The Tech-Empowered Teacher

Using tools to bring out the scholar and artist within.

GUEST COLUMN | by Mike Saenz

CREDIT Mike SaenzTeacher turnover is high. There are teacher shortages in the United States. Teachers everywhere complain of being overworked and clamor that they are overburdened by administrative tasks and the need to keep up with the latest educational trends and technologies. But I say, it is an exciting, joyful and empowering time to teach. Properly used, two often overlooked aspects of technology have the power to set the teacher free, give him back control of his course, and allow him to realize his potential as a scholar and artist as the profession rightly demands.

The student should walk away not thinking about how many disparate facts there are in a subject, and as such how difficult it is, but rather how simple the subject is and how he now “gets” it.

The first technological tool that has the power to transform teaching is the course customization feature in many online curricula (we use Odysseyware at my campus). This feature allows teachers to not only insert lessons from a huge bank of alternative courses into his course, it also allows the teacher to create and insert original lessons in the same format as the rest of the course. This feature is often touted as beneficial because it allows the teacher to customize his course to meet his students’ intellectual needs more specifically. And while this is important, it is not the biggest benefit to the teacher and student.

The profession-changing benefit to course customization is the teacher’s ability to compose his course. The course composed is a unique product of the mind of the teacher. The teacher, properly prepared, should have a vision of his course that is carefully designed to create in the mind of the student an integrated whole. Not a series of disconnected pieces of knowledge or skills, but a sense of an understanding of the subject itself in its entirety. The student should walk away not thinking about how many disparate facts there are in a subject, and as such how difficult it is, but rather how simple the subject is and how he now “gets” it. Course customization not only allows the teacher to realize his vision as an integrated whole that he can stand behind 100 percent, but it has the outward appearance of an integrated whole to the student since it has a seamless, consistent format.

What I am suggesting course customization can help teachers achieve (and what I strive for in my classroom) is transforming the educational product into a work of art. What makes art special is that it creates a supremely unique experience. It does this by making every detail important and purposeful toward its overall goal, and when those details are integrated by a single mind, the experience is stylized. The more stylized the better. In fact, it could be argued that the very purpose of any stylization is educational. Poetry and song lyrics are easier to remember than prose. When thinking about how to be a good person it is easier to ask “What would Atticus do?” than to remember Kant’s Categorical Imperative from your college ethics class.

In short, to be an effective teacher, you need to be a stylized character, and your curriculum should be your tool to achieve a stylized class, a work of art that is a unique, unrepeatable experience for your student.

I think the biggest problem teachers face with today’s students (older students especially) is that students aren’t sold on the importance of the work they are asked to do. To them, it is often a series of hoops to jump through to attain a goal of class credit or diploma. This shouldn’t be surprising. The more the educational product is determined by people who are not in the classroom, the more education becomes standardized, the less of a unique and special experience the course will be for the student. However, the course customization technology available today allows the teacher to become the primary composer of the educational experience. If he is able, he can make the course a work of art, and what art does through its stylization is say, “This is important! This is worth thinking about!”

The other aspect of technology that makes now a great time to teach is the enormous information at the teacher’s whim. The entire public domain is at my disposal. Becoming the scholar I need to be in order to make my course a work of art is easier than ever. Our online curriculum has the equivalent of a hundred textbooks on my laptop. I (and my students) can with just a few clicks either study persuasiveness by watching speeches by Martin Luther King Jr. or by reading Demosthenes and Lysias. Modeling the life of a life-long learner has never been easier. Better still, thanks to the ease of information access today, the teacher’s continued self-education can easily be unique to his needs and interests, making him and his class even more stylized.

There’s great irony in teachers resisting technology. The very presence of technology is an indicator of successfully educated individuals. If teachers are not interested in embracing technology, then it appears they are flipping the famous saying by Isocrates into “The root of education is sweet, but bitter are its fruits.” Technology is simply a group of available tools. If teachers first express to themselves their goals as educators, the things that will make them joyful and flourish as educators, they can find tools in technology to help them.

Mike Saenz (mikesaenz.org), a lover of philosophy and amateur composer, is an English and music teacher at Falls Career High School in Marble Falls, Texas.

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2 Responses to The Tech-Empowered Teacher

  1. Pingback: The Tech-Empowered Teacher | Norm's Teachers Blog

  2. Great article Mike! We feel the same way. The teacher needs to be empowered and that’s why we have created a product that lets them do just that. Steve Jobs had his sights set on disrupting education by letting users create artistic works. Our product is called Palitt and lets a user do just that. The teacher needs to adapt to the environment they are teaching in and since they are the one who actually know the audience the best, shouldn’t they be the one to curate as well?

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