In preparation for the second interview for the position of Director of Technology at Trenton Public School District, I consulted and reviewed the district’s COVID response plan, the Strategic Plan, as well as various documents related to the Board of Education. Additionally, I consulted with several downriver principals, as well as the Director of Instructional Technology at Boulder Valley Schools in Colorado, and the former District Coordinator of Computer Education for the Albuquerque Public Schools. This information and these consultations have informed my efforts for a 90-day transitional plan.
I believe wholeheartedly in the idea of the virtuous cycle as put forth by Michael Watkins in his book, “The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels”. My overriding goal in the first 90 days is to get up to speed as quickly as possible. A virtuous cycle is a beneficial cycle of events or incidents, each having a positive effect on the next. My virtuous cycle begins with an introduction.
The most important, and certainly the first step, in any transition is to get to know the people around you. To that end, on my first day, or perhaps after the onboarding rituals that every new employee must go through, I plan on getting to know the staff I will be working with. The heart and soul of any effective team are those individuals tasked with the day-to-day maintenance and support of various district initiatives. Those folks are the IT Techs. I look forward to meeting and getting to know each of them. But working with a diverse team of talented individuals can be challenging. In any technology field, there can be a variety of tightly held core beliefs that can be cumbersome to reconcile within a team environment. Apple vs. PC. Linux vs. Windows. AMD vs. NVIDIA. And any other number of more nuanced choices that can be made regarding technology. However, it would fall to me as Technology Director to make sure lively, professional debate is encouraged through the lens of what is best for the students and district as a whole. Good managers know how to encourage discussion, make a strategic decision based upon the best available advice and information, and marshal their team towards the end goal of providing the best technology service available to the district.
Senior leadership at the district level starts with Superintendent Douglas Mentzer. As the Director of Technology directly reports to the superintendent, it’s important for me to set up regular meetings or communication strategies so that his office stays up to date on the goings-on of the Technology Department. Equally important are those members of the senior leadership team that technology impacts directly. First on that list is Assistant Superintendent Stephanie O’Connor. Next would be those individuals involved in curriculum development. Technology is the “chalk and erasers” of the 21st-century classroom. It’s my job as Technology Director to make sure that the faculty and curriculum are positioned to maximize student achievement. This can only be achieved by productive relationships with those involved in curriculum development and technology.
Meeting with Business Manager Gail Farrell to understand the current budget, touring the buildings with Maintenance Team Supervisor Ken Kreszyn, and understanding the roles and duties as laid out in the job descriptions of my staff by HR Specialist Hayley A. Probert are just as important to a seamless and uncomplicated onboarding process.
The First 30 Days
The first 30 days of my role as Technology Director will be focused on learning. Learning what’s been done, learning what’s expected to be done, and learning about the men and women who will help me make the best decisions to achieve the goals as set by the students, parents, and faculty of Trenton Public Schools. The key to understanding a situation is to come to know what you don’t know. And during the first 30 days, there will be much to uncover. Such things as what technology does the district currently have, how is it distributed and used, what are the differences between schools and grades? These are just a few of the questions that will need answering. Only when we understand the situation at hand, can we begin to plan. There are undoubtedly opportunities to address the programs and initiatives that have gone on and that are currently ongoing. How successful were they? What metrics are used to determine that success? What could we do better? And where are the vulnerabilities? Technology is ever-changing and what might be the best possible solution today, isn’t tomorrow. By understanding where the district is at and where it has come from, I can better understand how to lead our team to tomorrow.
The Second 30 Days
The second 30 days is about including the key constituents in any discussions related to technology. These are the teachers, principals, parents, and students of the district. What do they need? Why do they need it? Are there solutions out there that can help streamline our internal processes? Should we adopt a homogeneous solution or does every school need a customized solution?
This phase is also important because hopefully I will have adapted to the culture at Trenton Public Schools and will have begun to understand the why’s and how’s of decisions. Complicating things of course is COVID-19. As the pandemic unfolds, many school districts have struggled with the decision to go to face-to-face instruction. What will the future bring for Trenton Public Schools? I feel it’s critically important for the technology staff and myself to continue to develop three plans for technology: face-to-face, hybrid, and entirely remote. While we will only deploy one of these, it’s important that the other two technology plans remain up to date. In light of the realities of COVID, it’s important that we begin to develop very detailed, timeline-based, short and long-range technology plans that both include the possible influx of millage resources and those that do not. Technology plans in and of themselves can be tricky because of how fast technology changes. But while the “devices” and “apps” may change, the core principles should not, e.g. student achievement.
Budget concerns are also important in this phase. Is the department properly funded to meet the needs of the district? If not, why not? If so, how do we ensure that on a year-by-year basis, we can maintain a sufficient level of funding to meet the ever-expanding needs of teachers and students? Also, is there a “rainy day” fund for technology? When an important, yet currently unfunded, opportunity arises, it would be beneficial if the district was able to capitalize on it by using funds “tucked away” in a rainy day account. While Trenton Public Schools has a wonderful track record of millages being passed, there may come a day when they don’t. It would be prudent to begin the process of examining how technology needs and services can fit within the regular confines of the yearly budget.
The Third 30 Days
After onboarding for two months, this is the phase where planning and learning evolve into bold action. By this time I would have met all the teachers and principals, and become familiar with my staff. In this stage, I feel it’s important to create, in conjunction with the curriculum development specialists, a “Technology Leadership” cohort. The idea is that we’d ask for volunteers from across all of the schools and grades, even students, to serve as “beta testers” for new initiatives. In my years of experience, I have found that testing out new plans, protocols, processes, and technology with a small group of dedicated and interested people can lead to earlier adoption, easier onboarding, and more well-thought-out implementation strategies. Oftentimes teachers could use more guidance in the use of technology. Developing a “Technology Leadership” cohort not only adds more tech-savvy people “in the field,” but also accelerates buy-in from teachers, students, and parents.
By the end of the third month, the goal would be to have finalized the short and long-range technology plans with a presentation to senior leadership and the Board of Education to follow. These plans would have been built and tested in conjunction with all stakeholders and will provide a clear path forward.
At the end of the third month, I would plan on meeting with Superintendent Mentzer to provide him with a self-evaluation of the progress I’ve made so far which would include both areas of success and areas that still need improvement. Technology is ever-changing and so too are expectations and performance. In my work, I strive to continually evaluate myself and the job that I’m doing both in the support of my colleagues and in the pursuit of student achievement.
In short, as Technology Director it will be my goal to help teachers during one of the most challenging times for educators. More and more, educators rely on technology, professional development, and getting that extra help and support…especially during the current global pandemic.
Trenton Public Schools are destination schools. It’s an exemplar and standard-bearer for excellence. Technology and its proper application can improve what is already an excellent district with amazing educators and administrators. Student achievement is the goal, technology and teachers are the best way towards achieving it.
I am a big proponent of the STARS model which emphasizes the importance of appropriately matching strategy to the situation. Each business situation, whether building widgets or preparing students for their future, has different characteristics, challenges, and opportunities. A new leader must figure out which situations fall into each category. The first 90 days is about “filling in the grid” of the STARS model. Learning, evaluating, processing, planning, and implementation. A successful transition into a new position starts with asking “What don’t I know?” What I don’t know I will learn through collaboration with my colleagues, staff, teachers, students, and parents. And what I do know is given the opportunity, I will bring all of my years of experience and hard-won work ethic to the people of the Trenton Public School District.