It can be challenging to get a ground-level view from a district office. Halton Catholic School District in Burlington, Ontario, has an innovative approach to fix this problem.
As in many districts, administrators are largely in charge of their budgets and have autonomy in where they put resources. The urban district with 60 buildings and 35,000 students is finding one way to get students using technology for learning to demonstrate its potential to administrators.
“Professional development generally focuses on teacher learning, but we’re starting to realize that we need to take one step back. What do students need to learn? What do teachers need to learn? What do administrators need to learn first, so they understand the first two?” said Jeff Crowell, Halton Catholic’s superintendent of education in school services.
Now in its second year, the program trains principals and vice principals in how to use technology meaningfully for learning. The administrators gather by Family of Schools (FoS), which classifies a secondary school and its feeder schools as a family.
The FoS began with a meeting to launch a focus group. Subsequent meetings were built into the professional learning that the school board does with all principals and vice principals on a bimonthly basis.
Each FoS selected two champions who were meant to be the lead learners. The champions often volunteer to serve. They are not necessarily experts, but people who are enthusiastic about learning. The spectrum includes early adopters as well as those with less aptitude. Crowell says that often the champions who were less adept to begin with were the best ones to model their competencies with their staff.
Champions surveyed other administrators to identify their needs and used that survey to set priorities. The champions then met to train on a broad variety of topics, focusing on skills they could use in their work.
The first sessions focused on tools, such as how to use Office 365. Ideally, each skill was used in a real situation to reinforce its use. For instance, participants created an agenda in a shared document and had staff contribute to the shared doc.
Other sessions covered how to use online forms to gather information or help teachers choose appropriate online tools and apps.
“There are some things our administrators didn’t realize they could do,” says Crowell. “They are very good at their jobs, but weren’t necessarily leveraging technology to make their job easier.”
After the basics, the board’s privacy officer led sessions on privacy and digital citizenship, which looked at board policies and procedures as well as best practices. At the final FoS meeting, school administrators completed an online survey to provide feedback on the sessions. The results were promising. Nearly 80% said they have a better understanding of specific technology and tools, and 73% said they were able to apply the new knowledge and skills. Just over 75% said that teachers at their school use technology to enhance the curriculum.
“What we’ve found is that administrators are often the great accelerators to 21st-century learning, often based on their comfort with these tools,” says Crowell. “When we build competencies in administrators, it makes them more able to model those competencies with their staff as well as understand why staff may ask for more professional development or technology investment.”
Jennifer Snelling is a freelance writer based in Eugene, Oregon, and mom to two digital natives.