School Leadership In A Digital Age

I am the District Vice-Principal of Innovation & Technology with West Vancouver Schools. But I haven’t always been an administrator. In fact, for most of my over 30 years in education I’ve been a classroom teacher and a leader in educational technology. 

Not long after my teaching journey started, I discovered the school’s computer lab and my students and I began pushing the devices to see how we could go past basic typing and word processing. I was one of the first teachers in the province to be offered a chance to have a pod of laptops in my classroom and I was amazed at how my teaching practice began to change. From there, I got a Masters in EdTech, began delivering pro-d to other teachers, kept learning, started a weekly ed-tech blog, taught myself how to code, became a Google Trainer, an Apple Distinguished Educator and even taught Robotics! In 2023, I received the Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence. It has been a crazy ride but throughout all of it, my goals haven’t really changed much. I want to be able to help educators and students use technology in safe, engaging and meaningful ways. To use technology to amplify and transform teacher and student voices. 

Administrators are in a unique position to influence how, when and why digital technology is used in schools. Yet, with all of the other things admin are expected to stay on top of, along with the speed with which technology is changing, it is not surprising that many principals and vice principals feel overwhelmed when the topic of technology comes up. 

Education is undergoing a seismic shift, brought about partially by cultural, societal and political changes and fueled by rapidly evolving technologies. In such a dynamic environment, school leaders need to be able to weave new technologies amongst the threads of tradition to create engaging, equitable and future-proof learning experiences, while keeping students safe and educators onboard. No easy feat! Especially when added to the many other tasks an administrator must juggle! Where to start? Well, what follows is my Top Tech Tips for administrators.

Tech Second

In my mind, the best place to begin is the place most of us are comfortable with and that is “education and learning first”. Don’t get trapped by SNTS (shiny new tech syndrome)! In other words, don’t be persuaded to adopt a new technology without understanding how it will enhance or augment the learning experience. At the same time, be open to the fact that you might not see the advantage of a tool or app right away. Check in with your tech experts if you are not sure. The second part of this involves ongoing assessment and weeding. If a technology tool is no longer serving its intended purpose or has been eclipsed by newer, better technology, don’t be afraid to change (with loads of notice and explanation to those who are married to it, of course.) Speaking from experience on this one!

From 10,000 Metres to Close Up!

Have a clear vision and expectations around the use of technology in your school or district. Think about ages, devices, needs, budgets and equity. Clearly, what that looks like in a small, rural elementary school with spotty wifi will be very different from what it looks like in a big metro high school where every student brings a device to school with them. The plan is best developed with input from various stakeholders, including students. I suspect that the new ministry guidelines on personal devices will give us all a chance to revisit our vision and expectations and clarify or modernize them. Once you are set, make sure you communicate clearly, so everyone understands the direction you are setting.

Modelling a Growth Mindset

Not a real techie? No problem! You might not truly understand the cybersecurity course your seniors are taking or have the time to learn how your kindies created the“all about penguins” video, but the teachers and students will remember you taking interest and asking questions. And along the way, you’ll find your own knowledge and expertise growing. I was recently at a district-wide admin meeting where our superintendent used an AI tool to write a song about a retiring admin. It was the perfect way to model a new tool in a fun, non-stressful way. It sent the message that it’s okay to try new things and play is a great way to learn!

Pro-D For Everyone

Connected to this, part of your job will be to ensure that the teachers on your staff have time to play with and explore new technologies as they become available. Ongoing professional learning will help teachers feel comfortable enough with technology to find ways to use it to engage students while tackling their pedagogical goals. Look to your techie teachers for a start on Pro-D. Honour their time and skill by giving them a stage. If they’re not comfortable presenting, lots of educational technology apps have great webinars on their sites

Accept that you will have people on your staff who are keen on trying new technologies and ones who are not. Cultivate a school culture that allows for innovation and experimentation (as long as safety guidelines are followed) while ensuring that your less eager teachers still feel supported. 

Don’t Forget the Parents!

Many parents today feel just as overwhelmed and helpless as some of us do when it comes to technology and their kids! Make sure you communicate your school’s plans with them. Work with your PACs to run parent information nights or bootcamps. Enlist some of your trustworthy secondary students to teach parents the basics of navigating social media or online gaming. Get a techie teacher to show parents the apps and websites your students use to support teaching and learning.

Seek Allies, Mentors and Questionners

This really comes down to building a professional learning community! Read blogs, listen to podcasts, follow gurus on social media, read books. Do all of the above or only one but have a place you can go (virtual or real) and people you can turn to when questions or issues come up! Don’t forget to check in with people who have different opinions from yours - challenging your thinking and ideas is good practice. If you really have no one, feel free to follow my blog or reach out to me!

Live Where The Kids Live

Arming yourself and your staff with knowledge about ed tech tools used at school is important but as an administrator, you should also have some understanding of the social media and gaming apps that your students are using. What I’ve learned is that when you approach students in a genuine way they are usually quite willing to tell you all about the latest SnapChat or Discord-type tool. 

Too many students get in over their heads with these apps, suffering mental health issues, cyberbullying and addiction. When things fall apart, people may very well turn to you for help and advice. Make sure you cultivate relationships with parents, the local police, youth workers and tech-savvy teachers, all of whom can provide aid in tricky situations.

Make Sure They’re Learning Digital Literacy and Citizenship

This one’s non-negotiable and unless you have a plan to make sure students are learning these vital skills I can assure you that many (maybe most) teachers are not teaching them. Students need to be taught how to safely, responsibly, and ethically live and thrive in an increasingly digital world. They need to learn about topics like online safety, critical thinking for evaluating online information, and cyberbullying prevention. The goal is to empower them to navigate the digital world confidently and ethically. If you’re not sure where to start, Media Smarts and Common Sense both have great lesson plans. Teaching these skills can be done in a variety of ways. Make it a school focus for a week - October 16 to 22nd, 2024 is Digital Citizenship week. Focus on certain grades - I find Grades 4 to 8 are the best ages to tackle many of these issues. 

What About You?

Along similar lines, it’s important that you have a working knowledge of  data security and privacy issues. Do you know what you would do if one of your students hacked into your laptop or if a student’s school accounts got compromised? Do you understand why certain websites are better than others in terms of protecting student data? These are all real issues that could have far-reaching consequences. Check with your district IT team - they may have some training sites you can access to learn more or they might be able to give you a Coles Notes version!

School leadership is complex, and I fully understand that technology issues are only one of the many tasks facing principals and vice-principals. With any luck, something  in this article will be helpful for you, will make your job easier or will give you the encouragement you needed to dig deeper into educational technology!

1 reply

July 11, 2024

Thanks for sharing your amazing journey and practical tech tips! Your passion for meaningful tech integration and fostering a growth mindset is truly inspiring.

I especially love your "tech second" tip! Definitely something that I'm going to be reminding everyone I work with ... which might be odd coming from the Technology Integration Teacher ... but it's SO important! (Especially the SNTS!)

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