The day starts at 7:30 AM. You meet with the technical staff, spend 30 minutes answering priority e-mail from faculty, do a brief walk-through of the high school, and conduct a project review with a design team. After lunch you run back-to-back meetings with the database manager and CFO, participate in a threehour cabinet meeting, and end the day calling back concerned parents.
Sound familiar? As director of technology in a suburban school district, I interface with more than a dozen different constituencies, each with their own set of needs and priorities. Through experience and much reflection, I’ve identified six strategies that have helped me effectively manage those relationships.
1. KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE
Pay attention to the needs of your audience when trying to build support for new initiatives. In making the case for a fiberoptic wide area network, for example, steer clear of techie-talk like gigabyte Ethernet, redundancy, and server consolidation. Teachers will be engaged by the possibility of offering authentic experiences for students in the form of virtual field trips or live, cross-cultural video conferences. Board members, while interested in extending student learning, are more inclined to support the initiative if presented as part of a plan to maximize performance and efficiency while maintaining labor costs.
2. DEBRIEF EVENTS
In general people show great patience when they’re in the know. A simple e-mail explaining why the Internet was down for an hour or clarifying the cause for a major service interruption is a powerful vehicle for building trust and has the added benefit of marking the end of an event. When users experience computer problems, they have a tendency to link unrelated events. To most people, there is no difference between a crashing application on their desktop and a DNS error on the network. The debrief message dispels misconceptions. It should be clear, jargon-free, and provide specific details that inform and reassure.
3. COMMUNICATE PROACTIVELY
Given the demands of the job, we tend to be reactive in our communications. Proactive communication, on the other hand, can be used to highlight accomplishments and make transparent that which largely goes unnoticed. For example, provide data detailing average turnaround time on completed work orders for a given month and use the opportunity to praise the technical team for their hard work.
4. BUILD BRIDGES BETWEEN TEACHERS and TECHIES
To the educator, technicians speak in tongues. To the technician, educators make unreasonable demands. Take advantage of opportunities, such as technology committee meetings, to encourage meaningful interaction between these two groups. For example, use techniques like “the fish bowl” to role play an exchange between a technician and a frustrated teacher. Through this activity, participants can reflect on the underlying issues that cause conflict. In addition, make use of technical team meetings to develop communication skills such as listening with empathy. Finally, emphasize the importance of communication in your team’s annual evaluations.
5. RESPECT THE COMMUNICATION CYCLE
Acquiring useful information from constituents is a learned craft—it requires strong questioning techniques and excellent listening skills. Above all, it requires respect for the process. Attend building, department, grade level, and parent meetings. Be visible and open to feedback. Employ online tools such as SurveyMonkey.com to take the pulse of the organization. And make certain that the data collected is used to inform the technology program and improve its implementation.
6. LEVEL EXPECTATIONS
Be sure to manage the expectations of your constituents when bringing on new initiatives or completing ambitious projects. This is especially important when addressing priorities outlined by the board of education and the superintendent. Lay out a plan that includes milestones for completion but also downside risk. Anticipate constituent questions and use the opportunity to respectfully educate them about variables that may compromise the plan. Document agreements regarding cost, timeline, and risk for later reference. After all, it’s always better to exceed realistic expectations than disappoint key stakeholders.
Michael Greenfield, a former English teacher and professional developer, is the director of technology for the Harrison Central School District in Harrison, N.Y.