Special Report
Classroom Technology

What Good K-12 Tech Leadership Looks Like

By Benjamin Herold — June 11, 2019 5 min read
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To be an effective K-12 technology leader, knowing your way around a server closet is no longer enough.

“I feel like one of my chief roles is being a translator,” said Phil Hintz, the director of technology for Illinois’ Gurnee School District 56. “I speak geek, but I also speak education.”

That sentiment was a recurring theme at the annual conference of the Consortium for School Networking, a professional organization for school tech leaders, held earlier this year in Portland, Ore. Technical expertise should be a given, leader after leader said. What truly separates the most valuable chief information and technology officers is everything else—from understanding classroom dynamics, to smart budgeting, to knowing how to say “no” and deliver bad news without making enemies.

And it all has to be done within a rapidly changing work environment, the contours of which CoSN laid out recently in its annual K-12 IT leadership report.

Just staying on top of what’s already in place can be a daunting task, the report notes. New tools for both teachers and administrators are generating torrents of new data—as well as new privacy and security risks.

Technology chiefs’ roles have evolved to include a focus on how all those digital tools are actually used, not just whether they’re available. And protecting, maintaining, and refreshing schools’ tech inventory remain persistent challenges.

Tech leaders also have to be looking ahead, said CoSN CEO Keith Krueger.

“What’s changing in society that will impact teaching and learning?” he said. “That’s exactly the question we need to be asking.”

Add it all up, and it means the modern K-12 chief technology or information officer must be a technologist and an educator, a risk manager and an innovator, a leader and a team player.

Here’s some of the key advice from Portland on how to manage that challenging mix.

‘Ultimate Trust’

Superintendents want their technology chiefs to come with a skill set that is as diverse and flexible as the demands of the job, according to a panel of district leaders who spoke at the CoSN conference.

They must ensure that Wi-Fi networks are up and running at all times, so neither the boss nor the district’s students and teachers ever have to worry about it. They must help vet sales pitches from companies promising their product will help close the achievement gap. And they must communicate with parents and school board members after a data breach.

The modern CTO has to be “someone I have ultimate trust in,” said 2018 National Superintendent of the Year David Schuler of Illinois’ Township High School District 214 during the CoSN panel.

Technical expertise is just the baseline for building that kind of confidence, other district leaders said. Just as important: interpersonal skills such as communication and bridge building.

Consider the way K-12 leadership cabinets make most big decisions now, said Superintendent Doug Brubaker of the Fort Smith, Ark., school system. Cross-functional teams with multiple departments represented are a must. The role of technology-team members varies from project to project. Good CTOs are equally comfortable as leaders of some groups and role players in others. Being comfortable in either position comes when you’ve done the behind-the-scenes work to make sure that colleagues across the district understand and embrace your vision and will advocate it, even if you’re not at the table.

It’s also important to remember that such respect is a two-way street, said chief information officer Keith Bockwoldt of High School District 86 in Illinois. Good technology chiefs are intimately familiar with their district’s strategic plan, procurement timelines, and curricular priorities and needs. They pick their battles, Bockwoldt said. When they decide to really push for something, they have data at the ready to explain how it will affect colleagues’ work and priorities.

“Make sure you have your ducks in a row,” he advised. “Help them understand the ‘why.’ ”

Teaching ‘Soft Skills’ to New CTOs

Such advice is particularly important—and difficult—for newer CTOs and CIOs to learn.

That’s a big reason why CoSN recently launched a new “early-career K-12 CTO academy.” The yearlong initiative will include about 20 school technology chiefs, each of whom has four years or less of experience. They’ll take part in face-to-face workshops and online discussions, with a focus on everything from creating reliable infrastructure to building a collaborative culture.

Part of the academy’s design came from surveying chief academic officers and chief financial officers about what they want from their technology counterparts, said Donna Williamson, who will lead the effort and was recently the technology director for Alabama’s Mountain Brook school district. The idea is to help break down departmental silos within districts.

“They were very interested in [CTOs] being able to have those soft skills,” Williamson said.

At the CoSN conference in Portland, Williamson also helped lead a half-day workshop for emerging technology leaders. Relationship building is particularly important when you’re just getting started, she said.

“Don’t come in right away and start changing everything you see,” Williamson advised. Meet with other department heads. Go to principals’ meetings and just listen. Get into the classroom. Ask how you can help.

An ancillary benefit of that approach, said Jennifer Lotze, the instructional-technology coordinator for Wisconsin’s Hudson school district, is that you’ll end up getting lots of help in return. Maybe it will be writing requests for proposals, or updating acceptable use policies, or making sure all the details are nailed down in your district’s E-rate application. The sooner you learn that you don’t have to do it all yourself, Lotze said, the sooner you’ll become an effective leader.

Ultimately, the experts advised, the modern CTO isn’t going to be judged on how well he or she runs cables or programs devices. It’s about how well the CTO crafts and executes a strategic vision.

And the true measure of success will be when an ed-tech leader is mentoring junior staff members, developing the next generation of K-12 technology leadership by distributing responsibility and leadership opportunities throughout the technology department.

“If you’re only focusing on the technical part, and you’re always working on switches and servers, you’re missing a critical component of the job,” said Bockwoldt of Illinois’ High School District 86. “You need to teach your people how to fish so they can feed themselves.”

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