Opinion
School & District Management Commentary

Tech Solutions to Principals’ Overloaded Schedules

By Tim Lauer — November 10, 2015 4 min read

Meriwether Lewis Elementary School, where I work, is a neighborhood K-5 school located in the Woodstock section of Portland, Ore. We serve 385 students in 16 classrooms, including a special-needs communication classroom. A majority of our students live within walking or biking distance of the school, and close to 40 percent qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Our approach to learning includes opportunities for expression in music, art, gardening, and a 1-to-1 technology approach in grades 2-5.

As the principal of Lewis Elementary, I try to visit each of my classrooms every morning to check in and say hello to students and staff members. I also attempt throughout the day to spend more-extended time visiting classrooms, talking with teachers and students and gaining a better understanding of the work taking place, as well as looking for ways that I can provide helpful feedback and support. From my first year as principal at Lewis, it became apparent to me that building leaders need to be seen and need to see what is happening in classrooms—and not just during formal observations.

Meriwether Lewis Elementary School Principal Tim Lauer makes his normal visiting rounds of classrooms, in Portland, Ore.

One of the benefits of ubiquitous wireless access in a school, and lightweight laptop computers and smartphones, is that it gives administrators the ability to get out of their offices and spend more time in classrooms. Not being tied to a desktop computer to deal with school business allows an administrator the opportunity to keep up with that work while out and about in the school.

Spending time in classrooms enables a building administrator to be closer to students and staff members, and to develop a better perspective on the work being done. Keeping track of those visits, and making sure I’m visiting all classrooms on an equal basis, is a challenge I have been working on for a few years.

Over the years, I have developed various methods for logging informal classroom visits. These have included simple paper checklists and charts and, more recently, Web-based reporting tools that allow me to enter information in a smartphone or laptop and place it into a spreadsheet for later analysis.

An iBeacon, a battery-powered Bluetooth device, sits next to Lauer’s laptop. The principal uses beacons and an app called Proximity Log to track how he divides his time between his office and classroom visits.

I want to make sure I am spending an appropriate amount of time in all of my classrooms. While these tools have been helpful, I found myself recently looking for a way to track and chart my movements throughout the school in a more ambient manner. I’ve been searching for a method to record my movements almost automatically. While checklists and charts were useful for informal observations, I found that when I was not specifically recording data, I was not always charting my visits with fidelity.

In my search for a solution to this challenge, I have become interested in a technology called beacons, more specifically iBeacons, and how it can be used to help me keep track of my movements around my school, and provide me with ambient logging of my classroom visits.

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The small (an inch and a half in diameter) battery-powered Bluetooth devices called iBeacons emit a low-power radio signal. (Originally introduced by Apple, the broadcast technology is now being produced by other vendors.) Smartphones, equipped with various apps, can connect with these beacons, and as a result, things can happen based on proximity to the beacons. For example, beacons and apps on your smartphone can be used together to initiate alerts or notices based on proximity to the beacons. There is much discussion now about how these beacons can be used in retail settings to alert customers to products and services based on proximity. I have been thinking about a school setting and how the technology can be used in interesting ways in our classrooms.

Recently, I placed an iBeacon in my office. Using an iOS app called Proximity Log, I started having Proximity Log track my time spent in my office based on proximity to the beacon. Whenever I enter my office, Proximity Log connects with the beacon, and notes the time I am near that beacon, and thus in my office. Proximity Log keeps track of the number of visits and the duration of each of those visits. The data are exportable and can be used in programs such as Excel or Google Sheets.

While this one beacon gave me a good understanding of the amount of time I was spending in my office, it did not tell me where I was when I wasn’t in my office. So, after my experimentation with the iBeacon in my office, I decided to place others in classrooms. Subsequently, I have placed iBeacons in all of my classrooms and set up the Proximity Log app to interact with these specific classroom beacons. Now, as I move in and out of classrooms, Proximity Log notes when I enter the room, and how long I stay. I have been able to analyze this ambient logging to make sure I am visiting all classrooms on a regular basis.

One of my chief professional goals is to spend extended periods of time in classrooms, providing feedback and support. With the use of iBeacons to track my movements in the school building, I am able to do a better job keeping track of these visits and make sure I am not shortchanging any classroom.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 11, 2015 edition of Education Week as I Must Be Everywhere at Once

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