From the Principal's Office: A School's Transformative Journey
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January 7, 2013 By: Eric Sheninger
Cross-posted at the Huffington Post
Recently my school was recognized as the “School of the Month” for November/December by eSchool News.
The resulting article described New Milford High School’s many
accomplishments pertaining to the use of educational technology to enhance the
teaching and learning process. We are
extremely proud of the current culture that now exists where technology is seen
as one of many necessary tools that are pivotal to student achievement and
overall success. As technology’s role in
society continues to become more prevalent, it only makes sense to integrate it
effectively in schools so that our students are not shortchanged upon
NMHS is a shell of its former self. The many shifts, changes, and resulting
transformation did not occur over night, impulsively, or without calculated
risks. As I look back on our journey and the path that was taken, I have been
able to identify some key elements that have driven change. It was these changes that took an average
comprehensive high school and transformed it into the current institution that
many have come to know through social media over the past three years.
Technology was viewed as an expensive frill that we would
love to have, but not worth its weight in gold when push came to shove. Being a technology leader, in my opinion,
meant making sure our computer labs were up to date and available for staff to
use when needed. The notion of using
social media was never a thought as the perception was that it lacked any
potential value for learning or education in general. As for cell phones, the only role they served
was as a communications’ tool for students as they journeyed to, and returned
from, school. Never under any
circumstances would they be used for learning during my tenure as principal.
The above paragraph provides a brief, honest synopsis of
where we were just a few years ago and the role I played in creating the exact
opposite school culture described in the eSchoolNews piece. So what changed? How did New Milford become a technology-rich
school where potential and promise is emphasized as opposed to problems,
challenges, and excuses? How were we
able to get everyone on board to initiate and sustain change? Here are some answers to these questions.
It wasn’t until I become connected that I truly understood
the error in my ways and views. My social media journey has been well documented, but it was this journey that
provided me with the knowledge, tools, and ideas needed to initiate
change. Knowledge is everything and it
influences our decisions and opinions.
For me, I lacked the fundamental knowledge on how technology could truly
be integrated effectively. Once
connected through social media, I was given the knowledge I desperately
needed. For my school, connectedness was
the original catalyst for change. It has
also enabled us to form numerous collaborative partnerships with an array of
stakeholders who have assisted us along the way.
The seeds for change will only germinate if a coherent
vision is established. It is important
that all stakeholder groups contribute to a collective vision and work to
subsequently create a plan for integration.
With this being said, it is extremely important that leaders have a
concrete vision that clearly articulates why and how technology will be used to
support education. Without these two
crucial elements any resulting plan will fail.
One of the drawbacks to educational technology is the
perceived lack of value it has in terms of student learning and
achievement. With current reform efforts
placing a greater emphasis on standardized test scores, the value of technology
in the eyes of many has diminished or is non-existent. The true value of technology rests on how it
is used to support learning and create experiences that students find
meaningful and relevant. This, in my
opinion, is the key and should be included when establishing a vision. Technology has the power to engage students,
unleash their creativity, and allow them to apply what they have learned to
demonstrate conceptual mastery. If
stakeholders understand and experience technology’s value firsthand, change
Support comes in many forms.
Teachers need to have a certain amount of access to technology in order
to experience the types of changes that have occurred at NMHS. We made a commitment at the District level to
install a wireless network four years ago and have consistently upgraded it
over the years to its current 100mb/s capacity.
This allows for the seamless and uninterrupted use of mobile devices by
both teachers and students. We also made
a commitment to transforming a very old building (circa 1928) by outfitting
rooms with the latest technology. This
was a slow process that has occurred over the past three and a half years. To put some perspective on this, not one
traditional classroom had an Interactive Whiteboard (IWB) in it four years
ago. Currently we now have twenty. In addition to providing access to technology,
another essential support structure is removing the fear of failure and
encouraging a risk-taking environment that fuels innovation. Driving change does not happen without this
element. As a leader, it wasn’t until I
addressed my technology fears head on and then began to model its effective use
that many of our initiatives began to flourish.
Without this element in place change surely will not
occur. Transforming a school culture
based on significant shifts in pedagogy requires opportunities to learn how to
effectively integrate technology. As
there were not many quality professional development options in place when we
started our journey we made our own.
This was accomplished by leveraging our teacher leaders and available
resources. The majority of the
knowledge, ideas, and strategies came from the formation of a Personal LearningNetwork (PLN). By harnessing the power
of a PLN, I was able to impart what I learned to my staff. Trainings on various Web 2.0 tools were held
after school. A year later the EdscapeConference was formed to provide more relevant and meaningful growth
opportunities. The most recent
initiative involved the creation of a Professional Growth Period (PGP), a
job-embedded growth model. This resulted
in giving my staff the time and flexibility to learn how to integrate the tools
that they were interested in, as well as form their own PLN’s.
The final element that I found to be critical in driving
change was empowering my staff to embrace technology as opposed to securing
buy-in. To me there is a huge
difference. Embracement is attained
through empowerment and autonomy as described above. Buy-in requires a salesman-like approach that
might contain if-then rewards. We have
no mandates to use technology at NMHS.
By empowering teachers to shift their instructional practices and giving
them the needed autonomy to take risks and work on effective integration
techniques, this worked to intrinsically motivate them to change. This approach was found to be instrumental in
our recent renaissance and less prone to resistance and resentment.
There you have it.
The elements described above put into perspective how we were able to
drive change and eventually be recognized for the culture that has been created
even with limited resources.
cross-posted on A Principal's Reflections
Eric Sheninger is a NASSP Digital Principal Award winner (2012), PDK Emerging Leader Award recipient (2012), winner of Learning Forward's Excellence in Professional Practice Award (20 12), Google Certified Teacher, Adobe Education Leader, ASCD 2011 Conference Scholar, co-author of Communicating and Connecting With Social Media: Essentials for Principals and What Principals Need to Know About Teaching and Learning Science, writer on education for the Huffington Post, co-creator of the Edscape Conference, sits on the FEA Board of Directors, and was named to the NSBA "20 to Watch" list in 2010 for technology leadership. He now presents and speaks nationally to assist other school leaders embrace and effectively utilize technology. His blog, A Principal's Reflections, was selected as Best School Administrator Blog in 2011 by Edublogs.