How to Develop a Diverse School IT Staff

school it staff
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Companies that create a diverse IT staff see greater profitability and creativity as well as stronger governance and better problem-solving abilities, thanks to the variety in perspectives, thought processes, and experiences. 

All these benefits transfer to education and edtech, says Diane Doersch, Director of Technology for the Verizon Innovative Learning Schools Initiative at Digital Promise, and a former director of technology and chief technology and information officer at Green Bay Area Public Schools in Wisconsin. 

“Always the people first,” Doersch says. “You’ve got to take care of the people before the people can do the things you need them to do.”

A school IT staff needs to have a variety of voices around the table to be successful, she says. People from diverse backgrounds offer diverse solutions, so building a structure to support that and in which everyone feels they have a voice -- and that their supervisor has their back -- is important. 

“You have to set the tone for your department, and potentially, your whole school system, on what's acceptable and what's not,” Doersch says. “And that is really going to make a difference on the retention of diverse employees, if you're lucky enough to get them in the door.” 

Diverse School IT Staff: Intentional Recruitment 

Districts have to be intentional about diversity and inclusion in the recruiting processes. They need to consider practices such as compiling lists of professional networks, sourcing from diverse institutions, and attending sponsored technology events to find qualified candidates, says Doersch. 

Competing with private sector salaries is a major concern for school edtech leaders, but the education environment offers other benefits. “Something that we always say about working in a school district versus other IT jobs where you're on call all the time, where it's high stress, where you could be released at any time, is that in education it's pretty stable,” says Doersch. “Okay, maybe we don't pay the best salary, but we have a good community to be part of.” 

If you’re looking to build diversity, the recruiting seeds need to be planted early as the technology field is open to everybody, says Doersch, who encourages districts to invite their own students to see what they do by offering IT tours. “We had a very diverse hardware team, and students actually say, ‘Hey wait I look like him, I could do this.’ Or, ‘Look, she's doing that, I could do this!’” she says. “For me, as the chief, I made sure to get in front of our young women to say, ‘Hey, this is a possibility for you.’ And being an Asian-American was another thing I talked about.”  

Fine-tuning your job description to include more inclusive language is also key as it’s the first thing that a potential employee sees when they're considering working for you. 

Other items to consider regarding job descriptions: 

  • Question if existing job competencies are barriers 
  • Consider experience vs. degrees as well as all lifestyles 
  • Include an equity statement in a job description so potential employees know it’s a priority 
  • Eliminate technical jargon 
  • Talk about your organization’s culture 

Diverse IT School Staff: Hiring, Onboarding, and Retention

Once the job is posted and diverse candidates begin to apply, it’s helpful to have a diverse interview panel that includes various ages, levels of experience, and cultural backgrounds. Although the process should be standardized, it’s important to not just hire the cultural ‘fit,’ and to model a growth mindset. “Remember, they’re deciding if they want to work for you,” says Doersch.

After a prospect is hired, the onboarding process is crucial to show that your organization has a growth plan, and one in which that employee can see themselves achieving career goals and advancing. Objective criteria and metrics should be clear, as are opportunities for job shadowing, professional learning, and especially, mentorship.    

“We found that we were the strongest when we matched mentors up, so that a person felt that they had somebody to go to to find out procedures or the right person to talk to,” says Doersch. “The people who did end up being those mentors were really out to be helpful, and weren't in it for themselves. They really truly were team players who wanted to make our team better.”

Other actions to consider to boost retention:

  • Put people in places to succeed 
  • Connect their work with the strategic direction of the district 
  • Have high expectations 
  • Provide frequent feedback
  • Coach employees, focusing on fostering independence, developing critical thinking, improving communication, and stretching their abilities 
  • Support their proposals  

As always, listening is key. “I constantly talked to our new employees and our technology integrators because that tends to be a lonely job when you're out working at multiple schools,” says Doersch. “I would check in with them and see how they're doing, see if there's any way to lower barriers for them, etc.”

Improving Your Leadership 

Leaders have to be proactive in their approach to management to support diversity and inclusion. 

It’s also important to make sure your leadership team understands about the potential issues within diverse teams, such as cultural microaggressions. “Teaching your team leaders about microaggressions, and what they are and how to stop them, is going to be key,” says Doersch. “We had monthly staff meetings, so we would talk about these things as a whole group, setting up those guardrails for treating each other respectfully.” Be sure to empower middle-level managers to have the skills to confidently report and address these issues when it happens.

Other leadership points to consider:

  • Be supportive by showing authentic interest and building trust 
  • Seek different perspectives by inviting ideas from everyone 
  • Operate with strong results orientation by emphasizing efficiency and completion and focusing on the important issues and not getting distracted by unimportant ones 
  • Solve problems effectively, making sure to gather data before making decisions and resolving disputes fairly 

“In leadership, there are vulnerabilities, and being able to sometimes show your underbelly and be vulnerable shows people that you're human and you're learning right along with them,” says Doersch.

Ray Bendici is the Managing Editor of Tech & Learning and Tech & Learning University. He is an award-winning journalist/editor, with more than 20 years of experience, including a specific focus on education.