Technology Isn’t Adaptable; Teachers Are


It’s been a difficult couple of days for the district as they continue to push their technology initiative.

Finley Remains In Madison

First, the newly hired Coordinator of Technology Education, who was hired in a nearly private, specially called school board meeting on Friday, has decided that she doesn’t really want to be involved in the district’s move to the digital nirvana that the superintendent and his team have been promising us for the past couple of months. Monday, the day after being hired by Huntsville City Schools, Dr. Finley decided that her talents and skills would be best kept exactly where they currently are in Madison.

Dr. Fowler seemed genuinely pleased to have her back.

I have no knowledge of why she decided to change her mind and stay in Madison, but I’m sure that as she hears about the first day of teacher training on incorporating technology into their classrooms that she’ll be THRILLED that she stayed in Madison.

Tuesday, across the district, our teachers had their first training session from Pearson at a cost of $1,353,771 for this year alone. Some of the district’s teachers met at Columbia High, some at Lee High/New Century, and some at Huntsville High. These three schools were chosen because of the size of their auditoriums and each of them have “completed” their digital upgrade: their network systems are completed and ready for the first day of school.

Or so the district believed.

Technology Fails

At 8:00am yesterday, the superintendent and a Pearson representative were at the Huntsville High meeting holding a discussion of the digital conversion and to kick off the training session. The discussion and the initial training was supposed to be distributed from Huntsville High to Lee/New Century and Columbia via a video teleconference.

VTC has been around since the 1970s, and it’s typically a great way to conduct a city-wide meeting without having to find a location large enough to hold every teacher in the district. They’re great when they work properly.

Yesterday’s VTC, however, was a disaster.

Even though the training began promptly at 8:00am at Huntsville High, the teachers sitting in the Lee/New Century auditorium and the Columbia auditorium were unable to participate because their screens were dark. Their audio was silent.

For those at Columbia, these technical difficulties continued until about 9:20am when they finally got the video. The audio didn’t kick in until about 9:40am. When it finally came through, I’m told that the video and the audio were out of sync for the remainder of the conference.

An hour and a half of the million dollar training was spent sitting in the dark.

But the fiasco didn’t end then. No, that was simply beginning.

WiFi Fails

Approximately 900-1000 elementary teachers sitting in the 800 seat Columbia auditorium were divided up into groups of 30, sent to separate classrooms and told to log onto the Pearson website to take a quick a preliminary exam on their technology knowledge, after the teleconference ended.

The pre-test shouldn’t take long; it’s simply a tool to evaluate what level of instruction the teachers needed.

Except when the 900-1000 teachers tried to get on the Internet, they found that they simply weren’t getting through. They couldn’t connect.

The wireless network, the backbone of the new digital initiative, could not handle the network load of having 900-1000 people trying to browse the Internet.

And this was a problem, as I understand it, at all three of the schools.

Periodically, someone would come over the intercom asking people to disconnect from the internet so that enough IP addresses could be freed up to allow others to complete the pre-test.

They continued to rotate through the groups of 30 until, finally, everyone had managed to complete the test.

Suffice it to say, Dr. Julie Finley’s decision to stay in Madison looks brighter and brighter all the time, doesn’t it?

Computers Are Tools

Attempting to convert a district of 23,000 students and several thousand teachers to a digital learning environment in a period of basically two months isn’t ambitious, it’s reckless. It’s another example of change for change’s sake that the Superintendent likes to engage in.

Technology is important, but it isn’t more important than reflection, consideration and planning. Technology is important, but it isn’t more important than personnel, and personal interaction in the teaching process. Technology is important, but it isn’t more important than a teacher who can use the technological tool to enhance learning. Technology is a means to an end; it is not an end in itself.

In order for that to be successful, you must have clear planning, along with a strong commitment to education and to teachers who implement a clear curriculum to help students make connections between what they know now and what they need to know.

Despite the superintendent’s desire, technology cannot replace the wisdom that a teacher brings to the classroom to excite a child to learn. And that wisdom only comes with experience.

Teachers Adapt

For the past two months, we’ve heard nothing from the Superintendent, the board, and their chosen partners except how hard it is to excite a “21st student” to actually pay attention long enough to learn something. They have claimed that the only possible why to teach a 21st century child is with new technology.

I’ve taught students during both the 20th and 21st centuries, and you know what? They are both difficult to engage and excite. They are both easily distracted. They both struggle with higher order, critical thinking.

Students haven’t changed that dramatically in 12 years. They’re still interested in the world around them when they have someone to point out interesting things. They’re still moved by great stories when the stories are told by interesting storytellers. They’re still driven to find answers to difficult questions when they have someone to show them the relevance of the question. They’re still passionate and curious when they are surrounded by people who value passion and curiosity.

It isn’t any harder to get a 21st century student interested in learning than it was to do so in the 20th century, or the 19th. And what worked then still works today.

If you pair a student to a teacher who is free to get to know the student, discover and incorporate the student’s passions, interests, and talents into a curriculum, that teacher will teach and the student will learn.

Computers are tools. They’re quite useful tools, but they’re still tools. For a tool to be of any use at all, there must be a person who knows how to best make use of the right tool, at the right time, in the right manner, and for the right reason.

Without that person, the tool is at best useless. At worse, it’s dangerous.

Dr. Wardynski’s obsession with technology is hurting our district. By focusing so narrowly on a single tool to assist in the process of education, he’s failing to pay adequate attention to filling our classrooms with human beings who can inspire, encourage, cajole when necessary, discuss, challenge, and love.

There are no short cuts in education. It’s difficult, and it has been for a long time. But throughout those years, there remains one constant in education: people, not standardized testing and not computers. People, in the form of teachers, are the central, necessary element to education.

Hopefully now the superintendent understands that investing in people, while certainly expensive, will pay countless (uncountable) dividends. It’s well past time that our district began focusing on people again. Technology isn’t adaptable when new situations arise, but teachers are.

Maybe now we can start investing in people again.

"Children see magic because they look for it." --Christopher Moore, Lamb: The Gospel according to Biff, Jesus' childhood pal.


  1. Add this to the to-do list for the HCS before school opens:
    1. Removing the Seldon Center, closed since May, from the website’s list of alternative schools. [http://www.hsv.k12.al.us/schools_Centers.php]
    2. Posting the 2012-2013 Student Handbook, if there is one.

    Now remind us again, how many new suits were hired to assist W in admin this year?

  2. I read with great interest your comments about HCS’s “investment” and focus on technology. I agree 100% that technology is just another tool with which to provide our beloved students a better and more varied education.

    Most definitely the dedicated, professional teachers make learning happen. I honestly do NOT remember all the textbooks and other resources I was required to study and use throughout my academic career, but I do remember my dear teachers. THEY provided inspiration, motivation, encouragement, criticism and correction, kindness, patience, guidance, and yes, LOVE. Because of them and my mother, I was a very good student who enjoyed everything about school, and through learning I grew to feel that I was capable, intelligent, creative, responsible, and talented enough to become anything I wanted to be. And what I wanted to be was a TEACHER. I say that with joy in my heart and with the greatest of pride. It is a fine and honorable calling to be an educator. I consider myself a life-long learner. I am more than willing to try new things, attend workshops and conferences for professional development, to be open and creative, but I also realize that it takes the average adult (and child) more than a few days to really master new techniques, programs, methods, etc. But, of course, I am an educator, and Dr. W. is NOT!

    It is utterly ridiculous to expect teachers to adapt to and master totally new textbooks and a totally new way of providing instruction, assignments, tests, grades, etc., in less than 4 working days. Training on this new system is for three days, and teachers are expected not only to have lesson plans in place utilizing the new textbook program, but to have mastered this new technological wonder by Monday so that they can instruct the students on how to use the program. Really, Dr. W., . . . could YOU do that in 4 working days?
    Yes, there is Friday plus a 2 day weekend before students return on Monday, but should teachers spend every waking moment between now and then trying to learn ALL that needs to be mastered? Teachers have a life outside of the classroom no matter how dedicated they are to their students.

    My question is this — WHY can’t we get common sense issues and opinions such as yours and mine OUT TO THE COMMUNITY? Unless we do, Dr. W. and his cohorts and “yes men” will continue to ruin this wonderful school system and make even more changes just for change’s sake.

    We as teachers are AFRAID to speak out because we fear losing our jobs or being punished or shunned in some way by our administrators . . . or being forced to go another school.
    Quite frankly I’m tired of smiling sweeting, being so nice about all of this chaos and change Dr. W. has brought to us, and pretending that I like all these changes. For the most part, the changes are creating a lot of EXPENSE, costing us a lot of time that we could spend planning, researching, and teaching, and putting way too much STRESS on far too many good teachers. I see NO real proof that his changes are working to make HCS a better place to teach and learn. I just see stressed out and over worked teachers, confused parents and students, and lots of money being wasted.

    And another thing. . . very few teachers I know like the idea of using the Teach for America “teachers” in our schools. In the tri-county area there are countless numbers of certified education professionals who want a teaching job and who truly care about the children in this community and school system. They have something vested here. Their past, present, and future are here in Huntsville.
    It is a slap in the face to those of us who grew up here attending area schools, then attended our state colleges earning our teaching credentials as required, and now we are expected to “mentor” and welcome these TFA people who have only had 5-6 weeks of education classes! REALLY??? Are you kidding me. . . they are as good as we are or better? No way!!!! I’ve read a great deal about the TFA program, and I’ve seen the statistics on the lifespan of their so-called teaching careers. These TFA folks are NOT true professional educators; they are working a job on a 2 year contract and that’s about it.

    Ok, I’ve expressed my many opinions and will end now. Thanks for listening and for being brave and honest enough to put these issues out there for all of us. I just wish all of Huntsville (especially parents) could see this information. Keep up the great work!

    1. Lyn,

      Thank you for your comments and ideas. I agree with you and appreciate your taking the time to write and share your ideas. While it’s true that the superintendent has a larger bullhorn (he has his own TV station, after all, as well as access to the media nearly anytime he wants it), these ideas are being heard.

      Word of mouth is a much larger bullhorn than most people imagine.

      Yes, TFA is a slap in the face from a superintendent who disregards the importance of education.

      Thanks for all you do to make our world a better place. And thanks for reading.


    2. I admire you for speaking out as a teacher. I expect you will hear many words of support in the next few days. I’m less optimistic that others will stand publicly stand with you, especially if retaliation is in the cards.

      You know, we hear a lot about how the Alabama Education Association is so powerful, but I don’t see them standing up for the teachers and staff in the HCS.

      Things won’t change until the Board does. For the seats open this year, I hope voters choose the candidates most radically different from the passive rubber-stampers sitting in the soft chairs now. I don’t know if the present Board members can’t represent their constituents because they haven’t bothered to find out what people think — and that would require informing the public what they plan to approve before they approve it (or better still, before they decide whether to approve or not — you see how easy it is to get used to the non-democracy that is Huntsville?), or if they have been intimidated into accepting W’s agenda. But why don’t they have blogs? Why don’t they respond to posts here? Why don’t they have FB pages?

      It is ironic that what technology can add to our culture — real citizen participation, like you see on change.org [ex of effectiveness: http://havealittletalk.wordpress.com/2012/07/24/thank-you-savannah-dietrich/%5D — is completely ignored by the Board who approved a $1.3 million+ contract with Pearson.

      The people and press of Huntsville need to be less passive. The power is now all with one man, when it should be with the people. That is what public schools are about.

  3. Why am I not surprised by what you described in this post? I HOPE I’m wrong but the problems listed here are the least of my concerns.

    As for the reason patents aren’t speaking out it’s because they have no one to speak out too. Their school board rep goes along to get along and if the media tells them what they want them to know instead of what they need to know to make informed decisions.

    BTW any reporting on the nepotism policy yet?.

  4. Typo should read if the media reports on school district policy they tell the public what they want them to know instead of what they need to know to make informed decisions.

  5. One of the biggest mistakes W made coming in IMO was not getting teachers on his side, but he didn’t do that because he doesn’t care if they are on his side or not. They are as expendable and replaceable as any other piece of furniture in the school. So he has spent all this money on technology when teachers haven’t gotten a raise in 3 years! It just seems to me like easing into the technology would be a smarter way to go. Maybe at one elementary, one middle and one high school for the first year and then expand. I welcome that my son won’t have to carry all those books home in order to complete his homework, but from what I am hearing from numerous teacher friends, they are very unprepared to use the technology with the small amount of training they have had. I am anticipating a huge server crash when everyone tries to log on the first time. And what about the older teacher who is not tech-savvy? They will have to adapt to be sure, but that will not be a speedy process either and the cost is student’s education.
    And what about the “Loyalty Pledge” they were “strongly encouraged” to sign? I know several teachers who have refused.

    1. The Loyalty Pledge???!!!???

      I guess it would be a violation of said pledge to share it with the taxpayers and true stakeholders of the system.

      I thought Alabama’s teachers were unionized. Am I mistaken?

      I foresee a great revenue increase at Lanier Ford Shaver & Payne, the firm in which school board attorney JR Brooks is a partner, and to which Hellsville taxpayers send some $60K a month business on slower months.

      1. Yep. On July 26th, Dr. Wardynski had Dr. Cooper make a “Key Staffing Affirmations” presentation that would be signed by all of the new hires, and previously hired teachers would have the “opportunity” to sign off on this as well.

        Here’s a link to the powerpoint.

    2. I agree Andrea. He doesn’t care about teachers at all.

      I’m glad to hear that some of the teachers are refusing to sign the “loyalty pledge.” If Dr. Wardynski weren’t so threatened by people of intelligence, he’d recognize the futility of such a demand. As it is, this “strong leader” must resort to threats and intimidation, and even insubordination to get his way.

      Maturity is sorely lacking in our district’s leadership.

      Thank you for your service to our community.

  6. As you know, I’m a technogeek like you and I love computers, grew up with computers, work daily to design computers, live and breath computers. However, to shove a bunch of computers into the hands of all students with no plan for how to use them, no evaluation as to the best way to use them, no consultation with teachers as to how to implement them in classes, is preposterous. Like the idea of getting rid of books? A tablet *might* be a sufficient replacement, although I’d prefer an honest-to-goodness book that I can flip through. However, most of the students are getting LAPTOPS, a poor form-factor for book reading in my opinion.

    The push for computers in the schools seems to me to be only an attempt to check off a box so we can tell voters that we’re “high tech.” It doesn’t matter that we’re the best educators. (Yeah…I know Russ….I sound like you.)

    It strikes me as ironic that the school system is implementing computers in the classroom to reach a “21st century student” when the school system itself is anything but 21st century. Basic financial data and budgets are not available on-line for scrutiny. School websites are poorly constructed with tons of broken links. Central office communications are rarely on-line. On-line student data (grades, schedules, etc.) are partially available through a very klunky interface. Meeting agendas many times don’t get posted prior to the meeting and meeting minutes are woefully late. Board members are rarely interactive with the community when many avenues of on-line interaction could be used.

    I’d like to see the board/central office get their own houses in order before pushing this to classrooms not prepared to make the best use of it, and distracting them from their core reason for being there…the teaching of reading, writing, and arithmetic.

    1. Excellent points as always, bonehead2. The situation at the training stayed bad all week. This digital transition is not going to result in higher test scores.

  7. And that is all that matters, higher test scores. I am really trying to embrace the technology thing, I really am. I put the Kindle app on my ipad and have read a couple of books on there, but a textbook seems like another animal to me. When I was in college I never resold any textbhooks (ok, well Math because math is for people who hate themselves ha!) but none of my English books because they we all marked up with notes, underlined & highlighted. I still refer to them!

    Aside from the issues with the technology, a recently retired FACS teacher told me that W said he wanted to get rid of that entirely (FACS=Family and Consumer Sciences) and if that is the case can Art, Music, Theatre & Dance be far behind? All of these classes are important to the well rounded student/gradulate IMHO.

    1. OMG! I had not heard that the Warden wanted to do way with FACS—you are right Andrea Art, Music, Theatre & Dance will follow. He is a cancer in our system.

  8. I understand that today didn’t go well at CMS on the technology front. Even without most of the students even bringing their laptops (they were told not to bring them until Tues.) the teachers couldn’t use the computers to bring up their various lesson material. Apparently even just the teacher demand on the network was too much. Everything running too slowly….

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