The Importance of 20th Century Teachers in Elementary School

I’m in a bit of a rut right now. It is my fourth month of supply teaching, and I am starting to realize the stark reality of my weaknesses as an educator. In teacher’s college, we were always taught to reflect on our practice, so here it is, internet peeps.

I’m the definition of a 21st century teacher: a digital dreamer, social media savant, terrific typer, image crafter and savvy sifter of information. I use SmartBoards, MacBooks, Ipads and any digital dongle you can imagine in my lessons. I even know a bit about HTML, web development and how to gain a presence online. I have been on a computer on a daily basis for 20 years, from DOS to iOS. You would think teaching the digital natives is a piece of cake, right? Let me tell you why 21st Century Teaching is no walk in the park.

Back in My Day – The Rise of Digital Culture

Although I am older than the internet, it has grown up beside me like an imaginary friend. As a kid, I was first introduced to computers at the age of seven. A babysitter’s neighbor had Space Invaders and Pong on his DOS computer. I learned how to use keyboard commands to turn on the machine and watch the pixels fly across the screen. When my family dropped an insane amount of cash (over $2000 on a Compaq Presario with Windows 95 OS, I was mesmerized. A Graphic User Interface? Dial-up internet? The world was my oyster.

I didn’t have a lot of buddies in the neighborhood and I had a reading addiction, so I found the computer to be a great teacher. Encarta 1997 was my favorite program. It was the Wikipedia of the 90s, and they even had a medieval learning game! My parents bought Mission T.H.I.N.K, a logic game. This was also a family favorite. Sim City 2000 and Roller Coaster Tycoon inspired my brother to become an engineering technician. ICQ connected my friends and I to people in the community, and MSN messenger provided us with a place to “hang out” after school. Relationships were built (and destroyed) online. People made Geocities and Tripod sites to showcase their awesome friends with pixellated .JPEGS and their respective ~*ShOuToUtS*~.

We studied each other, mimicked online trends and digitally cultivated our identities and habits. Our parents installed separate phone lines so we could surf all day without interruption. Napster gave us all of the music, Amazon and Ebay gave us all of the shopping, and MySpace gave us all of the self-expression.

Us kids were liberated from the common confines that no money and no car imposed upon us. We could hang out anytime they wanted to, and for that reason we had more choices. We could decide who we wanted to talk to, what we wanted to learn, what we wanted to buy and the world was pretty awesome.  We didn’t have cell phones (yet) but we were connected. All of the insights learned from the online community have made me open my eyes to the rest of the world and shaped who I am. I am grateful for that.

Old School, New World

Elementary school was always a bit stuck in the past. We learned from dusty old textbooks, DOS computers and dated techniques. Computers with GUIs were not common until I was 12, when the school purchased about 30 MacBooks. We only used them once per week. Most of our instruction was pen and paper and very language based. Math was drills and worksheets. Cursive writing, printing and spelling was part of the daily routine. Watching the TV on the stand roll into the room was like Christmas, and NOVA science videos taught us about the reality of the universe. Inquiry learning happened once in a blue moon, and was always structured. Emphasis was placed on the basics: Knowledge and Understanding. Critical Thinking, Application, Synthesis and Evaluation were for when you got older. Teachers were strict and demanding. I was probably not the best student as I was restless, boisterous and easily distracted. Even though I had good grades, I was always put in my place, which is probably a good thing. I am not sure if this structure is what we needed now that we are faced with no structure at all, but it definitely made school a calming and satisfying place to be.

High school was a place to shine, as digital technology was more widely available and teachers were embracing typed papers. Computer science teachers taught us about MS-DOS, Floppy Discs, binary systems, HTML and allowed us to discover the guts of our favorite machines. Business teachers taught us the ins and outs of Microsoft Office. Research projects were done with the help of the world wide web. However, the old school was still alive and well. The balance was there.

Fast Forward to the Students of Today

Most new teachers are born in the 80s and 90s. We are 20th century people, and our students are 21st century people. Most of them are born after 2000. Unlike me, they do not know a world without the internet. While I was just discovering computers at their age, they are fully immersed. Their computers are so powerful, so sophisticated, so refined that they make the computers of my childhood look like an ancient abacus. As someone who understands how the internet was built, teaching kids about it comes as second nature. Digital literacy is my focus, as kids are easily captivated by sensationalist clickbait. Instead of looking for valid books, we now have to look for valid sites. Anyone can post a video to YouTube or write a blog. Not all EdTech is created equal, and there is a minefield of potentially harmful content that us educators need to protect young minds from.

What does this mean for us as teachers? Well, according to the thought influencers in education, now that students “know everything”, we have to take a step back and be humble about our lack of knowledge. Rather than being a director, the teacher is now a facilitator. Learning is student centered, not teacher centered. The teacher learns with and from the students. Learning is an exchange. While this approach makes sense and is based on research, it is harder than it seems to implement in elementary schools. This is why I strongly believe in the importance of the methods of the 20th Century Teachers who are still teaching.

Young Children Need 20th Century Teachers 

Because I supply, I see a variety of teaching styles. I used to abhor worksheets and drills, thinking that they are mindless and do nothing to provoke creative thought. This was until I entered a class with no worksheets. All methods were research-driven, pedagogically sound and well-intentioned. Technology was used in the classroom in stimulating and curriculum driven ways. But there was one problem: as soon as the Ipads were taken away, the kids were off the wall.

With primary grades, I have learned that structure, rules, routines and consistency is paramount. The students need a leader. The teacher has to be the director. 21st Century methods have to be introduced gradually, or the kids take over. Trust me, I have been owned by seven year-olds. They need a strict adult in their lives. My go-with-the-flow attitude works with grade 8 and up, but does little for me or the students in the lower grades.

It takes a special type of person to teach primary and junior grades. A strong sense of routine, organization, discipline and dedication to academic skills is the hallmark of an effective teacher of littles. They need to know where they stand. Their brains have not developed yet to embrace ambiguity. The problem with 21st century teaching is the fact that ambiguity is part of the learning process. However, kids need certainty or their anxiety increases. Gradually decreasing the certainty and increasing the ambiguity is the role of the teacher.

Ipads Need to be a Privilege

It is amazing what EdTech can do for the students. Dreambox Math is definitely working. I notice very strong skills from students who use the program. However, students still need to use their heads and hands without the aid of a second silicon brain to solve problems. The 20th century teacher knows this, and knows how to teach these skills. They teach through repetition, and it works. I am all for three-part-math, but there needs to be a drill practice component or the skill that is required to solve the three part lesson will not be reinforced. Drills allow people to see patterns and learn through memory. While drilling can definitely go too far, it can be done tactfully to scaffold learning. Once a teacher knows that the drills are too easy and boring, the teacher should culminate with problem based (three part) math. Inquiry driven learning allows kids to make sense of the math they learn and apply it to the real world. But the main takeaway is this: if they do not have the skills to solve the problem, then what is the point?

The problem with constant access to Ipads is that while they are great tools for learning if used appropriately, a lot of students in the younger grades do not use them for their intended purpose. The content on them that is popular is often hyper stimulating, and when the Ipads are gone to another classroom, their minds are already attuned to the totally rad and intense world of digital reality. Everything else is now boring, and their minds are still looking for stimulation. I notice an immediate reduction in behavioural problems when Ipads are in use, but the behaviour returns when the Ipad is taken away. I think we as educators need to recognize the elephant in the room here: technology is the opiate of the masses and our kids are hooked.

While I am definitely no stranger to tech addiction and I am certainly not a Luddite, we as educators need to find ways to engage students without the screen. The 20th century teachers know how to do this. We as 21st century teachers need to take notes.

Mentoring New Teachers

A diverse workforce is typically desired in social services. I believe this especially holds true for education. Without the wisdom of experienced teachers from another style and philosophy, we may become myopic in our 21st century ways. As teachers retire, I think that it is critical that they mentor the new teachers in some of their ways. This does not mean that new teachers should reject technology, but they should use it as a complement, not as a base of their instruction.

Here’s an idea: why not have retired teachers (who supply) serve as mentors to new hire supply teachers? That way, the new hires learn the ways of the particular region they work in. The retired teachers can also serve as evaluators for new supply teachers when they look to apply for LTOs. I know it would cost a lot, but on the positive side it could help prevent employee turnover due to burnout and stress. I know I could definitely use a mentor right now!

What do You Think?

Do you think new supply teachers should have mentors? Do you think a strict approach is effective with young kids? Is there too much technology in the 21st century classroom? Please let us know in the comments.

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