By Al Kingsley
As the pandemic swept through the country, school leaders understood two things: they needed to make sure students had the technology needed to learn remotely and, because of all the upheaval Covid-19 caused, they needed to pay attention to the social emotional needs of their students.
It’s no surprise that the percentage of districts offering 1:1 initiatives doubled for grades 6-12 and tripled for elementary schools, according to a new brief from the American School District Panel. But what was lesser known was that these same schools bolstered the mental health programming offered to students. Now 70 percent of schools offer these services, a rise of 20 percent just since the pandemic began.
While tracking the social-emotional needs of students can be difficult, the Center on Reinventing Public Education attempted to do just that through a meta analysis of various studies. Its findings back up what those in education likely already knew: 30 percent to 40 percent of young people have experienced negative impacts on their mental or social-emotional health during the pandemic.
“Rates of anxiety and attempted suicides, already on the rise pre-pandemic, appear to have increased among all students, especially among girls.”
Intuitively, teachers and support staff have always looked out for the well-being of students. That kind of care is hard wired into educators. But with stresses piled upon both teachers and support staff, it can become harder for these people to ensure that students are cared for, especially in these times of rapid changes.
School leaders know that reducing the stress on their staff will have a trickle-down effect that will help children. But as they look for ways to lighten the work their teachers and IT staff face, they may be ignoring one area that can help.
It is true that software, when deployed poorly, can add to a staff’s burden by piling new tasks to an already overly busy day. But there are plenty of tools that can lessen teachers’ work, help those teachers keep limits on the length of their day, and even help reduce the stress felt by an IT staff.
First, let me state what schools should avoid doing: Don’t buy software that creates additional challenges for your staff. Aim for a tool that will become embedded and will make an impact on students.
Think of your goal this way: When teachers are being observed, they don’t create lesson plans that use technology they aren’t comfortable with. Ask yourself if a new program is likely to be included when a teacher prepares for an official observation. If it is, then it is a vital tool that helps teachers. If it is not, it may not be worth the trouble of buying and training the staff to use.
I’m the first to admit that measuring a staff’s social-emotional needs can be difficult
But here you need to think about the big picture. If we all agree that teachers are overly stressed, any tool that can lessen their work, say by automating a trivial task, is worth it. Listen to your staff’s feedback and incorporate their opinions into your process. By treating them as the professionals they are, they will feel valued. This just might translate into better retention rates down the road.
Since school often demands that teachers and other staff continue to work past the “official” end of the school day, I suggest adding some simple tools that can stop email communications past a certain time.
But just as important as trying to limit burnout, is to allow teachers to collaborate. While teaching can be isolating, it is easy to use technology to create groups that will allow teachers to interact on a personal level about the work they are doing. All social creatures need to connect and teachers are certainly no different.
Apply the same considerations to your IT staff
Many tools can help overwhelmed IT departments. The first should be a software that can help manage a district’s rapidly growing portfolio of devices. A good management system has to track devices, inventory both hardware and software, and keep track of software licenses. But for those not familiar with these tools, there are more features to be considered, including options that chart power management, allow for USB endpoint security, and offer printer monitoring and internet metering.
One thing I’ve learned in my 30 years of experience in edtech, is that you might think reducing the number of tools teachers can use is good, but too much standardization can be a problem. Different teachers probably need different tools to do their jobs well; allowing them to choose what works for their style will improve productivity.
Nele Morrison, the technology director at Pittsburg Independent School District in Texas, realized the importance of teacher choice during the pandemic. When his district of 2,500 students ramped up a 1:1 program quickly in the spring of 2020, Morrison says that some of the veteran teachers he thought might struggle making the change “surprised everyone” by how well they adapted.
He and his six-person IT staff had to remind themselves that their preconceived notion of how teachers should work didn’t fit all teachers. “There are more ways to skin a cat.”
Morrison says that breaking out of that viewpoint allowed him to understand that his job was to provide teachers with an array of tools they could use and that no one path was right or wrong.
This is a massive opportunity for change. I’m confident that the improved communication school leaders learned during the pandemic will continue to pay benefits in the future.
Al Kingsley is the CEO of NetSupport and the author of 2021’s My Secret EdTech Diary: Looking at Education Technology Through a Wider Lens.