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Leaders must be the change they want to see

By Darryl Joyner
September 25, 2019
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Last February, during a meeting with a group of middle school students, I was asked why I chose a career in education.

I shared that there was never a point in my education when I liked school, and that I’ve dedicated my career to making school more engaging for students like them. To illustrate my point, I asked them a couple of questions. “How many of you love to learn new things?” Every hand went up. I then asked, “How many of you love school?” Every hand went down. I went on to explain that part of my work was to try to make school a place they could love.

It may be uncomfortable to admit, but your school system likely includes a lot of students who hate coming to school. And if your students don’t want to be there, you can be certain they’re not authentically engaged. That lack of engagement negatively affects their attention, curiosity, passion and optimism.

For the most part, districts understand student engagement is key. If you read the mission statement or strategic plan of just about any school system these days, you’re sure to see terms like transform, future-ready and growth mindset to describe their vision for teaching and learning. For many districts, these phrases and any associated technology integration represent a sea change in how they approach education.

Often, these efforts are difficult to bring to fruition. Not because they don’t believe this shift is best for students. Not because they don’t have hardworking teachers who want to meet the needs of their students. And certainly not because students aren’t hungry for a school experience that’s driven by their needs and interests.

This challenge exists for a simple reason: culture. Simply put, districts cannot expect educators to innovate or transform unless they create a culture that encourages and nurtures change.

The ISTE Standards for Education Leaders provide a clear blueprint to help districts envision, implement and lead a transformative culture.

Shifting the culture of any organization is a multi-step process that should start with asking, “What if.” This question often leads to brainstorming about all the things that might go wrong.

But there are also essential “what if” questions that are rarely asked. What if this shift to integrating technology is successful? What if everything we think is going to work actually works even better than we had hoped? What if this success makes us want to expand our vision of technology in teaching and learning?

As described in the Education Leader Standards, a visionary planner understands that it’s essential to prepare for success. This involves knowing how those initial pockets of success will be scaled to other schools as well as how those updated best practices will be integrated into the work and planning of other education leaders.

Visionary planners also recognize they can lead by doing. When a visionary planner engages stakeholders by using a range of technology tools and strategies, they’re sending a message that technology has the power to facilitate greater engagement and more effective collaboration. When they use technology to evaluate progress on a strategic plan, they show that technology has the power to inform intentional planning and course correction.

If teachers are expected to be the day- to-day manifestation of a changing school district, they must be empowered to innovate. An empowering leader knows that if schools are where the rubber meets the road, it’s their responsibility to create that road. Let’s say a district wants to use technology to shift the teaching and learning paradigm. That must then be matched with new measures of success. The questions become: To what degree was technology integrated to facilitate more student choice? Increase collaboration? Boost student engagement?

This change sends a signal that innovation is embedded in the overall DNA of the school system, and that the system values calculated risk-taking and experimentation. It also opens the door for teachers to gain the confidence and competency to implement the ISTE Student Standards and Educator Standards.

For any shift that calls for an increase in technology implementation, the infrastructure forms the backbone. In my district, our Department of Information Services has a philosophy of accommodating whatever a teacher might dream up. Notice I didn’t say “respond to,” but “accommodate.” This means the infrastructure must be aligned not only with the current needs of instruction, but the potential needs of instruction.

A leader who also embraces the role of systems designer ensures the technology infrastructure is robust enough to handle expanding needs and is sustainable in a way that maintains momentum. This sends a message that not only is this change here to stay, but that staff can trust that the infrastructure will continue to support that change.

A systems designer also understands that more technology resources mean more use, and more use creates more data. They put in place sufficient processes to not only manage and protect that data, but to also make that data available as a powerful tool to inform instruction, building a culture that treats student data as one of the most vital resources in the work of teaching and learning.

Education leaders play a critical role in creating and maintaining an environment for innovation and transformation, and that role cannot end with the vision. Leaders must be the change they want to see, and this includes not only a reimagining of their school system, but the role they’ll play within it.

Expand digital equity in your school! Read ISTE's book Closing the Gap.

Darryl Joyner is an edtech speaker, presenter and thought leader with over 20 years of experience as an educator. he’s currently the  instructional  technology integration analyst for Arlington Public Schools in Arlington, Virginia, and the liaison between the Department of Teaching and Learning and the Department of Information Services. Find him on Twitter @edtechpioneer.