I highly recommend spending a few minutes reading (and joining) it.

For me, a huge problem with using digital technology in the classroom is Plan B.  Specifically, Plan B is extraordinarily difficult.  If my pencil breaks, I can sharpen it or use a different pencil.  If I suddenly can’t get onto the internet, there aren’t usually options; I don’t generally have a spare router in my purse.  I either wing it or use the analog activity that took an additional, unrelated two hours of prep to create “just in case.”  (Note: prep time is often uncompensated.*) When you look at it like that, it’s a major drawback to even starting to use digital technology in the classroom, let alone relying on it.

Support for lessons like the one I taught Monday tends to be quite weak, and that’s problematic.  Teachers don’t have to go find and haul their own textbooks.  They don’t have to change the fluorescent lightbulbs in their classrooms.  But they’re apparently supposed to keep their class moving forward while fixing the networking problem** that’s causing hotmail to think that one person is trying to sign up for six email addresses at the same time.  It seems out of sync with other expectations.

No, teachers should not be allowed to pretend digital technology doesn’t exist.  But education systems and reformers should not pretend that unpredictable SNAFUs don’t happen all the time with digital technology.  Steve Jobs of Apple had major technical difficulties while unveiling iPhone 4 a few months ago (scroll down to 1:44 and 2:05).   Even in a high-powered professional setting, technical difficulties and the efforts to fix them were noted as being “awkward.”  Imagine if Jobs were less savvy, and if he didn’t have a team of experts working with him to fix the problems.  “Awkward” would have become “total and prolonged waste of time” – which, incidentally, is the teacher’s nightmare.

Sadly, teachers don’t usually have a team of experts dedicated to just their classroom.  They and/or their tech support are generally not able to rapidly fix problems.  Rapidly switching to a similar digital alternative is also generally impossible.  In my experience the other choice has been to move to a non-digital activity while the tech problem is resolved or given up on.

Add to that situation the typically outdated equipment and rampant understaffing schools of all kinds face, and we are just not setting up teachers for smooth or successful tech-based lessons.  No wonder so many want to avoid it.  There’s a great potential for a huge mess, we will almost always face the mess without adequate (or sometimes any) help, and we will be held accountable by our students and our managers for the learning that is not happening while the computers unfreeze.

Is this enough reason to just not “do” digital technology in the classroom?  No.  It has a lot to offer, and as I said Wednesday, I think it’s worth the headache.  But we need real, constant, broad support, not just “should.”

* I know that students come first, but one reason we have trouble recruiting exceptionally talented folks to be teachers is that we don’t respect teachers’ time and skill with an adequate paycheck.

**Really, the teacher would probably not have the permissions to fix the networking problem.  The way I see it, (s)he would have two choices:
1) wait for the overworked tech staffer to get to it and go analog in the meantime, or
2) hack into the system to fix it her-/himself, risking termination and imprisonment but keeping the class on task.
OK maybe that’s a little overly-dramatic, but the point is that there is a LOT outside a teacher’s control even when the teacher is a serious computer expert

My Current Weekly Teaching Routine

I am currently working as an adjunct English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) instructor through two different colleges.

Daily Schedules

I teach Level 1 / Multilevel / Registration in the mornings from 9 – 12 Monday – Thursday about 25 minutes Northeast of my home.

I teach Intermediate 2 in the evenings from 6:30 – 9:30 on Mondays and Wednesdays about 30 minutes due North of my home.

This adds up to 18 hours of in-class teaching per week including two split-shifts per week.

Other Responsibilities

Though my preparation time varies, I feel confident saying that I’ve put in at least 6 hours per week.

Because I work for two different organizations, I have two different clunky work webmail systems to check (because I don’t want to bombard my regular email with forwards of all of the clutter that goes to my work inbox).

I’m also responsible for attending two separate sets of pre-semester trainings to attend three times a year.  One organization pays me a stipend for the trainings, and I honestly can’t remember if the other one does or not (OK mom, I’ll check up on that soon.)

Outside of work, I’m also committed to volunteering at a hospital once a week in the afternoon/evening, and I also try to exercise with a group of friends once a week in the early evening.

How the Split Shift Works

Anyway, given the locations of my two teaching sites, on Mondays and Wednesdays I leave the house by 8AM and don’t return until about 10:15PM.  It just doesn’t make sense to me to add an hour of driving to my day when I can camp out in a nearby library to rest and work between classes.

I literally pack a cooler on Mondays and Wednesdays so that I can bring my lunch and my supper with me without it getting funky sitting in the car all day.  I have a backpack full of materials for my evening class and a tote bag full of materials for my morning class.  Between all that and my purse, water bottle, and umbrella, I look pretty intense marching into the public library to camp out for a few hours.

How’s it Going?

So far it makes for weeks that fly by.  I also really don’t have the option to do much mid-week planning because I tend to arrive home quite tired.  Meals are planned and mostly cooked on the weekends.  I’m excited to be heading out of town next weekend (it’s going to be awesome!), so this weekend will need to involve planning for the coming week and the one after.  We’ll see how it goes!

“You’re Too Hard On Yourself!”

Analog comment from my grandma after reading this blog:

I think you’re too hard on yourself.

Analog comment from my fiance:

You’re your own strongest critic.

Yes, I evaluate my lessons with a very critical eye.

But hear me out: I’m extremely careful to be methodical and specific when I look back at my lessons.  First, it helps me improve my planning and teaching.  Second, it also helps even out the highs and lows I feel after classes.

After the “blah” day of teaching, I didn’t go home and say, “Well, that sucked.  I guess I’m a horrible teacher after all” and drown my sorrows in Plants vs. Zombies.  First I looked at what went well, and to my surprise, I could list off a bunch of learning that I knew took place that day.  When I looked at what went wrong, it was actually one aspect of one activity.  It wasn’t a catastrophe just because it wasn’t perfect.  Even though I felt a little off, the class made progress.

On the flip side, sometimes I feel like a lesson just went Amazingly well and I can’t even believe how competent I feel.  I still look back at exactly what went well and why.  Then, when I ask myself what could have been improved, I realize that actually, it wasn’t perfect.  Even though I felt like a veritable teaching wizard, I can still make progress as an educator.

So in a way, yes, I’m hard on myself.  But by being rationally critical of the learning that took place on a given day, I open the door for my own growth as a teacher and I gently close the door that irrational, unsubstantiated fears of inadequacy would otherwise pour through on the “blah” days.

I’m Back, With a New Focus

"nikon em bokeh" by dsevilla on Flickr
"nikon em bokeh" by dsevilla on Flickr

I think I’m ready to pick up the blog again!

My focus has changed since I last posted.  I thought about starting a new blog, but I think that the underlying theme of what I’ve been thinking and doing has remained the same.

What Has Changed:

  • I moved across the country and am now a proud resident of Maryland.
  • I will be teaching ESL part-time through a community college at a nonprofit starting Monday, 7/12.

What I Plan to Write About:

  • My experiences teaching.
  • Whether or not to stay in nonprofits.
  • What professional development I should pursue.
  • What’s next?

Looking forward to blogging again!

NP Career and Money: Where’s the Conversation?

This is post six of six in a series about career and money from the point of view of a low-level nonprofit worker.  For some reason I hear little about it in nonprofit land.  The bottom line: if you don’t read The Simple Dollar, start now.

Why Don’t We Talk About This More in Nonprofit Land?

When I was new to an organization I’ve worked for, I was being introduced around on my first day.  When I met the accounting assistant, she let me know that the check cutting process was quite simple and that if I ever needed a reimbursement check immediately, even if it was small, that I just needed to ask and it would be done.  I remember thinking that that was very sweet but that I would never put myself in that position.

The thing is, she said it for a reason: because it happens.  It’s surely happened to people I’ve worked side by side with.  A couple of unlucky circumstances or bad decisions later, it easily could be me asking accounting to reimburse my mileage today instead of next week.  I’m closer to the margin than I’d like to think.

And that brings me to my question: why aren’t we talking about this?  Why don’t we swap money-saving tips, and carpool, and have our office properly on a bus line, and pool childcare, and barter, and share free events, and organize our own free entertainment?  Why don’t we actively share resources on personal finance and tax advice and saving energy?  Why don’t financial advisers donate a lunch break to give some guidance to nonprofit workers?  Why do we have #nptech but not #npsalary?

How else could we be supporting all of these individuals who are choosing not to maximize their earning potential?  And should they have to make this choice?

I’d love to hear your thoughts, and any resources you know of!

NP Career and Money: I Nurture My Savings

Goals Meet Reality: I Nurture My Savings

As you know, I don’t use my money to acquire a vast collection of teabag holders.  What do I do with it?

I basically have two types of savings: use when circumstances in the future dictate (i.e. emergency fund, retirement fund) and use when I want to (i.e. Positive Surprises).

I fund my savings automatically.  Over a year ago I spent a few minutes setting up automatic transfers from my credit union’s checking account to a few ING Direct savings accounts, and amazingly, my savings have grown!  I also have automatic transfers that go into my 401K and a Roth IRA.

I also put some money into a modest investment in a mutual fund from time to time, and have had CDs (certificates of deposit) in the past.

Why do I do this instead of renting a bigger apartment or eating my way through every interesting restaurant on Lake St?

Because it protects me from falling into debt.

"We've Picked Something Up on the Radar!" by Don Solo on Flickr
"We've Picked Something Up on the Radar!" by Don Solo on Flickr

Because it was like magic that I didn’t have to worry when my car needed new brakes; I just pulled the money out of the “Car” account I had set up.  Even nicer is that car maintenance just disappeared off my mental radar for a while after the brake work, but my automatic transfers continued while my head was in the clouds.  As a result, my “Car” account is almost back where it was before the brake work and I didn’t have to pay a lick of attention.

Because it’s not my low-stress personality that’s keeping me from being frantic about how nonprofits are faring as the Governor, legislature and Feds make tough money choices during the recession.  I just keep popping money into my general emergency fund.

Because it’s exciting to watch my “Positive Opportunities” savings grow.  That little account is different from the “buffers between me and disaster” accounts.  It means that when I find a good deal on the computer I want, I can pounce.  It means I can attend professional conferences that aren’t necessarily related to my job.  It means guilt-free, worry-free spending on whatever worthwhile developments I want.  It’s a little shot of freedom.

And of course, all of these choices relate back to what I want.  I think they’re solid tactics, but they could easily be too conservative or too risky for others depending on what they’re looking for.  It really all comes down to what’s important to you.

NP Career and Money: I Spend Little Money

This is post four of six in a series about career and money from the point of view of a low-level nonprofit worker.  For some reason I hear little about it in nonprofit land.  The bottom line: if you don’t read The Simple Dollar, start now.

Goals Meet Reality: I Spend Less Money Than I Technically Could

I’m not even close to being poor.  I have everything I need to be comfortable and fulfilled.

I do operate within certain limitations though.  The thought of finding a place in my kitchen for a food processor or standing mixer is funny.  I don’t have a 65″ HD TV, or an Xbox 360, or a new computer.  I don’t have expensive hobbies like shopping or collecting or underwater photography.

It’s not that having those things wouldn’t be nice.  And it’s not that I couldn’t go acquire them right now – I actually could.  It’s that I want them much less than I want the freedom to work wherever I want to regardless of salary.

Maintaining and increasing this freedom means I really have to ask myself, “Do I need this?” and “Do I even want this?” before I buy things.

My One and Only Teabag Holder
My One and Only Teabag Holder

Sometimes the answer to whether I need or want a given item is surprising.  My friends were baffled when I told them I threw out my old, fragile bed frame and chose not to replace it at all.  My parents are exasperated that my computer turned six years old last week.  My grandmother feels sorry for me because I only own one teabag holder.

But you know what?  I don’t even notice I don’t have those things.  Every morning I get up off my mattress on the floor after a good night’s sleep free of finance-related nightmares, open up my RSS feed on my still-functional computer, have a perfectly-steeped cup of tea with breakfast, and then head out to a job I love.

Let me reiterate that I’m not equating earning a small amount of money with happiness.  That would be nonsense.  I’m saying that I try select employment with a job-first mentality instead of a salary-first mentality.  Spending much less than I earn helps me be flexible enough to pursue the work I want regardless of what it pays me, and I try to make my big and small choices align with this goal.

And besides, who wants to dust half a hundred teabag holders?