On everyday applications of emergent technologies to support teacher prep and planning while preventing burnout

By: Kate O’Brian

As fears about widespread cheating with AI have been assuaged in recent headlines, I have a confession to make: I’ve been using technology to “cheat” on everyday tasks since working towards my undergraduate degree. On top of that, I believe it’s about time teachers start “cheating” more often with automation and AI. 

Of course, I don’t mean “cheating” as in plagiarism or dishonesty. I started my career in the studio art world, so I’m usually the first person to insist we give credit where credit is due and strive for authentic, original, and meaningful work. But what about professional tasks that require none of those qualities—authenticity, originality, or meaning? What about the rote administrative work that makes up a large portion of the increasingly-demanding workloads that still threaten teacher retention and wellbeing post-pandemic?

To illustrate what kind of “cheating” could help teachers stay teaching for longer, I’ll share a snapshot from my undergraduate years: when I was studying Studio Art, I couldn’t get into Design 101 until my very last semester in college. By then, I was a full-blown graphic design geek with all but one course’s worth of traditional art training far behind me. But during the height of the pandemic, with all on-campus studios shut down, I was asked to find time—and, more importantly, space undisturbed by my five chaotic roommates—to go back to all the messy basics. 

Rather than convert my bedroom in our packed DC townhouse into an oil painting studio, I did what graphic designers do best: I learned to thrive within my constraints. Using as much of the traditional methods as I could, I’d leverage my tech skills when space or materials ran out. The nearly-finished still life painting became a mini multimedia masterpiece with a few Photoshop touch-ups. The tarot-inspired paper cutting took off with some help from the laser cutter reserved at the library’s Maker Hub. And, most importantly, making do with my strengths and resources allowed me to spend my time and energy on personal priorities rather than the world’s limitations that semester. 

I see a clear parallel between those pandemic-era digital workarounds and the tech landscape that teachers are facing today. The web is buzzing with hype around emergent technologies like automation and artificial intelligence, but spectators seem decidedly split on whether or not it’s acceptable to leverage them in all aspects of daily life. The pandemic had a devastating impact on the teaching workforce, and teachers who remain in the field are in desperate need of effective strategies to manage multiple responsibilities while also preventing burnout. Artificial intelligence and automation, at their best, can be a part of one such strategy. After all, teachers aren’t often hired for their meticulous formatting abilities or email-drafting prowess. We’re in this field because of our creativity, passion, and empathy, so actually applying those skills should be our top priority. 

I’m a firm believer that using automation and AI at work is far from unethical. These innovations can actually allow educators to spend more time and resources on aspects of teaching that make good teachers truly irreplaceable. Here’s why:

  • Building Relationships & Rapport: The power of student-teacher relationships to support academic achievement is old news for many educators. Nonetheless, it can be hard to find the time for interpersonal priorities when an overflowing inbox and last month’s ungraded assignments are calling your name. When digital tools cut down on time spent record-keeping, planning, and assessing, teachers have more bandwidth to make relationship-building with students a priority. And while AI can easily help out with rote administrative tasks, it will never be as personable as a real person. 
  • Applying Creativity vs. Generating Content:  News stories like The New York Times’ recent lawsuit against OpenAI may sound discouraging and even dystopian, but they also point out an intriguing imbalance in AI’s abilities. AI is extremely skilled at copying what’s already out there, but not so great when it comes to imagination and personalization. That means AI might be better than you at coming up with a general standards-based lesson plan in 60 seconds flat, but it’s still no match for the creative ways you integrate in-depth knowledge of your student population into your teaching. You can leverage technology guilt-free for basic formatting and idea-generating tasks knowing full well that your creative personal touch is what makes your teaching truly meaningful.
  • Modeling a Growth Mindset: I know firsthand how tempting simple shortcuts can be in a field where “busy” sometimes means you’re only five minutes ahead of your students. But it’s important for students to see our humanity through imperfection. While I always automate my lesson plan format these days, I take the extra time to create lesson content from scratch and later share successes and failures honestly with students. That way, I model the power of yet for my students and then iterate on those lessons with confidence knowing that my efforts will support student success in the future. While AI-generated one-off activities can fill time in a pinch, your evaluation, reflection, and iteration are what make custom lessons worth refining and repeating.
Make It Matter – Applying Automation & AI to Teacher Prep & Planning

If you’re new to AI and automation or eager for more ways to take advantage of technology in the new year, these starting points can help you make the most of your time in 2024:

  1. Test out automation with templates: I’m quite particular when it comes to formatting: I used to spend hours poring over my lesson plans to perfect every element. While there’s nothing wrong with being detail-oriented, automating my lesson plan format with Google Apps Script has freed up countless hours to spend on collaboration and innovation instead without sacrificing creativity or quality. I highly recommend creating templates you can auto-fill with Google Form responses for standardized documents like lesson plans, grading, and more. Though it does require a bit of time upfront, this detailed tutorial walks you through setting up custom automations with templates in Google Workspace. Thank me later!
  2. Use AI’s strengths to your advantage: Though “generative AI” and “prompt engineering” have quickly become a part of our modern lexicon, you might still be wondering how they relate to teaching. AI’s greatest strength is generating content based on user input—the more specific and detailed the prompt you input is, the better the generated output will be. There are plenty of AI-powered tools for teachers customized for specific tasks—my team leader recommends Magic School, QuestionWell, Diffit, and Beautiful.ai. But beyond specific platforms, brushing up on prompt engineering for educators can empower you to use AI to its greatest potential in all aspects of your teaching practice.
  3. Be a role model for responsible tech use: Though we can’t control students’ exposure to emergent technologies, we can help them engage responsibly and critically with our rapidly-changing tech landscape. OpenAI, the creators of ChatGPT, published some suggestions for using AI effectively and ethically in the classroom, but it’s important to note that exploration is only recommended—with parental consent—for students ages 13 through 18. Nonetheless, discussing AI with younger students in developmentally-appropriate ways can spark conversations around the ethics of remixing, critically analyzing information using primary sources, bias in AI, and so much more. CSEd organizations like Day of AI offer great Intro to AI lessons by age and grade, so you can find an entrypoint that best suits your specific student population. 

Fearlessly engaging with AI tools as educators and openly discussing their superpowers and limitations with our students is a great way to empower them to be 21st-century thinkers and creators. Cheers to a productive and AI-powered new year!

Citations & Further Reading

Cheating Fears Over Chatbots Were Overblown, New Research Suggests

How School Leaders Can Rebalance Teachers’ Job Demands and Resources – Edutopia

Design Constraints Are Not Restraints – They Stoke Creativity – Designers

Maker Hub – Georgetown University Library

Teachers Partnering with Artificial Intelligence: Augmentation and Automation – Digital Promise

Two Years Later: How COVID-19 Has Shaped the Teacher Workforce – NIH National Library of Medicine

Improving Students’ Relationships with Teachers to Provide Essential Supports for Learning – American Psychological Association

The Times Sues OpenAI and Microsoft Over A.I. Use of Copyrighted Work – New York Times

The power of yet | Carol S Dweck | TEDxNorrköping

Iterating – Chicago Public Schools

Google Apps Script for Education: Enhancing Classroom Efficiency

The Magic Automatic Lesson Planner with Google Forms

7 AI Tools That Help Teachers Work More Efficiently – Edutopia

Prompt engineering for educators – making generative AI work for you

Magic School – Join over 900,000 teachers saving time using MagicSchool to help lesson plan, differentiate, write assessments, communicate clearly, and more

QuestionWell – A.I. to help teachers do their homework

Diffit – Teachers use Diffit to get “just right” instructional materials, saving tons of time and helping all students to access grade level content

Beautiful.ai – Introducing generative AI presentation software for the workplace

Teaching with AI – Open AI: “We’re releasing a guide for teachers using ChatGPT in their classroom—including suggested prompts, an explanation of how ChatGPT works and its limitations, the efficacy of AI detectors, and bias”

Day of AI – Curriculum: All Grades | Ages 5-18

About the author

Kate O’Brian is a Makerspace, Art, and STEAM Educator for grades 1-6 at AIM Academy in Conshohocken, PA. Inspired by her CSEd research with Dr. Yasmin Kafai and her experience as an LD teacher, Kate began her Make It Matter series to connect academic findings to her teaching practice and share these connections with fellow educators around the globe. 

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