In this article we will discuss cultivating a culture centered around EDTech, educational technology, and how to become a better leader. I will discuss some real-life scenarios I have experienced that show the good and the bad of K12 Tech.
I’ve been a K12 IT director for almost 18 years and have over 20 years of experience in K12 education. During that time I have experienced amazing leadership and terrible leadership. I’ve seen morale at its highest and its lowest. Many life lessons have been learned over the years.
Technology Department Versus EDTech Department
Early in my career, our department was very reactive instead of proactive. We completed work orders as necessary and kept up with life cycles. Funding was extremely limited at that time, so asking for additional funds for major upgrades was out of the question. We took advantage of grants and donations from corporations to fill our needs.
Being a tech department meant break/fix. Keep the internet, phones, and email up, and you are golden. Was there any real impact in the classroom? In the business world, there are several impacts and returns on investment to worry about. The level of service the IT department delivers can have a direct impact on revenues.
But what about education? Those impacts are made in the classroom. Delivering services and taking care of classroom needs can have major impacts on the learning environment. Just like in the business world, innovation is important to K12 education, as we saw during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cultivating an EDTech Culture
I was guilty early in my career of being the break/fix guy and promoting that culture in our department. I got into K12 tech because I liked the K12 environment and enjoyed fixing technology. Our technicians felt the same way. We weren’t prioritizing and meeting the needs of the classroom.
Several years ago I had a bit of awakening that we should be doing better. The biggest change in our department was to think like a teacher: What are the needs in the classroom, and are priorities being met?
I began preaching this to our department, to think like a teacher. To truly become an EDTech department we had to ask ourselves some questions. When looking at a work order, how do you prioritize them? What is the impact in the classroom from this issue? Is there a resource that would be a better fit?
These are some of the questions I would propose to them, to get them to think. Then you look at the big picture and determine if other solutions can positively impact the classroom and allow your department to deliver better results.
Here are just a few examples of solutions that may positively impact the classroom:
- Redundant internet connection to prevent downtime and disruption of instruction.
- Universal power supply backups for all network distribution frames to prevent network downtime and disruptions in the classroom.
- Classroom management software to help teachers take control of student devices during class time and keep students engaged.
- Interactive display panels to enhance digital instruction.
- Single-sign-on, SSO, for great interoperability.
Collaboration with teachers and administrators is also crucial in ensuring that we are delivering services properly and efficiently. Working with our instructional coaches weekly was the biggest improvement to our overall vision and aligning our department processes and service with district goals.
Becoming a Better Leader
Go to Amazon’s book section and search for the word “leadership,” and you will see 60,000 results come back. There are many good books on leadership and many terrible ones too. Sometimes a book can’t match seeing great leadership up close and learning from the mistakes of others.
I’ll start with an example of poor leadership. A former principal had just begun their position at the district. This individual believed an authoritarian leadership style was best for them and their employees. They immediately fired an employee to show that they were in charge. They did petty things like move furniture and classrooms around just to make the statement that they made the decisions.
This leadership led to poor morale, trust issues, and a lack of collaboration throughout the building. Employees felt they had no support from that administrator and always had a fear in the back of their minds that they would become a target. It wasn’t a healthy environment.
I witnessed another administration that was also authoritarian in style. They were awful in their treatment of employees. Progress was made in several areas, but only because of the fear they put in staff members and the security of their jobs. They implemented job targets without any performance improvement plans. It was harassment, not for the betterment of anyone except the administration getting the results they desired academically.
As you can imagine, it led to a horrible working environment. Many good educators fled to other schools; morale tanked. While this administration was effective at getting results, they lost some great talent in the process.
I have also witnessed some excellent leadership.
A new administration came in and turned things around completely. They created a team environment that valued individuals. Staff were free to do their jobs without micromanagement and fear for job security. Staff retention increased significantly. As the years went by, so did the accolades and awards the district received.
Treating people with respect and showing that they were valued had greater returns than anything the prior administration had gained.
The Downfall of Key Performance Indicators and Micromanaging
Some managers obsess over key performance indicators, KPIs, to the extent that they are meaningless and do more harm than good. That’s not to say there is no value in them, but they shouldn’t be viewed as the end-all in measuring performance. In the corporate world, KPIs are a way for managers to prove they are effectively leading their departments in the most efficient way, even though they may ignore the reasoning behind the numbers and only use the data to gain that next promotion.
In education, some KPIs can hurt morale. For example, you have five technicians in a department that provide technical support to a district. The director or services manager rates individual performance based on tickets closed per day. Two technicians “play the game” and rush to accept easy tickets, such as password changes, keyboard and mouse replacements, and other quick installs. The other three technicians handle the rest of the more difficult tickets that are more time-consuming to complete.
You can guess how the other three technicians feel about the situation. There is no longer a team environment; morale takes a hit. Without any weight to certain types of tickets, there is no effective way to evaluate the performance of the department. It becomes a race to the bottom.
This is where qualitative KPIs may need to be added to determine how technicians or the department are performing. Survey your teachers, send out questionnaires, or even do one-on-one interviews with them. Are the needs in the classroom being met? Is your department truly an EdTech department? What’s the impact?
The last thing to look out for is micromanaging your employees. When you micromanage, you are telling your employees you do not trust them to handle things on their own. You hired them to do a job; let them do it. If they need help, they will ask. Be supportive from the beginning, and let them know they can always ask you or fellow members of the team for help.
Building a Team and Remembering the Little Things
I learned the best aspects of leadership from a former superintendent, who in his past had been a basketball coach for several years. From him, I learned the true values of building a team.
- Lay out the expectations on day one. When hiring a new employee, make sure you lay out exactly what you expect from them and what things need to be taken care of daily. Inform them about the culture of the department and the district. Detail the impact your department has on education and the classroom.
- Maximize each employee’s strengths. Not only is this a great way to have your team members feel valued and respected, but it also maximizes the performance of your department. Delegate certain roles and responsibilities per each individual’s strengths.
- Lead by example. The way you treat your team members goes a long way in how they treat each other. This type of leadership can help promote team members to collaborate and work toward achieving team goals.
- Ask for input. Make sure your team feels like they can be heard and have input. You may think a specific solution is the best way to solve a problem, but maybe there is a better way to do it. Asking your team for advice may reveal a different perspective on solving an issue.
- Communication is key. Always keep your team in the loop and relay how you think things are going with a specific project or task. Sometimes you may not let them know about certain things because you don’t think it’s necessary. For example, you may not inform your team about certain budgetary decisions. This can lead to them thinking you didn’t make the right decision or asking why you didn’t go with some other solution. Be an open book when possible.
- Show gratitude and reward. Let your team know when they have done great things, and motivate them with positivity. Take them out to lunch to show appreciation for their work, especially after they have completed a big project. Pick up some doughnuts for the office. Get them a small gift on National I.T. Professionals Day, like a T-Shirt or some geeky swag.
- Remember the little things. Get polo shirts or pullovers for your department that are branded with your department name or district branding to show you are a team. Use the word “we” whenever possible. Take interest in your team members; ask about what is going on in their lives. When things aren’t going well, remain calm and positive, as that reflects on your team.
Focus on team-building and developing a great culture in your department. By keeping morale high and fostering a team environment, you can build a high-performing EDTech department that meets the needs of the school district with positive impacts in the classroom.