Tech Leadership Day: Lessons for the Future


Today is School-Technology Leadership Day.  Scott McLeod has been running this program for nearly seven years now, and more than 500 people have contributed posts to this ongoing blogging project.  I’ve skipped the last few years, myself: I’ve been involved in other projects, from learning and teaching design thinking, to learning to make cheese, to studying tai chi, to learning to make a crucible so I can be a successful Caveman Chemist who can make mead and maybe one day gunpowder.  Oh, yeah, there’s magic too. And we haven’t even mentioned that I’ve been learning JavaScript and Python too, so I can be a computer science teacher…  Did I mention at all that last year I gave up being a history teacher to switch over to teaching Latin and Computer Science (not at the same time, of course… that would be ridiculous)?

Plus there’s the pop-up books, and the learning of geometry through illuminated design. Oh, and the Alchemy.  Hmmm.

These are not necessarily respectable pursuits for a Middle School teacher,  I’ll grant you that.

But this is not your typical post.

Because one of the questions in Scott’s list of questions we could blog about was this one:

  • What are some of the lessons that we have learned over the past year(s) regarding technology leadership?

And here’s what I think we’ve learned from the past few years, and what we should be learning for the future.  Which looks to be terrible, by the by.  Let’s take it a few bits at a time.  And let’s start with seven of the obvious ones:

The Seven Obvious

1) The Testing Is Destroying Schools

Look, this probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise.  We’ve known for years that testing does enormous damage to children, to teachers’ morale, to educational standards.  What I think we’re only just starting to realize is the extent of the underlying corruption of the system.  Was anyone really surprised by the fact that if you buy the right textbooks, your kids are likely to do much better on the tests?  When just a small number of companies produce nearly all the textbooks, and nearly all the tests, something was bound to go like this sooner or later. Houghton Mifflin claims a 38% market share, for example.… but would anyone buy those books if the kids who read them wound up failing the tests?  The high-stakes testing goes hand-in-hand with high-stakes book-purchases.

2) If a Teacher can be replaced by a robot, he should be.

Khan Academy. Some days I use it for teaching JavaScript, because I’m not a very effective code-writer, and it takes me a long time to do something productive with code.  But the truth is that if a website can do a better job of teaching fractions than I can, that I probably shouldn’t be teaching about fractions.  What kids get from me probably goes beyond just learning about fractions, of course, but I am not a math teacher.

What I am, in the words of my father, is a good all-arounder.  I’ve played English Teacher, Latin Teacher, History Teacher, Science long-term Substitute Teacher, Computer Science Teacher, Leadership Teacher, Rhetoric Teacher, Public Speaking Teacher, Sports Coach, Club Advisor, Newspaper Editor, and School Chaplain.  Lately, it’s included Shop Teacher (even though my school doesn’t exactly have a Wood Shop or a Metal Shop).  Paper Engineer. Graphic Designer.  Academic Illustrator.  Technical Advisor.  School Philosopher.

None of these things are easily categorizable. I’ve learned things, and learned how to teach them to others. Even if every school in the country collapsed tomorrow — especially if every school in the country collapsed tomorrow — I feel that I would still be ’employed’ somehow.  Parents would seek me out, and I would find myself working as a solo tutor to kids whose parents wanted to be sure their kids got an education. I am not a robot.  I will not be replaced — and even if I am replaced in a school, I will still have students.

Will you?

3) Jobs are disappearing in the “Recovery”

Despite the fact that Wall Street is churning out record profits, in which some stocks have risen 300% in value per year over the last 4-5 years — there seem to be an awfully large number of people without work. Not just, temporarily unemployed, you understand, but with no prospects of ever working again.  I don’t live in a bad part of town, in a bad city.  At least, that’s traditionally been true.  But the guy behind me savages and salvages abandoned printers and TVs and radios on garbage day.  He rips them apart and salvages the metal: the gears, the cogs, the screws, the copper wire, the pins and plugs and bits and bobs.  Last week, another guy was going up and down the residential street, begging for spare change door-to-door.  Still another guy was selling discount socks and underwear out of a shopping cart.  The ‘shadow economy’ is growing, and it’s growing in my neighborhood, not just somewhere else, sometime else. There are some increasingly desperate people out there — I don’t doubt that some of them are near your school.

Perhaps they even work in your school.

Do we remember Central Falls High School, in Rhode Island?  Allegedly things are better there now, three years after they fired all the teachers on the same day and essentially closed the school. But there are now schools in America where all the teachers get fired June 15th, and rehired August 29th.  That crucial 2 1/2 month gap means that all employees are essentially non-full-time, year-round personnel — and so the school district doesn’t have to fund their health care programs or pension plans quite the same way.  How can the teachers object?  Most of them can’t afford to live in the same school district that hires them.

A guest at my dinner table — my own guest! (no hard feelings here, just astounded a bit) — suggested barely two weeks ago that we should start hiring “apprentice teachers” in K-12 schools, to ease some of the workload for the main-line teachers, and give ‘the kids’ starting out in this profession a chance to earn their chops.  I was a little hard on my guest at the time, by pointing out that this is exactly how we wound up with adjunct professors in higher education living on foodstamps and cat food, and dying in homeless shelters.  It is also, alas, the model for Teach for America, right? Pay them next-to-nothing, work them hard, send them on their way after 1-3 years to a better-paying job in a more-prestigious career?


4) Teaching is not a prestigious career in the US.

Do I even need to explain this one?

Didn’t think so.  Moving on.

5) Cities and towns are trying to make up their own budget shortfalls by cutting school budgets

Again, does this need much explaining?

6) These Issues Affect Some But Not All Schools

I wish I didn’t have to say this. But I do.  What I’m saying in the preceding five points doesn’t affect every school district in every city and town, in every state.  But these points ARE causing effects on far more cities and towns and school districts and schools and teachers and students and parents than these brief summaries can allow.  It’s not like this everywhere.  Just, perhaps, Almost Everywhere.

7) It is going to get worse

I don’t think the United States is anywhere near the bottom of this current morass.  Something like 11% of Americans still think Congress is a functional political body.   Something like 26% of Americans believe the President is somehow illegally living in the White House.  This week we had peaceful protests become riots in a place called Ferguson, MO, as police began to turn their guns on people exercising their First Amendment rights to assemble, and to demand redress of grievances.  Twenty years ago, in 1994, it’s doubtful that I could have even known about Ferguson, MO as a place except in a US road-map, much less tried to understand what was happening as it happened.   The fact that elected political officials still don’t understand the degree to which they are not in control of the messaging of these kinds of events, from Hurricane Katrina to these riots, indicates that most of the serious lessons about modern Internet technology are still yet to be learned.

That learning will be literally years in the making.  At least two presidential terms beyond the current one.  That’s a decade.  A decade or more of this mess, and that’s assuming that something really terrible doesn’t happen in the meantime.

Your Leadership

Animated video: Day 2 Inventory
Some of the drawings for our ‘animated film’

A colleague of mine says, “It’s about the kids. It’s always about the kids.”

And she’s right. Actually, he’s right. Actually, they’re right.  Every time I’ve thought through the list of the previous seven items (and I’m sure you have five or six more that I haven’t touched on), some colleague of mine, male or female, has uttered these words or words like them, at exactly the right time to keep me from spiraling into despair.  So I give them to you. Maybe I’m telling them to you at the right time — right here, right now, just before the start of the school year.  It is always about the kids.

Setup for Movie
set-up for an animated movie…

Last week in summer school, a couple of kids and I made a movie with no more than this set-up. The camera was thirty bucks (price is up since I bought them, but wait for the sales). The flash drive in the camera was ten bucks, thereabouts. The tripod was under $15.  The paper from which we made our cartoon characters was ‘free’ from the stores of the school (and some of it was, I admit, salvaged from a dumpster behind a local printing company.  Shhh.)

A broken whiteboard on the floor, a scene list, and 60-odd drawings with sharpies on paper cut-outs, and we made a six-and-a-half minute long movie.

I had never made a movie this way before, before last week.  But I will do it again, for a number of reasons:

  1. The kids had fun.
  2. They learned something.
  3. They worked together as a team.
  4. They thought they each could teach someone else how to do it.

And this final point, to me, is critical.  The Seven Obvious points suggest that our world is in great trouble, and that the adults, the ones allegedly in charge, are too busy wrestling with who gets to own the rubble.  They are paying no attention to the kids.

So here’s my advice, if you want to be a technology leader.

Do everything. Try Everything. Teach general computing as the start: typing, and spreadsheet-style number-crunching, and graphic design. Then move on to other things.  Teach story illustration, and make bad animated movies using drawings that you learn how to make from Ed Emberley.  Raid the “How to” section of your school library on making costumes and making props, and make classroom movies.  Listen to “This I believe” essays, and teach your students to write them and record them.  Run through the Khan Academy tutorials on writing JavaScript, and then try to build your own version of Pong.

But most of all…


The evidence of the Seven Obvious shows strongly that it doesn’t matter whether you keep your head down and hide from the coming changes, or whether you plant your feet and face them like they were an oncoming tsunami.  The changes are coming to get you.  If you cower in the corner while your students try to learn without your help, then you’re going to get swept away in the current.  If you’re helpful and positive and encouraging with your students, you’ll be remembered and thanked one day…

But you have to be out in front.   You have to be showing the way.

Make General Computer Learning your goal for the 2014-15 school year.  Make sure your kids know how to use a spreadsheet to do their mathematics homework.  Make sure they understand how to use it to balance a checkbook.  Show them how to use it to plan play practices and movie shooting schedules.  If you don’t know how to do this, experiment and figure it out.

No one taught me how to use a spreadsheet this way… I figured it out. (By the way: Movie Shooting Schedules: Very important.  Names of your cast and crew members in the A column, dates of your movie schedule in the B-DD columns, individual jobs and scenes to prep for, for each day and class, in the grid that forms between the person’s name and the date.  Block out in red the part of the grid when any student is out for the day or unavailable ahead of time — black out any day the cast member doesn’t show up and is needed.)

Follow the Surgeon’s Model:

  1. See One
  2. Make One
  3. Teach One

The more you make, the more confidence you have with your computer skills, the easier it will be to get buy-in from your students.  Show them what you know, show them that this is not very much to start with, show them where they can go for help. Use the documentation, use the examples, find tutorials online, use a classroom projector to show the tutorials when you don’t know how to do it yourself (if you have a projector).

Be Kind, Be Just, Be Fair.  It’s always about the Kids.  Keep Leading.

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  1. I’m the dope who suggested apprentice teachers. I was thinking of the older schoolhouse and craftsman relationships where one room schoolhouses would use older students to teach younger students. (See one. Make one, Teach one.) Years back, carpenters and blacksmiths would take on apprentices at little to no pay to learn their craft.

    After our dinner discussion, I could see the despicable nature of school staff that would exploit employed teachers over these lesser paid apprentices – is that what I ought to understand what would happen? Has the school cultured soured so?

    Culturally, it seems that teachers are to give up more of their hours and time “for the children”. I thought the altruistic goal of teaching students, apprentices, whomever would trump quest for a living. Unfortunately, it appears school bosses don’t follow the same altruistic goals of teaching they want espoused to the students.

    Name another occupation where “for the kids” can trump the employees right for wages, breaks or skills support/improvement. Maybe in a catastrophe, but I can’t see many folks sticking around their jobs “for the children”.

    • Hi Topher. Good morning!

      It’s not that the school administration would exploit their high-paid teachers over the lesser-paid apprentices. It’s that the school administrators would gradually use more and more of the apprentice labor for work that was understood to be “journeyman” or “master” work. In New York City, for example, a few years ago, the teachers’ union learned that various schools had hired aides and assistants at half the wages of teachers. Now, the parents were mad because they’d made donations to the school to fund these jobs, and they were losing out. The teachers’ union was mad because these jobs were paraprofessional jobs for union members, by contract — and the Scabs, as it were, were making $12 to $15 instead of $23 plus benefits, per hour.

      And this is the fight that the teachers must fight. Pretty soon, all the paraprofessionals would be making $15 or less without benefits; and teachers would be expected to make financial concessions in the next contract talks. The NYT article referenced above suggests that the teachers’ union is being unreasonable and throwing its weight around; but parents and school administrators were also not paying attention to the long-range picture.

      It is, in fact, for this reason that teachers’ unions were founded in the 1840s, ’50s, and up through the early 1900s, and continue to this day. There’s a tendency in any guild-like system for the masters eventually to form a cabal or cartel, which locks out apprentices from receiving the higher wages of journeymen, and prevents journeymen from becoming masters and starting up their own (competing) businesses. So it is with school administrations: high salaries for the folks with most seniority, but find ways to cut and cut and cut the salaries of lower-seniority folks until it’s barely a living wage.

      You can see this disconnect in places like the Ivy League schools and also in state universities where adjunct professors have been found homeless or eating cat food; while the university itself rakes in millions of dollars from its sports programs or from its alumni relations network.

      I guess the point which I’m trying to get across by saying “it’s about the kids” is that the school one works for — be it a college, university, high school, elementary school, and so on — is caught in an economic and political squeeze. That squeeze is never going to work out in favor of the teacher. The result is that the intrinsic rewards are going to be found elsewhere — in the results the students deliver, or in your own job satisfaction.

      There’s another post here about how “TEACHING IS JUST A JOB”, and learning to recognize when to put the brakes on one’s output, but I’m going to save that for another day…. a day when I can say that I’ve successfully implemented it. 🙂

  2. Wonderful post, thank you for taking the time to write it!

    I graduated from a public high school decades ago. Not once in my formal education experience, kindergarten up to today, sadly, did I have a teacher as caring or as competent as you obviously are. (There are a couple of shining lights in my alternative medicine field, but most people will not pursue that subject.) I tell you this to illustrate that the problems with our schools and many of the teachers are not new problems. I have always felt that almost everything I have learned I have learned in spite of the formal education process in the US. Looking back, I would say the most valuable thing I learned was to read, but my mother taught me that skill before I went to school. Next perhaps is writing, but my mother taught me that before they did at school, and then they marked my writing “wrong” as it did not exactly conform to the book’s examples. Maybe typing… no, I taught myself…. Computers? Nope, OJT for a job. Excel? Nope, a Dummies book…

    To me, loving the entire post, this is the most important sentence: “find tutorials online, use a classroom projector to show the tutorials when you don’t know how to do it yourself.” Never am I happy with my skill inventory, but nevertheless, I am fairly accomplished person. Most all of that came from teaching myself a broad range of philosophy, skills and information using first books and now books and the internet. Granted, it’s a stop-gap measure, but in the short term, to aid your students to have a productive life, please teach them how to teach themselves much of what they may want and need to know in the course of their life. In the process of doing that, you will also be teaching them that it’s ok to not know anything about something before you begin to teach yourself. If you can instill a curiosity and thirst for learning for its own sake, so much the better (if anybody can do that, I am convinced you can do it.)

    I know you hear it all the time, but how much difference it may have made to the arch of my life had I had a teacher such as you anywhere from junior high through high school. Thank you for your work!

    • Dear Christina,

      Thanks for the good wishes. I’m saddened, but not surprised, by your experiences. I doubt that all of your teachers were as lacking in care or competence as I am; there are days when I’m barely competent; and there are days when, through the sin of accidie, I turn away and must say, “I can’t care any more than this.” There is a substantial degree of both self-protection (and self-medication) in this world of being a career teacher, and some years (and months, and days) are better or worse than others. One thing that it is clear that you learned how to do, is to learn, unlearn, and relearn, which is far more valuable than just learning — and whether you learned that in school or not is difficult to say.

      One of my teachers, Jason Miller of the occult blog Strategic Sorcery, has pointed out that you can do an enormous amount with 80% competence. Referencing Topher’s comment, and my response to it above, finishing the basics of apprenticeship in a craft or an art grants a lot of technical expertise and a lot of basic know-how which is not easily come-by, but which then grows with experience. It’s one of my hopes that the Design Lab at my school helps kids move forward on that basic level of competence.

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