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As we enter the last couple months of the school year, I have been reflecting on just how far we have come at West Langley when it comes to utilizing technology to empower learning for our students. When I arrived at the school in 2010 there was a “computer lab” and a few laptops. Now we are lucky enough to have two 1:1 iPad classes and several “blended” classes that utilize iPads, laptops and Chromebooks to enhance the learning of our children. And while we still have a long way to go on being fully effective in our integration of technology, I started thinking about some of the key things we have tried to implement at our school in order to create a culture where leadership is distributed and staff are challenged, while being respected and supported as professionals in the classroom.
Encourage Risks, Take Risks
In many ways, this is the number one barrier to successful integration of technology as a learning tool in schools. We are afraid. Afraid the students know more than us, afraid the technology will not work in front of the class, afraid others around us are doing it “better” and so on and so on. In my role as an educational leader, I want my staff to take risks. Innovation can’t happen otherwise. And I don’t mean reckless endeavours, but educators have to feel as though they can try something new and have it fail. And in that happening, know their leaders will support them … by dealing with concerns from parents (and colleagues sometimes), collaborating with them on how to improve things or just simply giving them permission to try something new again. And part of that is modeling a willingness to take risks. I try to do that in my school. I share my learning through a blog because I want my teachers to share their learning through a blog. I leverage social media to create a powerful PLN because I want my teachers to do the same. And sometimes I fail at those things (and many others). But I do it openly. I talk about it. I grow and learn from it because I want my teachers to do the same. And I know if they are comfortable enough to take risks, they will encourage that in the classroom, which is the core of student learning. It is vital that risk-taking be the culture in our schools if we want to fully leverage the powerful tool technology offers.
Create a Buffer Zone
This can be a hard one as an educational leader. In my role as principal, the pressure on schools, especially when it comes to achievement can be difficult. Things like standardized tests, parent expectations and government initiatives all put tremendous pressure on our schools and the professionals who work there. So as the formal leader in my building, I know it is my responsibility to create a buffer zone for my staff so they can work their magic in the classroom in a safe way. Sometimes that means me being the person to help a parent understand why we might use the iPad to gather formative reading assessment instead of a traditional pen-and-paper test. Or sometimes it means burying those emails containing district data deep in my computer so that staff aren’t stressing about where we rank against other schools (or last year’s class). However you do it, as an effective leader in technology integration, we need to ensure our staff feel safe. There is an art to the teaching profession, one that can’t flourish without some space to do so.
I know it sounds crazy, but let me clarify. I’m not talking about literally wasting money. That would be quite irresponsible, especially at a time when school districts are having to cut back on a regular basis. But the fact still remains, innovation requires people to be able to try things out before they know all the consequences and/or results. As I said before, it requires the environment to take risks. And sometimes that means spending money that appears a “waste” after the fact. For example, at West Langley we wanted to see if Chromebooks could be a way to integrate technology into the learning of our students in a more cost effective way. And while the devices themselves have proven to be invaluable to student learning, some of the accessories we bought to supplement the Chromebooks have not fit with our needs. We paid for Chromecast only to find out it doesn’t really fit with what we are doing on a daily basis. And while some would complain about the $40 that we “wasted” on trying out a Chromecast device, the ability to spend some money to encourage innovation is a necessary part of effective technology integration. Let a teacher buy an app if they feel it may help student learning. Let them attend a conference to better themselves professionally. And do it sometimes, even if you don’t know the end result. The cliche “you have to spend money to make money” doesn’t really work in the school setting. But sometimes you have to spend money to allow innovation and learning to improve.
Celebrate Small Success
Riki O’Byrne, a grade two teacher on our staff, is the best example of how important this aspect of effective integration of technology is in truly creating change for students learning. When I came to West Langley three years ago and introduced the idea of using iPads as a learning tool, she was apprehensive, but willing to try. And over those three years, Riki has worked extremely hard, taken risks, learned from countless failed attempts but has come so far along the spectrum it is enough to make any educational leader weep. And all along the way, one of my roles as her principal was to remind her of the small successes she was accomplishing. Whether it was figuring out a screencasting app to empower math lessons, utilizing Apple TV to give students authentic participation in class work or simply understanding the difference between “downloading” and “uploading,” celebrating the small success was instrumental in the tremendous growth that occurred. And recently we were able to celebrate just how successful Riki has been in effectively leveraging technology for student learning after she presented to a group of primary teachers, an exercise she thought unimaginable only three years ago. It is a great reminder for me how important recognizing and celebrating success along the journey is in leading change.
Trust Your People
This is the most important aspect of successful technology integration in schools. The importance of relationships can’t be stressed enough, especially when it comes to having technology become seamless and invisible in your building. Too often, as leaders, we want to micro-manage those around us. Try and tell them, down to the last detail, how we want things done. In my experience however, I have found this leadership style to be detrimental in allowing learning to be empowered by technology. I let teachers download apps onto their iPads so they can try them out. I let them attack lessons with Chromebooks in a manner they see fit. I’m there to support them, help them and even buffer them against criticism sometimes because I know they are trying their best, whatever level they are at, to leverage the technology to best meet the needs of their students. We need to trust our staffs as a group of professionals. When a culture of respect is created in a classroom, we know student learning occurs much more easily. The same is true in a school. When teachers feel as those their leaders trust them, and we behave in a manner consistent with that, then growth is exponentially great. And this is true when it comes to technology integration.
As I said before, we have come a long way at West Langley in creating a culture of “engaging students in authentic learning empowered by technology.” And the best part is, it has truly been a collaborative effort of amazing professionals. This post is not designed to take credit for all the success we have had at West Langley … not even close. We would still be that school with an outdated computer lab if it hadn’t been for the tremendous work of every adult in our building. The ideas above simply created an environment where the greatness of each teacher and support staff could flourish, allowing learning that is empowered by technology more and more every day.