Before diving in to my first blog post for the new school year, I have to take a moment and thank my “School Sister” (so dubbed my biological, and perhaps teensy bit jealous, biological sis) for constantly pushing me to grow professionally by challenging me to think outside my library comfort zone, being there at school to have those deep philosophical conversations about what we believe about educating children, and sharing opportunities such as Leadership Day 2014 with me on a very regular basis. Chris Senbertrand-McLean, our school’s Instructional Coach, rocks as an educator and a friend. Check out her blog “A Balcony View of the World” to learn more and be impressed by her awesomeness! Now that I have completed my unsolicited and deeply sincere tribute to my friend, let’s leap into the deep end of the pool with this leadership post.
As Scott McLeod alludes to in his “dangerously irrelevant” blog post, we can’t really fault our school and district leaders for not knowing what they don’t know about digital technology. Honestly, who can keep up? In April 2014, Library Journal featured an article declaring “the digital universe is doubling in size every two years and will multiply 10-fold between 2013 and 2020” and then quantified that with some pretty interesting visual prompts. There are over a million apps in the iTunes store; and the iPhone has only been in existence since 2007, the iPad since 2010. There are over 23 million books, apps, games, magazines, and who-knows-what currently available for Kindle products. Google our current president and see how many hits you get. Again, who can keep up? And what is the role of the school or district administrator in the midst of this vast mountain of not-always-accurate-or-necessary information? How does and administrator or administrative team decide where to focus?
My answer is simple and perhaps a bit shocking. Let’s focus on the students and the curriculum. As a school librarian who tries very hard to make sure I’m keeping up with the speeding train that is digital technology and not trying to catch up to it or recover from being hit by it, I have seen the focus shift from educating our students to getting more “stuff.” Too many times, administrators have focused on keeping up with neighboring school districts by purchasing digital technology rather than focusing on how digital technology can improve instruction. Too many times, the boxes of laptops, iPads, or what-have-you has shown up in the school before a thought has been given to training the staff who are expected to use it, determining how many dollars will be need to maintain it, or even if the school district’s infrastructure can support it. I recently had a colleague tell me her principal wanted to order some iPads for the students, which would have been grand, I’m sure…if their school had a wireless network of any kind. Fortunately, my friend is much like me (or perhaps I strive to me more like her), and she quickly pointed out that she would have to haul them to her house and set them up since the school lacked wifi. The principal honestly had no idea.
I also hear entirely too often that “sometimes you have to build the airplane while flying it.” I have to admit, and I apologize for this, that I mostly hear this from men. My husband is one of the culprits. Here’s a fact. If you don’t have that plane slapped together in some shape or form, it WILL NOT get off the ground. I also find this is a somewhat ridiculous way of saying that you really don’t know what you are doing, but felt like you just had to do something. Before investing dollars in technology that may end up gathering dust in a back room somewhere, invest some time in getting together a group of folks who know something about what you are interested in. It isn’t that hard to find people in your schools and district who are interested in technology, network or read enough to have some sense of successful implementation that you can reference, and are willing to assist you in making your vision for improving your students’ digital literacy become a reality. Some of these people are called by many names, but in South Carolina they are called School Librarians (this based on what it says on my teaching certificate). We’re pretty knowledgeable about technology and we are also gifted researchers. If we don’t know how to answer your questions, we know someone who does. Too often, the school librarian is the last person to know what the plans are regarding technology integration. This is a serious misstep by leadership. Not only do we know about digital technology, we want to share our knowledge. We also know what our staff knows and doesn’t know. We, after all, also teach them. We have a feel for where our schools are with technology integration, how our teachers feel about technology, and how to approach everyone from the cheerleader to the nervous Nelly to the Chicken Little on our staff. Let us in, let us help, and don’t get mad when we say you might want to slow down, use a different approach, or do some front loading. We’re professionals. We don’t just play one on TV.
The other thing administrators might want to know about School Librarians: Once you make a mistake, go ahead and buy those iPods, iPads, tablets, or whatever that you don’t know how to use even though we warned you, we will paste a smile on our faces, grab our pom-poms and shout to the world that you are the smartest person on the planet and we will make it work so that you look like a hero instead of a zero. We are consummate administration support. We don’t want you to fail and we surely don’t want our students and teachers to fail. We will stay up late nights worrying about logistics, figure out how to get over the latest bump in the road, and make it happen. We are THAT GOOD, and if you don’t know this, go talk to your librarian right now. That’s right, walk away from the screen and find your librarian. He or she may be under a table fiddling with antiquated computer cords, trying to figure out why Mrs. Smith’s TV won’t pick up channel 4, or looking for that last Diary of a Wimpy Kid, but find that person and ask about digital technology integration. You’ll be surprised, and your librarian’s eyes may glisten with unshed tears of joy.
We must embrace technology. We must teach our students and staff how to be good digital citizens. We really don’t have a choice. Short of a new ice age or some other disaster, technology isn’t going away. It is going to continue to grow. The jobs that are available to high school and college grads today did not even exist a decade ago. The jobs my daughter will have to choose from when she graduates in ten years haven’t even been invented yet. We must prepare our students to be adaptable learners and give them the tools to be creative and logical thinkers. We cannot lock our classroom doors and hope technology goes away. What we can do is be informed consumers and not just happily jump on the next bandwagon. We must always consider our staff, our students, and our curriculum. These components are directly effected by our community, the demands of future employers, our training and willingness to continue to be learners regardless of our age, our flexibility, and our budgets. We have constraints, but we also have an endless sea of options if we will pool our resources on our school campus and within our district. Inquire. Explore. Grow. And talk to your school librarian.
What Educational Leaders Can Do:
1. Research. Look for catch phrases in education and find out more. Don’t feel like you have to know everything about everything. Learn enough of the language to help you formulate questions.
2. Ask. Talk to people you know are doing great things with technology in your school, district, and among your colleagues. I often feel administrators are keeping secrets from each other, trying to get an edge over their colleagues. I understand wanting your school to shine, but when you share, you shine and you help others shine as well. One candle is bright, but hundreds or thousands are even brighter. Get in classrooms and other schools and look for successes.
3. Plan. Don’t just purchase technology and throw it under the tree. Fresh out of the box, technological gadgets are pretty cool and exciting. However, those gadgets require support, maintenance, upgrades, and eventually replacement. Nothing lasts 20 years anymore. Most technology has a life span of 3 to 5 years. Are you ready for the expense, training, and upkeep required to maintain a technological presence? What safety harnesses do you have in place? What’s your backup plan? Where is the funding coming from to sustain and upgrade your programs?
4. Empower. Make sure your teachers are getting the training and support they need. Teachers stay in the classroom because they love to teach and work with students. Making unrealistic demands and forcing technology integration where there may not be a need or natural fit will not help your teachers or students experience success. Instead, teachers will feel overburdened and embarrassed. You wouldn’t set up a student for failure. Your teachers are students too. Spend the money and give them the time to learn to use new tools. They want their students to experience success and use technology effectively just as much as you do.
5. Learn. Get out on the field and play ball with your teachers. No, you don’t have to be an expert. But if you aren’t willing to try to learn about technology and integration, how can you expect your staff to embrace it and have a good attitude about it? What’s more, how can you possibly fairly and accurately gauge your staff’s use of technology in instruction? If you are requiring your staff to get a certain amount of training each year in the use and integration of technology (and you should), then you need to be there with them and learn too.
6. Listen. You already visit classrooms. Make an effort to listen to what is going on in classrooms that are successfully using digital technology. These classrooms exist even in the most low tech schools because there are teachers who love technology as much as they love teaching. Latch on to these people and get them to help you create a plan for implementing technology integration in other areas. Many times these teachers don’t realize they are doing something astounding or different from other teachers because, let’s be honest, they are teaching their students and not nosing around the school. Also listen to and pay attention to those teachers who are struggling and help them get the support they need. Teachers are pretty smart. They have a college degree or two or three, but for some, the mention of technology is akin to suggesting a root canal without anesthetic. Not because they aren’t aware they need to use technology, but because they have had a bad experience or feel inadequate. Just this week I saw teachers go from frowns to smiles after only two hours with our technology integration specialist. They went from “I can’t do this” to “this is so easy” because someone invested the time to help them at their own pace.
7. Connect. Share your plans, thoughts, ambitions for your school with your staff. Start small, with people you know can and will help. Your administrative team, your leadership team, your school librarian. These are the people who should be included in your vision and create the backbone of support you will need to be successful. If these people aren’t on board with your plans, find out why. Is it fear of failure or the unknown or is there a real issue with your vision as it stands? By building a network of support, you can better ensure success because you have more eyes and brains involved in planning and implementation. Sometimes an administrator has to be a lone wolf and make a decision without input, and certainly there are times when too much input actually stymies growth, but when dealing with something as vast as technology integration, it is vital to have support and assistance in creating a workable plan that will lead to success rather than frustration and disappointment.