5 Things We Have to Stop Pretending

My PLN is beginning to fill up with posts about #makeschooldifferent.  Educators from every corner of the US is sharing their own ideas about the current state of education.

The posts that are capturing my attention are based on the “5 Things to Stop Pretending” list.  I like this type of post because it distills someone’s philosophy on teaching and learning into a short a list of priorities and beliefs.

At first, I thought it would be simple to generate this list. I have many strong convictions about teaching and learning, school structures, and our systems in general.  It has been quite difficult, in fact, to narrow these ideas to 5 short sentences.  (Each of the 5 Things I selected could be their own blog post, so I am congratulating myself for resisting the urge to make a list of paragraphs.)

So, without further ado, I present my “5 Things We Have to Stop Pretending”

1. Teachers should be completely in charge of student learning.
2. Technology is the answer to our problems. (Yes, I am a Tech Director)
3. Large scale testing provides us meaningful information about a student, classroom, or school.
4. We need to have an adopted curriculum in order to have a coherent curriculum.
5. Change in pedagogy and curriculum can be incremental.

Since every online “challenge” (i.e. ice bucket, 5 Things, etc) has to include the challenge part, I challenge the following educators to share their list of 5 Things We Have to Stop Pretending in Education).  @WaggonerRobert @CoffeeNancy @dustin772 @scottmpetri


Getting a Tune-Up While Still Driving

In the last year and a half as a Director of Technology for a school district, I’ve learned quite a lot about leadership, technology, customer service, and of course, human behavior.  At most organizations, the IT department is tasked with two overarching goals: 1) Keep the current systems functional, and
2) Improve the current systems

This, of course, seems to be contradictory. How can one group of people tend to systems that are always in use, while also finding the time to make those systems perform faster, more efficiently, and in ways that better serve the other stakeholders in the organization (in our case: teachers, staff, students, and parents)? Further, how do we make these improvements and test them in real time without disrupting the use of the systems?

We recently experienced the unfortunate results of this contradiction.  One of our goals this year has been to condense the large number of different logins our staff and students have into a single username and password.  For anyone unfamiliar with the workings of identity systems, this is no small task.  Specifically, we have been looking at syncing our students’ Google Drive, Typing Agent, and OverDrive username/passwords – all through Active Directory (that’s our top level identity system).  This would make life much easier for our students and our teachers, who often have to contact our office in the middle of the school day when a student can’t remember their password (and thus can’t access their class materials or assignments).

Since so many students had changed their passwords internally in these systems, we had an issue where students had multiple passwords to remember.   Part of this syncing project required us to reset all student passwords to a default in Active Directory, so that the passwords for these programs would again be in sync. By mistake, the script to reset each student’s Active Directory password ran during the school day, which logged off any student who was at the time logged into any of the above mentioned services (mostly it was Google). The technician who created the script was upset because he knew this would impact and upset many teachers. The technician, by the way, is an outstanding person and employee and pretty much never makes a mistake.  Of course, an email went out explaining the change, and most people were unaffected by this.  A few teachers emailed thanking us because their students were managing as any as three passwords (not easy when you are 8 years old). Some teachers, however, were inconvenienced and a few let us know via email. They certainly had a right to be annoyed- we agree that changes made during the day should only be for emergencies.  But mistakes happen, and we rolled with the punches.  In the end, this has lead to a quickening of our password unification project.

And it furthers my understanding of the dichotomy of the IT department. We must at the same time maintain and improve our systems despite the fact that the systems are all in use all day long.

You Don’t Have to Agree to Be Right

This post is somewhat of a follow up to my previous post on PD presenters.  Since I have had quite a few PD experiences lately, it’s a hot topic for me.

In my career, I’ve been to many conferences, workshops, and other PD events. I’ve seen hundreds of presentations and scores of keynotes. I’ve seen former presidents, small town educators, and everything in between. During these workshops, presentations, keynotes, etc.i have seen a phenomenon that I am not comfortable with, especially because the behaviors I see are coming from educators.

Too often, I see educators blindly subscribing to the ideas presented by keynote speakers.  It’s almost as if some believe they have to believe what is being said by those on the stage.  I had one of those experiences the other day, listening to Eric Sheninger. Now, I must start by saying that I think Eric is amazing. I’ve followed him on Twitter since I first joined Twitter, and I have learned so much from him virtually-and as of last week- in person. This post is not about him, but rather about the way people reacted to him.

This is the part of the post where I warn you that I may say something you disagree with. “I disagree with something Eric Sheninger said to the wonderful and engaged group of educators at the Ventura County Office of Education.  While discussing BYOD at our table, I was assailed by arguments in favor of BYOD. Because this idea came form the presenter, it felt as if it was seen to be unassailably true.

Eric was arguing that BYOD is a great equalizer.  That allowing students to bring the device of their choosing will lead to great strides in education.  This post is not about BYOD, so I don’t want to get into the pros and cons of BYOD (you can follow the links to some articles that do get into the argument over BYOD).

What bothered me was the crowds quick willingness to subscribe to Eric’s point of view.  As educators, we are tasked with giving students the opportunity to hone their critical thinking skills.  We want our students to think for themselves, not be robots, yadda yadda yadda. Yet, as learners ourselves, we sometimes believe in the ‘Rockstars’ too much. (Here is a great reflection on the emerging Rock Star culture in education.)

As lead learners, it’s critical that you maintain your own though processes and make decisions on your own.  Just because someone has a microphone, it doesn’t mean they are right.  They are people with ideas, and you can agree or disagree with what they say.

Unless, of course, I’m the one presenting….

For Your Consideration

For better or worse, I attend a lot of workshops, conferences, and other professional learning opportunities.  Some of these I attend by my own volition, others as part of my job responsibilities.

As a fan/organizer/participant of the EdCamp model, I lean toward an active, meaningful, and engaging form of adult learning. After recently attending a three hour workshop, and a full day workshop days later, I noted some differences in my own learning, engagement, and openness to what was being brought forward by the presenters. Based on my reflections following these workshops, I submit the following statements for the consideration of presenters.

I don’t listen to strangers – I need to know who you are if you want me to believe what you are saying. What’s your name?  Your background? I need to know you have the training, background, and experiences to substantiate what you are going to say.  If you are talking about school site management, I need to know that you were once a principal.

I am literate – Don’t put up text heavy slides and proceed to read to me.  An arbitrary rule to follow: don’t have more than 140 characters on any slide. Meaningful pictures or icons would be nice, too.

I share – Share your resources in a way that let’s me easily share them with my colleagues. The days of the printed PowerPoint with three lines for me to write notes are over. Give me an electronic version with notes and resources that I can go back and share with my colleagues.

I need to move – If I have been sitting and listening to you for more than twenty minutes without moving or talking, you can pretty much count on me being elsewhere (mentally, that is). Just because I am an adult doesn’t mean I should be forced to sit and get for too long.  It’s poor teaching whether the learners are 5 or 50.

Cite your sources – If you throw around data or quotes, please cite their origin.  If you say that 20% of students are bullied, I’d like to know where that statistic came from. Otherwise, that data ends with me, because I wont share uncited data.

While these may seem basic or simple, they are necessary based on my recent experiences.

The Decision Pipeline

I’m finding a disconnect between the desired pace of change, and the time it actually takes to envision, plan, and put a vision into action.  The length of time it takes for a major shift in instruction to take place far outpaces the patience of the public and some leaders.  The implementation gap is a well documented aspect of the change process.  Unfortunately, most people ignore this phenomenon and expect to see immediate results.

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is a monumental shift in the way that we teach and learn. The foundation of these new changes is technology. Ubiquitous, inexpensive, online, collaborative, and adaptive technologies.

“Our 4th graders will need to type an entire page in one sitting! We need a typing program!”
“We need access to digital video content. We need a subscription!”
“We don’t have enough devices!”
I could go on.

While all of these things in and of themselves are not huge projects, they take time to do correctly. Furthermore, none of these decisions are made in a vacuum. The time it takes to make these decisions and purchases must compete with the everyday work of the tech and curriculum departments.

As a school or district leader, how do you manage the message of change? What are the ways we keep stakeholders (staff, board members, parents, students) informed about our progress?


Working with Millennial Principals

There is a curious phenomenon taking place in California schools. Well, there are MANY curious phenomena, but this post is about just one of them: the generation gap between Superintendents and the Principals they oversee.

Until this decade, most work places were populated by “parent” generations, meaning that for the most part, supervisors were supervising the generation of their own children. For example, Baby Boomers were overseeing the work of Generation X. However, due to many factors, we are undergoing a strange shift; many of those in top level management are supervising middle managers from a “grandparent” generation.

Focusing on school districts, the two factors that have led to these circumstances are: 1) an increase in age of Superintendents 2) a decrease in the age of newly hired principals So, Superintendents are (as a group) getting older, and Principals are (as a group) getting younger.  If only that meant, by the way, that Principals woke up every morning younger than the previous day.  You get what I mean, though, right?!

Why does this matter? The support needs for the millennial generation differ from preceding generations in terms of the need for autonomy, trust, and flexibility, and should be recognized by Superintendents wishing to support their newest and youngest leaders (Horn, 2001). Furthermore, emerging instructional technology trends have transitioned from a fringe movement in a limited number of districts to a widely implemented set of classroom tools independent of district size, demographics, or location (Schrum & Levin, 2009). Millennial principals enter the job ready to make these tools and practices a part of the instructional practice at their school.

Principals have different needs than previous generations, so Superintendents, in order to successfully support their young leaders, must adjust their supportive practices. This being the case, what can Superintendents do in order to properly support their millennial principals?

Here is a short list to consider:
1) Set clear goals and provide “defined autonomy” for principals to achieve those gals
2) Make sure that other district administrators are properly supporting the needs of principals
3) Provide mentors for new principals
4) Be accessible
5) Have high expectations

Some of the above practices are no brainers, I know. Nonetheless, leaders have to recognize, and bring to the forefront, these proven practices, so that the youngest school leaders are given the chance to thrive in their leadership roles.

Life Without Technology

As a Tech Director, the last words you ever want to hear come out of your Network Specialist’s mouth are “our RAID array just failed.”  

Because, soon after, he’ll say, “Our Exchange server is down.”  

Then, he’ll say, “So is our Radius server.”

To save the technical explanations, this meant that our server storage (files, applications, etc.),  email/calendar/contacts system, and our authentication server (how our staff and students get on our wifi) were all gone.  

Frankly, it was terrible, stressful, and expensive to fix.  However, in the days between the server failures and them being resurrected, some interesting things happened.  First of all, my iPhone did not buzz uncontrollably all day long. When at my desk, I was able to complete a typed sentence or a phone conversation without a dozen emails interrupting me. It was actually kind of nice.

I needed to discuss with our HR Director about an interview that was going to take place.  So, I walked to her building and chatted about the schedule.

I had to ask our Curriculum Director a few questions about our CCSS plans.  So, I walked over to her office and talked with her.  We had a few laughs as we solidified some decisions.

Our Special Education Director needed some computers for staff and students in her department. So, she walked to my office and sat down so we could talk about her needs.  

Prior to the server outage, all of the above tasks would have taken place via email.  No conversation, no nonverbal communication, no relationship building.  Purely digital text. I wouldn’t have picked up on any nuances that led me to further questioning; questioning that led to better decisions. Emails would have been exchanged until a decision was made, and we would have felt efficient.

Although the server outage caused me a lot of grief, angst, and occasional anger (directed toward the data recovery company that I felt was bilking us), it also led to some some welcome and unplanned human contact. 

The basics of leadership point to the importance of relationships.  Trusting one another, laughing with one another, and even disagreeing with one another lead to better decisions, better teams, and a better work environment.

I’ve challenged myself to rely less on the easy and impersonal forms of communication, and spend more time WITH my colleagues, rather than emailing AT them.  

So, while I hope to NEVER experience an outage of this magnitude, I am in a way grateful that it happened.  I was provided a reminder of why I got into this ‘business’ in the first place: I love people. I love working with, helping, and making a difference with people. In the coming months, I will self impose a few “server outages” on myself, to ensure that I am fulfilling my person to person duties and forging important relationships for the benefit of our students.

Fair, Equal, Equitable

I recently changed roles at work. For 4 years, I was the Principal of a high performing, technology rich elementary school of almost 700 students.  We had high test scores, relatively affluent families, and -through tenacious fundraising- were able to put technology into the hands of our teachers and students.  We mounted projectors and SMART boards, purchased tablets and computers, and subscribed to online databases for video and interactive books. As the Principal of my school, I had a laser focus on raising funds so that I could enact our shared vision for teaching and learning.

I am currently in a new role, serving as the Director of Instructional Technology in the same school district.  We are in the process of articulating our vision- as a district- for what technology should look like in teaching and learning.  As I visit campuses, talk to teachers, and witness classroom instruction, I am confronted with a moral dilemma.

I had formerly been an ardent supporter of the local fundraising efforts. Namely, I believed that if our community could fund technology, why wouldn’t we? Why shouldn’t we? So, when I start suggesting that school technology should not be the work of parent fundraising, it’s something to note.

Like I said above, we are currently working to form a vision for technology across our 11 school districts. One of the difficulties in creating a singular vision for a school district is the disparity in access and experience among our school sites. Creating a consistent vision of technology is difficult when we have some students who routinely use technology, and others that have monthly experiences. And, don’t get me started on the differences between teacher technology skills. When schools from the same system have disparate amounts of technology and disparate levels of teacher tech skills, a problem will arise.

It’s fairly evident that a technology gap exists. Does allowing schools to purchase technologies on their own perpetuate this gap?  How can a school district offer a consistent experience across all school sites?

I am not really sure where I stand on this anymore.  I obviously used to lean toward the side of “let my school buy what it wants and what it can.” Now, I lean toward the idea of finding a way to make technology purchasing moire equitable.  I know that this district ran into some very murky and controversial waters, and I certainly don’t seek to create a divide or “petulance.”

So, in the end, I am not sure what “fair,” “equitable,” and “equal” mean these days.

The Grass is Always Greener

As a teacher, I remember thinking to myself,

“My principal just doesn’t get it.”

I would sometimes think that they were so far removed from the classroom that their decisions had no basis in reality.  Whether it was a new procedure we had to follow or the plans for a special schedule, I often felt like I had a better way of doing things. Then, I became a Principal. (While I am sure that the teachers on my site once in a while thought “What is he thinking?” that’s not what this post is about; they can write their own blog posts.) Again, I found myself thinking,

“What are they thinking? Don’t they get it?”

From directives regarding instruction or new forms that had to be completed and collected, the decisions of those above me once again were impacting my efficiency. I felt like things took forever to happen at the district level.

“What could they be doing up there that makes things take so long?”

The only difference was that I was now talking about district administrators.  Clearly, they had been off the school campus for so long and therefore had lost touch with the realities of the school site. I felt frustrated when people so far removed from the classroom were making decisions, seemingly without input from the people most affected by these decisions.

My, how the tables have turned.

I am now a district administrator, fielding around 200 emails and 25 phone calls a day. These emails and phone calls are asking when things will be done, when decisions will be made. Lo and behold, I’m asking myself,

“Don’t they get it?”

The only change for me is that I can no longer look upwards for someone on whom I can assign blame. As the Director of Instructional Technology, I have the heavy responsibility of making decisions that will affect hundreds of teachers and thousands of students. These are not decisions I make lightly. These are decisions that will have financial and practical implications. Some of the decisions I make- if made drastically wrong- could get me or the Superintendent fired. So, yeah, I take my time when making decisions.

“Don’t the get it?”