The rise of educational technology and school network infrastructure, and the related cybersecurity needs, have made school and district technology leaders some of the most important personnel in K-12 organizations — so much so that the position has become a pipeline to the superintendency.
In a crowded session at the Future of Education Technology Conference in Orlando this week, consultant and former Klein Independent School District (Texas) executive director for educational technology Ann McMullan moderated a panel of three tech-directors-turned-superintendents who also all serve on the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) Superintendent Advisory Panel.
With a shift toward more learner-centered environments, superintendents have to lead differently, which can lead to a lot of unintended consequences with technology, said Donna Wright, director of schools for Wilson County Schools (Tennessee). Beyond the "magic" of tech, what's the intent and purpose for it in the classroom? Drawing that connection between these tools and pedagogy is imperative, she said.
Superintendents can ultimately learn a lot from the people in tech leadership roles, and the panelists used their prior experiences to elaborate on the recruitment and hiring process, primary responsibilities, how to cultivate their leadership, and what they've learned as superintendents from their own chief technology officers.
Who are your technology leaders?
Manheim Central School District (Pennsylvania) Superintendent Peter Aiken's current CTO is a former teacher, so he understands both the nuts and bolts as well as the instructional side. A common challenge in that role is how to become well-rounded and balance the tech side with teaching and learning, so having someone who understands both is a blessing, he said.
Randy Ziegenfuss, superintendent of the Salisbury Township School District (Pennsylvania), said that beyond formal leaders with titles, however, there are also teacher leaders and instructional coaches, who used to be called technology coaches. Plus, there are media specialists, tech support personnel and librarians, who can all be technology leaders. Acknowledging leadership in these areas is important, too.
Wright added that it's important to take a team perspective. Building capacity within teacher leaders and even understanding how adults learn compared to students is critical to getting everyone on the same page, because educators in the classroom have to learn how to use the tools before they can teach the students. Teachers are demanding more in their own skill sets and how they can deliver on the benefits of technology for students.
She also noted that administrators can learn a lot from students’ expertise if they ask questions and pay attention to what learners have to say.
Recruiting, interviewing and hiring
Even in a small district, Zeigenfuss said, one person can’t know everything and do everything in technology. It's important to have someone who knows basic infrastructure and what’s on the cutting edge of tech as well as someone with the the ability to work on a team. Technology departments can’t operate in silos, such as having ed tech and IT as separate sub-departments, as people outside of those areas aren’t often in the loop.
"We need to have conversations with a larger group of people," he said. "People need to feel as if they have a stake in that."
Aiken added that the CTO is often the smartest person in the room, but that person don’t need to let everyone know that. They have to be approachable and be able to work alongside people and share their body of knowledge in a way that disarms staff and makes them feel it’s OK to not know. They have to create an environment with a sense of, "Let's knock down walls for these kids," he said.
In addition, Wright suggested having “"tech cafés" with tiered instruction for educators, where these concepts and skills are presented in approachable, navigable ways.
Primary areas of responsibility
Ziegenfuss said it’s important for the CTO to be like a solicitor. When superintendents engage with solicitors, it’s always a worst-case scenario presented upfront, like the risks of students' photos being posted on social media. The CTO must be an assessor, who tells district leaders what they are opening themselves up to by taking on a new approach. Then, they can use that information to strategize and arrive at a middle ground.
Aiken noted that CTOs must also develop and establish a succession plan within their department. "If they take you away from your department, is your department going to crumble?" he asked.
Leadership and collaboration
Aiken said he subscribes to the idea that when the leader gets better, everyone wins. He challenges every leader who works alongside him to always get better, as well.
Ziegenfuss reiterated this point by saying that the CTO must be considered part of key central office leadership, in the superintendent’s cabinet. Even if they don’t have an education background, these leaders still need to be involved in high-level leadership discussions, which can help them grow.
Wright added that sometimes the seats at the table are limited rather than expanded, but that technology leaders can't be expected to bring the superintendent's decisions to fruition if they're not included in the discussions.
Lessons learned from CTOs
Ziegenfuss said he has learned that communication and a willingness to be vulnerable is critical to success. Being able to tell each other anything without politics in the way is key.
"When there’s lack of communication, that’s when stuff happens that you didn’t anticipate," he said, because people were working in silos or didn’t anticipate a risk.
Aiken echoed that sentiment, saying he had a “come to Jesus” meeting with his CTO and realized he needed to change, too, because communication is a two-way street. While some have probably worked for superintendents they didn’t care for, he said, students have to remain the priority, and sometimes the approach to communication has to change.
Wright brought the discussion back to the importance of trust. Without that, she said, district leaders can make themselves vulnerable to outside critics. Superintendents have to value their technology leaders and trust their expertise to see success.