A few years ago, I was asked to do a presentation for a group of U.S. school district chief technology officers and ed tech directors. After many years of modest success in roles similar to theirs, I had recently left my district-level position and the conference organizers believed I might have some pearls of wisdom to share.
My presentation’s theme was, “How to be successful as a district ed tech department administrator” and highlighted what I had learned on that topic, mostly by trial and error, but also with the help of some valued mentors.
Unlike me, there were many folks in the room who came from the private sector, weren’t educators, and had never worked in schools. And I thought especially about them as I constructed this presentation. Here’s what I said:
Be dependable. Do what you say you’re going to do, and when you’ve agreed to do it. This is as true for showing up for meetings as it is for completing projects on time.
Know your limits. Don’t agree to do something that you or your team doesn’t have the capacity to complete. Over-committing may seem noble, but it’s really just foolish and builds distrust.
Play well with others. Education is a team sport, as are all aspects of technology development and support. Being a good leader is important. Being a good team player is golden.
Build relationships. Much of what gets accomplished in over-taxed organizations like school districts is dependent on who you know, and if they’re willing to support your work. So, find and cultivate your allies. Avoid making enemies. Do favors when you can. Bribe people with food. Let them know you care.
Beware sacred cows. Don’t do something just because it’s always been done that way. Find new ways to do new things.
Be a voice for schools. Know what your schools really need from your department, and then speak strongly and often on their behalf with your staff and colleagues.
Build bridges, not fences. Educators are often frustrated by technology staff who choose to speak a tech-specific language with them, and who don’t make the effort to understand and to be understood. Build strong connections between your department with educators and schools. Expect and help your staff to be good communicators.
Listen more, talk less. In working with schools and educators, don’t presume you know what they want and need from your department. Take the time to listen. Ask clarifying questions. Summarize what you’ve heard them say and get their confirmation that you’re correct. And if it helps, put it in writing.
Spend time in schools. Don’t just go to schools for meetings with principals or tech staff. Visit classrooms. Pay attention to what the teachers and students are doing, talk to them. Show up for school performances and events. Learn the culture of schools.
Plant seeds. Getting difficult but important tasks accomplished in school districts takes both time and good timing. Sometimes it’s best to plant seeds and nurture them for future success, instead of trying to push through ill-timed projects that are likely doomed to fail.
Persevere. Once a difficult project gets started, it takes some grit to see it through. There will be lots of forces working against any project’s success. Be sure to maintain a positive attitude and keep up the morale of your staff.
Build a strong team. Hire good people. Empower and support them in their work. Don’t micromanage. Be clear about your expectations. Treat everyone with respect. And if you hire or inherit an employee who doesn’t work out, do what needs to be done.
Play to your strengths. Know what you’re good at, and surround yourself with people who can compensate for your areas of weakness.
Learn from your mistakes. Don’t dwell on your failings. Just don’t repeat them. Make some new mistakes.
Communicate your values. Make sure everyone in your department knows your values. Stating them clearly and often is good. Living them is best.
Remember, the hardest work in school districts isn’t done in offices and conference rooms, it’s done in schools. Every day. Your job is important. But the work done by teachers with students is the most important work done in school districts. And job No. 1 for you and your staff is to support that work.
Know that centrally supported technology is probably not innovative enough. Don’t presume your department is providing schools with the most innovative technology solutions for their needs. Instead, know there’s probably a bunch of teachers flying under your radar who’ve adopted unsupported technologies that better suit them.
Don’t deny schools’ requests; instead, work with them to find a solution. When schools approach your department wanting to use an unsupported technology, don’t say no. Learn what they’re trying to accomplish, and work with them to try and find a supportable and workable solution for all.
Don’t be smug. You and your tech staff know a lot about technology. Most educators don’t. But you probably couldn’t teach a room full of third-graders.
Manage your budget wisely. Develop a multi-year budgeting plan for your department that allows you to meet your yearly priorities, while also preparing for the future.
Share. Use some of your tech department budget to help support the work of schools and other departments. Invest in some pilot programs. Explore new collaborative opportunities.
Look gift horses in the mouth. Be careful in pursuing grants that provide funds for projects that aren’t a key part of your district or department’s long-term strategy. Or for ones that will pay for staff whose salaries you’ll have to absorb once the grant funds run out.
Remember, big departments make big targets. Hiring more staff during good budget years will likely mean more painful layoffs during the lean ones.
Be a mentor. Take the time to share what you know, nurture promising staff members for future leadership positions, and be available to your staff to discuss their careers.
Know your audience. Be able to communicate clearly about your department’s work to a wide range of people: district colleagues, principals, teachers, students, parents, community members, elected officials and others.
Emailing is efficient, talking on the phone can be better, but neither may be as good as in-person conversations. Know how best to deal with people, especially when discussing difficult subjects. Back and forth emails may be better handled through a phone call. And face-to-face meetings can be more effective than a contentious phone call. Take the time to use the best means of communication with thorny people on tough topics.
Don’t take yourself too seriously. Have some fun. You have a big job with lots of responsibilities and competing priorities. Take the time and make the opportunities to have some fun with your staff and colleagues. Be human. Be real.
Celebrate success. Your staff works hard and there’s always more to do than there is the time or people to do it. So make it a point to stop and celebrate your team’s successes along the way.
Remember, you’re a public servant. Your salary is paid for by public funds, and your job is to serve the greater good of your community. Be sure the choices you make in how and where you spend your work time and budget is in serving that cause and earning the public’s trust. Yes, you can probably make more money and receive more perks working in the private sector. But you made a choice, and it’s a good one. Own it.
You must be present to win. Make the time and effort to show up, even if you’re unsure why it’s important to do so. Leave your office and get out into your district and community. Meet people. Make new connections that could help your schools and students.