Zirpoli: I want my chalkboard back: Sometimes progress isn’t really progress

When I was a young student in elementary school I remember thinking about how much fun it would be to be a teacher and, with a piece of chalk in my hand, have the opportunity to write on the blackboard every day. Write, erase, repeat — what fun!

Now I’m a teacher and I stand in the front of classrooms with whiteboards about a third the size of the old blackboards, a smelly marker, and an eraser that hardly works unless you spray the board with a chemical cleaner that smells worse than the marker. I’m pretty sure I’m either getting high or poisoned. Perhaps both.


Years down the road scientists will discover that the solution I’m spraying to clean the whiteboard is dangerous to our health and that teachers who have been using the whiteboards for multiple years have increased episodes of migraines, as well as memory issues, and other worse ailments. Mark my word.

Each semester I ask to be assigned to a classroom with the simplicity of an old-fashioned blackboard, chalk, and an eraser. Sure, I would have chalk dust all over my fingers and pants by the end of class, but I would trade a little chalk dust any day to avoid black marker marks all over my hands and clothes, and smelling like I just worked eight hours in one of those West Virginia chemical plants you see driving west on Interstate-64.


At least the chalk dust comes off. Not so much with whiteboard markers. I have the shirts to prove it.

Whiteboards became popular in classrooms when computers came of age because the IT folks thought that the chalk dust would damage the sensitive computers. That theory was greatly exaggerated. My laptop has been dropped, spilled on, and pounded daily with angry fingers typing my latest observations of the Trump administration. I don’t think a little chalk dust is going to harm it.

Sure the whiteboard serves as both a “blackboard” and a white screen for PowerPoint presentations or overhead projectors. But was it really a problem to pull down the white screen as needed? I don’t think so. Sure, I was too short to reach the bottom of the screen to pull it down, but I could always find a taller student in the class to handle that job for me. It worked. It was functional.

In fact, it was more than functional. Today, you need to wipe the whiteboard clean before using it as a screen. Back in the day, you could leave what you had on the blackboard and simply pull the screen down in front of the board. When you were finished with the screen, up it went and all your notes were still on the blackboard. Amazing.

Back then, to clean the erasers, all you had to do was bang them together and get all the chalk dust out of them. Of course, you had to go outside to get the job done and that made it even more fun.

Students would behave all day long in order to earn the task of banging those erasers outside at the end of the day.

Today, you can’t clean the erasers or rags we use to clean the whiteboard. Instead, they need to be taken to a chemical dump or toxic waste site where they can be safely burned. Of course, no one at the school has that responsibility, so we are stuck for years using a marker-saturated eraser or rag that no longer effectively functions as an eraser.

In the good old days, blackboards were super long and covered the entire front wall of the classroom. Sometimes, they also covered the entire back wall of the classroom. When I taught research methods, I could demonstrate the workings of an entire statistical calculation to my students without ever erasing the board until the end of class.


Then I could refer back to earlier notes, still on the board, to review or respond to questions.

Today, whiteboards are tiny and you are constantly erasing one note to add another. With the old blackboards, the entire two-hour class is still on the board at the end of class. Students could stay after class and study the notes if they wanted.

With the whiteboard, I’ve actually had students ask if they could take a picture of what I wrote before having to erase it for my next thought. The old-fashioned blackboard was much more functional for instruction.

Sometimes, progress is not progress at all and the old ways were more functional and effective.

Tom Zirpoli is the program coordinator of the Human Services Management graduate program at McDaniel College. He writes from Westminster. His column appears on Wednesdays. Email him at