My former Superintendent Dick Ayers used to say, “Teaching is a contact sport”. As his central office career closed, he was witnessing the movement toward inanimate technology substituting for educators. A number of New Hampshire School Boards have advocated for decreasing school budgets by cutting teachers and increasing online opportunities.
This weekend the Wall Street Journal published an article entitled “My Teacher is an App”, a treatise on how public schools are moving toward online courses at the expense of brick and mortar schools. Indeed, they quote from the Evergreen Education Group that an estimated 250,000 students in this country are enrolled in virtual schools, up 40% in the last three years. Clearly, this trend has implications for the future of education. Teacher unions in particular decry this movement. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, a leading proponent of online schooling, says that digital learning will happen with or without support from the unions. He states that he is “willing to go to war” over this issue. In a passionate response to the Wall Street Journal article, education blogger and Web 2.0 expert Will Richardson criticizes what he sees as a “disheartening and disturbing vision” of what education could become.
What affect could this have on educational leaders? The answer lies in the potential repercussions to education from digitalization, but inevitably, the soul of our field is bound to suffer. The Boards of Education looking to save money and the technology corporations looking to make money are missing the point. Since education should be a “contact sport”, students may lose out on the depth of knowledge that comes from human interaction if learning moves to an online venture. In the many courses I have taught online both to prospective teachers and Principals, I’ve learned that true Socratic discussion is nearly impossible via Internet discussion boards.
Mike Morgan, Superintendent of New Hampshire SAU 16, extols the virtues of “the Soulful Leader” and has defined what this looks like:
The Soulful Leader values and attends to relationships as much as to tasks and outcomes, valuing the sacredness of the other person. A teacher stripped of her ability to interact in person with her students will likely not seek or need the same level of interaction with a soulful leader, thereby diminishing the natural synergy that can exist between school leader, teacher, and student. The building of positive school culture is almost symbiotic in that affirming, caring relationships and its productive results spread throughout an institution.
The Soulful Leader works in collaboration rather than in hierarchal…fashion. No doubt, collaboration is a significant component of Web 2.0 technology. But that’s not what this profit motive is suggesting. In fact, Richardson states that “direct instruction and standardization will make us less competitive, not more”. The world we are living in and our students are growing up in, will require live collaboration skills, ready to engage in creative partnerships. Leaders must model this as we work to maximize the talent on our staff that is only discovered in a collaborative environment.
Teachers are not “apps”. Teachers are credentialed and adept facilitators of learning, helping their students discover how to change the world for the better. Technology tools serve to exult and support the educational skills we know to be critical in the 21st Century. Teacher leaders and building leaders need to fight against the depersonalization that the inappropriate implementation of technology may bring to our schools. If we are not careful, soulful leadership will deteriorate into ordinary management and the spectacular advantages we enjoy from technology will be potentially lost in a mire of misuse.