Hitting Reset

Photo by Flickr user Redux

When I took on my new tech role back in June, I approached it with a focus on teachers. In my years in the classroom (the only job I’ve known is teaching), I came to believe that teachers not only were the leverage points in schools but also that they deserved better. By that I mean that teachers are too often questioned, unsupported, reigned-in, and dismissed by those in leadership positions.  So when I began this work, I committed myself to the teachers – in hopes of winning them over with constant support, and providing them with the resources and guidance for successful tech implementation. If change management requires an initial focus on the innovators and early-adopters of an organization, then I must be doing something right. Right?

Well, the irony I’ve come to see (with generous advice from folks internally and externally – including Liz Arney and Shawn Rubin) is that indeed it is the ones in leadership positions who allow for the innovators to flourish or fail. Simply put, leaders are the leverage point; they have the ability to support or stifle innovation in their classrooms. A few reasons why I’m stumbling into this realization…

1. Leaders have the ultimate say – Under the charter umbrella, our schools are given a great deal of autonomy.  Therefore, leaders are given the power to make decisions – nearly all decisions – as to what is best for their school. If I’m hoping for a teacher to pilot a station-rotation model, it will require the school leaders support – not just approval. The leader needs to see the value in the program, because inevitably things will go wrong with technology (internet outages, new management requirements, furniture rearrangement or acquisition, schedule restructuring, or any number of other issues that will require building-level support). If a school leader’s vision doesn’t include blended learning, then scaling the pilot becomes practically impossible, as well; one teacher’s innovation will simply fall flat without the active support and advocacy for innovation. On the contrary, a leader who is committed is not only going to support that pilot but actively spread it to others if it’s successful.

2.  Leaders have greater reach – I met with an assistant principal recently who wanted to identify next steps in supporting his teachers use of a blended program. As he explained his system, whereby each teacher was already checking the data biweekly, and using it to intervene with students, I realized how much more powerful an engaged school leader is than myself. Had I attempted to push his teachers to do the exact same thing, I would have fallen short – I don’t have the same rapport with his staff, I don’t see their classes daily, I don’t know their students personally, and I don’t have the power to hold them accountable and make demands if necessary. Leaders are in the building all day every day; they’re able to check-in with the teachers in their building on an as-needed (at least daily) basis; they’re able to push teachers to follow through on the initiatives that they’ve outlined for their building. I can’t compete with that; But I can support it. If I can support other leaders to make similar commitments to consistent data analysis and action, my impact will be exponentially greater. Leaders are the leverage point.

All of this said, I haven’t given up on the teachers. To the contrary, I’ve doubled-down on my efforts around the teacher-leader program I’ve envisioned from the beginning. The INSPIRES Fellowship will be an avenue to leverage rockstar teachers within each school, not only to support blended learning in their own buildings but also – I hope – to spread innovation and best practices across the network. This program is, in Shawn Rubin’s words, “a building leader play.” By that, he means that the program’s success will hinge on leaders’ valuing and support of their teachers and the program; with leader support, we will be able to commit ourselves to supporting innovation across schools.

So I’ve hit reset. I’m going to restructure my time to reflect this shift, in hopes of making a greater impact with my work. This means monthly leader check-ins to evaluate progress on specific blended goals, along with constant walk-throughs with leaders to assess needs. Ultimately, my job is to promote and support personalized learning for all of our students. To do so, the work will need to support each school leader’s vision and goals for their students, meeting the instructional needs unique to their program. But who knows? Might need to hit reset again soon.

Belated Reflections from #ISTE2015

Photo by flickr user Wesley Fryer.

Attending conferences was a consistently powerful experience for me as a classroom teacher. While my session choices failed me at times, I left each conference feeling more empowered and inspired. For my first ISTE, however, I landed in Philly with a new purpose. My focus shifted from discovering ways of improving my craft in the classroom to identifying best practices for supporting teachers in my new role outside of it. And while I found ISTE to be overwhelming (not surprisingly) and somewhat lacking, I left feeling equally inspired to empower teachers.

Focused on supporting personalized learning and technology integration in an urban school district, here were my (albeit limited) ISTE 2015 takeaways. For my full notes from the conference, click here.

1) Learn from the rest

There are so many organizations, districts, school-systems, individuals, and non-profits who are already doing this work. Duh. I know. The classic, ignorant view of edtech being “new” continues to frustrate to amaze me, but I still didn’t realize or know of the specific partners who are working in situations so similar to ours in New Orleans. The few district-focused sessions at ISTE brought together panels of leaders from across the country. Technology directors, professional learning leaders, superintendents, teacher leaders, non-profit chiefs, university fellows and others shared the many lessons they’ve learned in trying to promote and support personalized learning in their schools.

What inspired me most was how much work has gone into this new focus (I’m extremely hesitant to call anything with a long-history in education a movement, so I’ll go with focus instead) in the past 5-10 years. With the explosion in Chromebook sales of late, reflective of a combination of cheaper access to hardware and proliferation of adaptive software, blended learning has established itself as a potentially effective means of personalizing learning for students on scale (emphasis on potentially given the lack of definitive research supporting blended learning’s effectiveness, the focus on low-level thinking, and the current shortcomings of software, not to mention the problematic belief that access is synonymous with equality). For schools with increasing class sizes, widening ranges in entering learning levels, and increasing political pressures around standardized test scores (woof), its no surprise to see the push for blended learning.

What ISTE demonstrated, however, was that leaders are doing the hard work of identifying how best to support teachers in personalizing learning for students. For veteran, experienced teachers, this shift is forcing (for some) an uncomfortable change, asking these teachers to take new risks. For new teachers, blended looks vastly different than the K-12 (at least, K-8 for sure) education they experienced, making it harder to relate from the student experience. To support teachers in personalizing learning for our students, we are leveraging computers. (As Shawn Rubin of the Highlander Institute pointed out, “if the objective is mastery, and the challenge is personalized learning, then the solution is blended learning.”) While computers do not, by themselves, personalize learning (blog post for another day), they do have a place in supporting personalized learning. The question these organizations have sought to answer is how we support educators themselves.

2) Professional development needs to empower teachers.

One of the consistent themes of so many of my sessions (keeping in mind I sought these out, as opposed to presentations on literacy programs or Minecraft) was the need to reform – or as the ‘innovators’ will say, disrupt – professional development. We all know that PD can be bad – really really bad. (I gave some ‘bad’ PD just this week!) What’s surprising is how ‘bad’ PD is still the norm in schools. ‘Bad’ is a lazy word here, admittedly; unpacked, ‘bad’ PD is that PD that typically fails to meet the needs of individual teachers, and has been bastardized by corporate, top-down accountability measures that assume a great deal about lots of people being forced to sit in a room together.

The sessions at ISTE included a range of quality – some folks delivering sit-and-get PD about how not to give sit-and-get PD, while others revealed truly innovative systems and processes to reach more teachers with higher quality PD on greater scale. Much of that PD revolves around the use of “blended” or “flipped” PD, allowing teachers to access resources on-demand (even e-courses) instead of requiring 100% face-to-face.

It was inspiring to see how many districts are choosing to trust their teachers with their own learning – a seemingly obvious idea, but one that all educators can attest is normally not the case; instead of the rigid, top-down requirement of certain types of PD at certain times, some are moving in the direction of the 20% time/FedEx model of allowing teachers choice to determine their own professional path. Empowering teachers to own their learning is a keystone in the vision for how I plan to support teachers this year.

3) The lack of diversity in edtech needs to change.

I’ve experienced the whiteness and maleness of tech conferences before, so I can’t honestly say I’m surprised – especially as a white male who regularly reads Audrey Watters and Rafranz Davis. But ISTE exposed the systemic, entrenched nature of the problem. What stuck most with me was the maleness and whiteness of the people in public, leading positions – keynotes (with Soledad O’Brien as the exception), session leaders, vendors, Twitter celebrities. There are pioneering women and people of color who are clearly bucking the trend (see Audrey and Rafranz, as well as Jose Vilson, Sarah Thomas, Jennie Magiera, Ken Shelton and many many others), and they deserve greater voice in our PLNs and conference sessions. As a straight white male who presents at conferences, I can’t help but be conscious of my own perpetuation of the problem, and I’m open to any and all thoughts on what I can do as an ally. It’s not just on ISTE. It’s on all of us.