Mesa teachers stressed, make little use of technology
April 4, 2019
By Kayla Rutledge
Mesa Public School board members appeared blindsided and shocked when a consultant expressed concern about the district’s little use of technology and the mental health of teachers and staff.
After visiting 13 schools and 66 classrooms in five days, strategic planning consultant John Ross highlighted key findings that he suggested may be keeping the district from realizing its vision of graduates with a robust set of knowledge, skills and interests.
The assessment is the first step of what a four-phased master plan for the district, anticipated to roll out in the coming academic year. The district hired Ross for an outsider’s perspective on “the Mesa way.”
“We’re at that point of tension, and that point of tension is we know we need to progress and do some things differently but there’s fear and there’s anxiety around the changes that we need to make,” said Mesa Public Schools Superintendent Ember Conley.
Among Ross’ concerns is that technology has yet to significantly impact teaching and learning outcomes.
Ross said teachers are not receiving enough professional development to utilize those tools properly and that students are not given sufficient opportunities to incorporate technology into each lesson.
“I just don’t see that the technology resources you’ve purchased so far have made a significant impact on practice,” he said.
The consultant added that the most innovative use of technology is occurring in kindergarten to third grade.
He said that the students move up the system, teachers need to continue their advancement in digital education, or their growth risked being stunted.
“They’re moving up your system and they’re going to be ready for more robust learning,” Ross said. “Unfortunately, the most common use of technology I saw was a document camera connected to a projector. The most common resource I saw used by students and 65 percent of classrooms was paper-based.”
The finding raised concerns for board member Jenny Richardson, who drew attention to the district’s significant expenditures on technology while some teachers are “still struggling to turn their document cameras on.”
“What does our public think when we say, ‘hey our computers haven’t made a difference and we’ve spent a lot of money on them’?” Richardson said.
With a projected $7 million in bonds committed to teacher and student devices for the spring, Executive Director of Technology and Communication Helen Hollands assures the board that the district is entering what she called “phase two” of the classroom technology initiative.
Hollands said the district should see returns on their investment to enhance the learning process for teachers and students in the near future.
“My analogy is in order to take off we had to build the launch pad and the rocket, and we did that, and we did that really well. We have a network that is across the district probably the most robust that you will see in a school district, and we put high quality devices in the hands of our teachers first and then our students and we are just ready for that rocket to launch,” Hollands said.
Board members and Conley also were shocked to hear that a common concern throughout the school system is the desire by teachers and staff for more support for their own social and emotional needs – not just students.
Ross said principals are under pressure to handle the emotional needs of others.
While it is not their job to be counselors, he said, they also do not have the proper training to ensure the mental and emotional well-being of teachers and students who lean on them.
Conley agreed, adding that there is a plethora of “untapped” resources available to teachers and staff that are being underutilized –such as the district’s employee assistance program.
“We’ve done a couple different roll outs of this information and you know sometimes when you receive information like this its oftentimes hard to hear… not only do we have a significant crisis for our youth, we’ve really got to work different and progress differently for our staff,” Conley said.
“I’m excited to hear around how we can leverage current resources…We have resources that we’re not fully utilizing so let’s use those first,” she added.
Ross noted this time of year is perhaps one of the most anxiety-ridden for teachers as they have to, “shut their classrooms down into a testing factory.”
He said create less stress around testing time, teachers should be aiming to get students to “learn for learning’s sake,” in order to increase retention rates during testing season.
Ross also expressed concern about student engagement in classes, stating it more a “ritual compliance” rather than an earnest effort to learn.
Ross estimated that 40 percent of elementary students and a mere 20 percent of secondary school students were engaged in class and that the rest likely were just waiting for the bell to ring.
The strategic planning consultant said if comprehension, application of knowledge, strategic thinking and extended thinking are all applied in daily lessons, students will look at testing as “just another day,” and added as a result test scores would improve.
The consultant that added his findings seem consistent across the schools he had the chance to visit, however they may not ring true for every school. Ross said he challenged principals to question his findings and use his methods to collect data of their own.
The next phase is creating the steering committee, which will be comprised of 35 individuals from “all walks of the educational realm” including some board members, cabinet members, students, teachers, parents, and stakeholders. The group will be formed in April and work through July to help further guide the direction of the strategic plan.