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Volume 16, Number 4
July/August 2000

Innovative Teachers Hindered by the "Green-Eyed Monster"


O! Beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on ...

—Othello, William Shakespeare

As an elementary schoolteacher in suburban Boston, Michelle Jacobson talked enthusiastically to individual colleagues during lunch breaks about her students' successful electronic slide show creations and about how such innovative technology had invigorated the learning of her 1st- and 2nd-grade students. But she knew better than to talk that way to a group of teachers. She had heard other colleagues be criticized for such "showing off" and, even without bragging, felt shunned herself by some teachers for introducing new practices into the classroom.

While studying primary schoolteachers who use innovative technologies for my doctoral dissertation, I was struck by an unexpected finding: pioneers like Michelle sometimes downplay their expertise or novel teaching strategies rather than risk evoking jealousy from their peers. In other words, they go underground. In the typical "all for one, one for all" elementary school culture, drawing too much attention to oneself is seen as showing off and invites a hostile response. It can also contribute to a growing uneasiness among traditional teachers that their hard-won teaching style is rapidly becoming obsolete—and so are they. This highlights a distressing paradox: although most teachers support student achievement, they are often ambivalent about, or even hostile toward, the success of their peers.

Despite the contention by experts such as Seymour Papert and Jan Hawkins that early technology training should logically begin with young children, and despite the fact that young children spend much of their school day learning to read and write, many administrators and practitioners don't have a good understanding of strategies for using technology to support early literacy instruction. Couple this with collegial jealousy of those who do use media-enhanced teaching practices, and the classrooms of techno-savvy teachers can easily become pockets of innovation that fail to engender schoolwide change.

In considering the implementation of technology, experts have focused mainly on issues associated with teacher training (e.g., hardware, software, and technical support) and the cultural issues associated with teacher-generated change. However, they have paid scant attention to the complex psychological processes that teachers undergo when some become innovators and change agents and others do not. By merging these bodies of knowledge, we can better help teachers cope with the problem of collegial jealousy that can derail innovative initiatives in schools.

Harvard's Robert Kegan, an expert in adult development, suggests in his constructive-developmental personality theory that one salient characteristic of adults is their dependence on others for a sense of self—that "one's self definitions, purposes, and preoccupying concerns are essentially co-defined, co-determined, and co-experienced." Normally, adults will eventually move into another, more autonomous stage in which the self determines its own standards, morals, and belief systems—one in which being liked is no longer a preoccupation. Yet there remains a powerful yearning for both community and personal agency—that is, while generally people want to contribute to the overall welfare of others, they also desire recognition for their unique qualities and accomplishments—and many people toggle between the two stages.

According to Kegan, institutions do not typically serve our longing for both community and agency well. Elementary schools, for example, place a greater emphasis on community, where collaboration and sharing are highly valued forms of behavior—more valued perhaps than individual innovation. As Dan C. Lortie has written: "The traditions of teaching make people who seek money, prestige, or power somewhat suspect: the characteristic style in public education is to mute personal ambition."

Thus, in a typical school, innovative teachers may bend over backwards to avoid threatening the school's sense of community, so that in trying to achieve a balance between sharing their expertise and overpowering others, they downplay potentially effective new resources and techniques.

During the 1996-97 school year, I examined the practice of three primary-grade teachers and their strategies for integrating new technologies into reading and language arts curricula. Although the findings are limited to these three case studies and therefore are not generalizable, the fact that these teachers attempted to develop their vision without threatening their peers has important implications for other practitioners who stand poised at the vanguard of school change.

What happens when a teacher tries to bring innovation into the classroom? That depends on how that person deals with collegial envy and jealousy. In my study, two of the teachers (one was Michelle) felt that, while comfortable with their own knowledge and level of innovation, they were not ready to "publicly" share with other teachers their cutting-edge techniques—such as conversing with parents via e-mail or using interesting Internet sites in classes.

The third teacher felt more comfortable in her role as an innovator and, with the support of her principal, talked openly about the changes taking place in her classroom. Because this teacher was comfortable sharing her methods and showcasing her students' activities, she was in a position to improve, expand, and use her experiences to teach other teachers how to integrate these new technologies into their classrooms. Interestingly, she worked in a district where administrators stressed the need to "hothouse" innovative practices. She was given permission to develop her own personal agency—to become a star, in other words. Professional jealousy in this case revealed itself not in only other teachers' trying to intimidate her, but in their flat-out rejection of what she was trying to achieve through educational technology.

The issue of collegial jealousy and how it can become a barrier to innovative teaching may be one of the most important challenges we educators face. Most teachers value teamwork and want to be accepted by their peers; they do not want to appear to be playing a game of oneupsmanship when demonstrating their technological achievements. Yet what they have to share about the effective use of new technologies can have important benefits for other teachers, and, especially, for their students. Students who are knowledgeable about ways to use computers to aid their own learning will be better prepared for the types of jobs they will encounter in the 21st century.

Throughout the past decade, studies have shown that for technology to be successfully integrated into classrooms, teachers need release time to experiment with computer software, the Internet and other innovations away from pressures of the classroom; follow-up support when implementing new techniques; and ample opportunities to network with colleagues beyond their own school through graduate-level courses, technology groups, and professional conferences. Studies also show they need first-hand exposure to successful models of teaching using new technologies—which is unlikely to happen in a school where even subtle forms of professional jealousy can interfere with the sharing of technological expertise.

At the same time, I'd suggest we need to seriously consider ways to support personal development along with professional development. This combination would help teachers become innovators without threatening their colleagues in the highly collaborative elementary school culture and thereby evoking the green-eyed monster.

Julie M. Wood is a lecturer in the Technology in Education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and director of the America Reads program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She wrote about literacy and technology in The Digital Classroom, a new book from the Harvard Education Letter.

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