From the Principal's Office: A School's Transformative Journey

1/7/2013 12:00:00 AM
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 graduation.

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.

Connectedness Matters
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.

Vision
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.

Value
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 quickly follows.

Support
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.
 
Professional Development
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.

Embracement
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 LeaderASCD 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.
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