Thursday, October 2, 2014

Two worlds

"Sometimes the thing that brings us together also pulls us apart.  Sort of like a zipper."
                                                                                                                 Jarod Kintz

It’s a delicate balance, a fine line, one foot in two separate worlds…. Whatever phrase you use to describe it—the predicament remains.  I am ½ Techie and ½ Teacher.

I taught High School Social Studies for 20 years.  I’ve created thousands of lesson plans, attended countless professional development meetings, spent hours grading student work, and taught hundreds of classes.  I understand what it takes to be a teacher and I believe it is one of the most difficult but rewarding careers one could choose.  The deadlines, the phone calls, the paperwork, the meetings-- all the time spent trying to create an educational atmosphere in your classroom while encouraging and sometimes prodding students to learn can be exhausting.  What could possibly make it worse???


I could lose my Geek Club card for this one!

I know you are a little confused at this point.  Here I am, Director of Instructional Technology, and I am making a statement like that!!!  Technological Blasphemy!!!! 

Bear with me….

I have devoted the last 4 years of my professional career to helping teachers and students use technology in the classroom as a way to engage in, and deepen their learning.  I truly believe that technology is a must in classrooms today and I will do just about anything to make sure students and teachers that I work with have what it takes to utilize all of the tools at their disposal.  Within the past 4 years, I have been exposed to numerous learning opportunities of my own.  I have had a number of very patient “teachers” help me to understand how networks function, iPad troubleshooting, email servers and just about anything that would help me do my job. 

I remember one of the first days as Teacher Librarian/Technology Integrationist at Bettendorf High School, I was helping our technician, Eric McCoy set up a computer lab in our newly renovated library.  He patiently answered a lot of questions and taught me how to connect the computers to the network and a magical place called the switch closet.  He showed me how to fix a common issue of monitors that would not turn on by teaching me how to “seed” a computer hard drive. At this point, I thought I may just be the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs with what I had learned.  Of course, every computer issue from that point on—I was convinced—would need me to practice my new skill.  Eric finally had to confiscate my screwdriver, as he gently explained that not every problem had the same solution, even though it was a pretty cool one at that.  I’ve asked a lot of questions and learned some of it on my own but the point is…. I have been very lucky to learn the “tech” side of teaching as much as I have and admittedly, I have a long way to go.

What I find very interesting is the “foot” I have in both worlds and how those two worlds interact and yes, sometimes clash.  I have the unique experience of seeing this relationship from both perspectives.  I understand the pressures that a teacher and administrator deal with on a daily basis and I also know that the IT side of things usually isn’t a one-click fix it type of proposition.  There are so many things that are done by teachers and IT people that the other side doesn’t see and that is the my main reason for writing this blog.

As a teacher, it was almost impossible to try and get something done without a working computer in your classroom, or a lab that would not function properly, a printer down, and don’t even get me started on the internet outages or slooooooow internet speeds. (Yes, I know, those of you who taught before computers are chuckling right now)

 What is going on in that technology department?  Why aren’t they fixing these issues?  I have 30 scholars sitting in front of me wondering why it is taking so long to load a web page and what makes it worse—my whole lesson plan is in danger for today because of these ongoing issues.  Why hasn’t anyone been to my room to fix my projector?  Are they not aware of what is going on?  Maybe I should email again or better yet, make a call. 

I’ve had many of these same thoughts as a teacher and have even communicated them to our IT staff.  As a teacher, it is easy to get wrapped up in what is happening within your classroom and if the technology is causing issues or problems in your attempts to complete your work, it is very frustrating.

On the other side of the coin—IT departments are all about customer service.  The customers are teachers, administrators and students. They are here to make your life more comfortable, more efficient and let’s face it…easier.  Most techs could tell you horror stories about a computer they have had to spend hours fixing because someone who thought they knew what they were doing, decided to download a piece of software that doesn’t function well using the operating system that is in place.  Do you know how many 911 texts that techs get when a teacher is standing in front of a classroom of students and their projector won’t turn on only to rush to that room and find out a cord had been unplugged?  Or the amount of troubleshooting and testing that goes into making sure that a network filter is blocking all the bad stuff but allowing all the good stuff when a class is doing research on teenage pregnancy?

I’ve seen an example of each of those types of situations and even more in the past four years.  I’ve seen IT staff members visit a classroom to take care of one problem and get pulled into 3 more issues because a teacher sees them and decides to take advantage of that opportunity to have them fix their problem.  And most techs do just that—after all they are here to serve their customers.  
Let me be clear—teachers/administrators and IT staff will always look at things differently.  They have different perspectives, different responsibilities and different methods.  The one big thing they have in common, however, is the end goal.  That end goal is to make technology available and integral for the process of teaching and learning.

So, what do we do now?  We are well aware that teachers/administrators and IT staff go through this love/hate relationship many times throughout a school year and summer.  How can we minimize the “hate” episodes and practice recognizing and understanding the different perspectives and responsibilities of both groups?

Catalyst Charter Schools stress the importance of Stephen Coveys’ 7 Habits of Highly Successful People and we strive to help our scholars to practice these habits on a daily basis.  It seems a natural place to start when considering the relationship between teachers/administrators and IT staff.

1.       Be Proactive—Think ahead, prepare, and plan.

Lesson plans that include technology should be tested ahead of time.  Don’t wait until the last minute to see if a site is blocked or if a piece of equipment will work. Stay ahead of the game and there won’t be any big surprises waiting for you and IT can serve your needs quicker if you give them some time.

Just as teachers and administrators need to have a long range plan and short term goals, IT departments need the same type of thinking.  How do you build a system that will allow you to reach your short term goals but also protect you in the “long term planning”?  Put systems in place that allow for growth will keep things running smoothly and means that slight changes in process or structure won’t be catastrophic.

2.       Begin with the end in mind—What is the ultimate goal and how can you get there?

What do you need your students to do, know or learn?  Start with that in mind and then decide if technology will help you accomplish those goals.  Technology should be integrated within your lesson plans because it will help you in your teaching practice and also to help scholars in their learning process.  Using technology just to use technology is missing the big picture.

Creating an infrastructure and support system has to begin with what you need the system to do.  Shortcuts in technology often cause more problems along the way.  Build systems that are going to be structurally sound when minor changes take place.  Avoid using a system that allows for quick resolution of an issue but is going to have to be addressed again to complete.

3.       Put first things first—prioritize

What do you need to have now? What can wait until later?  If everything is an emergency then it will make life much more difficult for you and the people that are trying to support you. You may have to make difficult choices.  Be prepared to prioritize your needs and the needs of your scholars.

Make sure you understand and utilize a priority model that puts teachers and scholars first.  Just because it is easier to fix, doesn’t mean it should be the first thing you do.  Prioritize and delegate. 

4.       Think Win-Win—compromise

Understand that IT staff members are there to help and support you but may not be able to get things done as quickly as you would like.  It isn’t because they don’t want to help—it usually is a result of many other tasks that have to be considered before they can act.  Be patient, find a middle ground that you can live with until IT can fully complete the task.

Understand that teachers/administrators have many deadlines and often are answering to a lot of different organizations.  Communicate, Communicate, Communicate!!  If you can’t complete a project, let them know why and give them an idea of when you will be able to finish.  Most of the time teachers/administrators will find a way to get things done when they know what to expect and when to expect it.  Be honest and upfront but always communicate. 

5.       Seek first to understand, then to be understood—listen for understanding

This skill is probably one of the most difficult for both groups.  It can be hard for teachers and IT staff to stop and take a moment in the middle of an emergent issue.  The stress that both groups are under often can cause discussions to take place where one side or the other and possibly both sides aren’t really listening.  People are talking, possibly even shouting but communication isn’t happening.  Stop, take a deep breath, listen for understanding and then take your turn.  Understanding that there are many perspectives at work here is the key to knowing how to view an issue from both sides which will encourage a working relationship based on trust and a common goal.

6.       Synergize—work together for common goal

Teachers, administrators and IT staff are all working toward a common goal.  And if we always keep that at the forefront of our actions, we will have less friction between the groups as we all understand that we want to do what is best for our scholars.  This type of relationship needs to be built on open communication and trust.  Once those have been established, there is no telling what these groups can accomplish together.

7.       Sharpen the saw—reflect and move forward

We know that people in the field of education don’t have as much time as they would like to sit back and reflect on past actions and accomplishments.  As most people believe, teachers have the summer off to prepare and get ready for the upcoming year.  Of course, we all know that summers are a time for teachers to reenergize and work on long term lesson planning, taking classes, getting trained and just overall preparing for the next school year.  Take some time to reflect on how the year went, what you want to change and what things you thought worked well.  This will make the next year even better.

Of course, the summer is often one of the busiest times for IT but there also needs to be an opportunity when IT staff take a look at how things worked that specific school year, where are we with our short and long term goals and what can we do to make the start of the school year as smooth as the middle and the end?

Regardless of the position or role that you have in your school community, it is vital that we remember that we are all in this together for one common purpose.  When we keep that in mind, there is no limit to what we and our scholars can accomplish.

"All for one and one for all"
                            Alexandre Dumas