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Teachers Teaching Teachers

The new 21st Century Teachers Network has an approach to technology-related professional development that may be the wave of the future.

by / April 30, 1999
In December, Linda Roberts, director of education technology for the U.S. Department of Education, announced the results of a nationwide teachers poll on the status of technology-related staff development. The findings, according to Roberts, indicated that classroom technology produced higher student achievement only when teachers had access to appropriate staff-development activities.

That same day, before 2,500 teachers in Washington, D.C., Roberts introduced the 21st Century Teachers Network, 21CT, an organization whose goal is to fill the gap between technology and higher student achievement through the education of teachers.

"The revolution in teaching that technology can offer will not happen unless teachers are given the opportunity and support to help lead it," Roberts said.

So began the largest experiment in volunteer-based teacher mentoring. The network is now a nationwide movement encouraging teachers to develop new technology skills and use those skills in the classroom. Using online forums, tutorials and other resources at its Web site , 21CT is attempting to give teachers the support and knowledge they need to become true leaders in the effective use of technology in schools.

By Teachers, For Teachers

While there are several professional development initiatives nationwide, this one is different in that the network is run by teachers for teachers. Those who receive training are asked to share their knowledge with five colleagues. This new spin on staff development is unique because it makes teachers responsible for their own education and makes learning available to them at any time through the Internet. If proven successful, this combination of training, online support and guidance may be the future of professional development.

"The approach most schools take on professional development of teachers is to send them to take courses to learn this stuff," said David Aylward, 21CT's founder. "While that is important, I didn't learn how to do my job by going to school. I learned by doing, by watching peers, by talking to people. That's what we want to do with 21CT."

Aylward's background is in communications, but a friend convinced him several years ago to help give something back to education. He and several others contributed money to form a charity called the McGuffey Project, which focused on recruiting teacher leaders who understood the power of educational technology to help transform education.

"Teachers are the largely ignored group in all efforts being made in the area of educational technology," Aylward said.

Meanwhile, the White House launched the 21st Century Teachers Initiative in 1996. Lacking money and volunteers, the project failed to progress. That's when Aylward was approached with the idea of taking over 21CT and combining both efforts. With the help of a $1 million, three-year grant from the University of Phoenix, and the support of various organizations including the National School Boards Association, the Software Publishers Association, Tech Corps and the International Society for Technology in Education, the network was officially launched in December.

Ganging up on Isolation

The primary goal of 21CT is to bring together teachers, technology experts and other resources to develop effective technology programs that can be replicated across the country. The organization is currently forming chapters in several states and foreign countries. To date, more than 4,500 teachers are participating.

"Essentially, the network is all about overcoming the isolation that teachers face and providing them an ongoing movement, a place for them to interact with their peers and with outsiders," Aylward said.

An important part of 21CT, according to Aylward, is helping teachers learn to become leaders. "Teachers generally don't believe they're allowed to be leaders," he said. "In most schools teachers are not players in the decision-making process because nobody has ever given them the confidence to be leaders. We're teaching them how to lead and supporting their efforts."

"Teachers want to be able to articulate their needs and be empowered to work together, along with the business community, parents, technicians and government," said Teresa Wilkins, a full-time teacher and technology coordinator at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in Baltimore County, Md. "This scenario is what 21CT is all about."

The 21CT intranet is the primary tool used to bring teachers together. Software at the site matches teachers with programs they want to be involved in and makes networking and collaboration easy.

"There are a lot of educational Web sites around, but this isn't one of them," Aylward said. "The 21CT network is a tool around which teachers can build their own technology education."

Art Wolinsky is the New Jersey 21CT chapter leader. While he believes in person-to-person professional development, he always encourages teachers to use 21CT in conjunction with that type of training.

"Professional development leaders who are doing face-to-face work with their people can then go to 21CT to continue that connection," he said. "That provides teachers a way of staying in touch with the people who trained them and a place to get in touch with other mentors and people who might be able to help them in the future."

Wolinsky said his goal is to make teachers aware of what changes are necessary to infuse their classrooms with technology. "It's about changing the way we're teaching overall," he said. "Technology is an important tool we can use for that."

"This network is great because it gives teachers one specific place they can go to connect with each other and share ideas and get help if they need it," said Debbie Erck, who formed a 21CT chapter to support her school in Cedar Hill, Texas. One of Erck's primary initiatives is to form partnerships with teachers from the Texas Computer Education Association. Her plan is to involve Texas educators in an effort to integrate technology in all areas of education. "I wouldn't be able to do that without a support network," she said.

Building the Bridge

As the network expands, Aylward said it will become the bridge that connects professional development to improved student performance in the classroom. He said he also hopes it will allow teachers to become truly skilled at helping other teachers learn to use technology to transform education.

"I hope this network can help tens of thousands of teachers improve how they operate in the classroom and empower them to become leaders in education," he said. "After all, if teachers get the professional development and the support they need, students will benefit by getting a more valid education."

Justine Kavanaugh-Brown is editor in chief of California Computer News, a Government Technology sister publication. Email

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