After serving as the Director of Technology at KIPP Chicago Schools, I returned to the classroom to teach my first instructional love: middle school math. The time back in the classroom is limited to just one year and next year, I will be returning to a non-classroom role. I had only been out of the classroom for a year, but this return was incredibly valuable.
The goal of this teaching year was to implement a personalized learning model to figure out how to better differentiate instruction by leveraging technology. The experience reminded me of some of the challenges faced by teachers and gave me some lessons of what roles I should play when I return to a non-classroom role. Here are five key takeaways that I recommend every edtech administrator should know.
1. Innovating is hard work, and teaching is already hard work
This is definitely no surprise to anyone who has ever been in the classroom.
Every day, teachers have to execute for an audience that is not necessarily enthused. “Down” time easily fills up with parent calls, grades, and lesson planning. Asking to take already limited time and energy and devote some of it to changing up routines is a huge ask. I consider myself an early adopter, but fatigue sometimes stalled the desire to innovate. In implementing innovations, if we’re going to ask teachers and school leaders to undertake a change, involve them in the planning. Attack the pain points they actually feel the most, and provide as much support as possible.
It is also pretty hard to see other teaching practices in your own building since prep time is often filled with other duties. Those in instructional technology roles should seek to be the information gatherers that go out and share solutions and innovations, and push for teachers and administration to visit places innovating. Additionally, think about getting non-early adopters, including the major skeptics and critics amongst the faculty, on board.
2. Students are a huge variable
In any industry, you can have the most incredible plan that gets ruined by unforeseen circumstances. In the mini ecosystem that is a classroom, a perfect plan can get derailed by any one of the students that can devastate your plan like a tornado. When my class switched to more small group-based instruction that better met a student’s math skills, it was surprising to see some of the higher performing students struggle with the switch since they were getting challenged for the first time and others really took to the challenge.
To reduce the variability, students need structure and accountability for the work that they are doing. How do students know they are successful in small groups, on online programs, etc? Routines are incredibly crucial for student success, buthe’ this naturally collides with innovation’s need to iterate. When thinking about iterating in the classroom, think about the tradeoff between this structure versus innovation. This leads me to my next point...
3. Talk to students about their experiences with edtech
I had a ton of conversations with teachers and school leaders last year about their experiences with instructional technology, and their feedback was extremely valuable. But this year, it has been great to get firsthand feedback from students on what they like about certain programs and what wasn’t working. I loved giving surveys to students to learn about what motivates them a lot. (Here’s a hint: snacks and free dress passes are huge motivators.)
If piloting a new model or program, be transparent with students. Share that the change could help their learning and that you want their feedback. Students then become active partners. This can also help students deal with a change in structure by anticipating bumps.
Even in a non-classroom role, make yourself a presence with students. I co-advised a technology club last year and went on field trips. In this way, the work becomes more tangible. My work in instructional technology isn’t just affecting an amorphous group of students. It’s affecting students I know.
4. Leveraging data is still a big question mark
Part of the rationale in going back to the classroom was to experience firsthand the pain points teachers are facing. One of the biggest pain points I face is making sense of the influx of data. Just in my class alone, all students are on ST Math and Khan Academy, while some are also on Think Through Math, which all produce their own data and reports. Add to that my own assessments and exit tickets, and there’s an absurd amount of data coming in. Is some data more valuable than another? If a student completed an activity in one platform should I assign it on another platform?
The data is messy, and sometimes just even accessing the data is messy. Help teachers and school leaders out as much as possible by providing them quick, digestible information they need in order to make their next steps. Right now, this looks like a lot of spreadsheets hobbled together from multiple data sources and some trainings on accessing the best reports from each online program. But, the process is becoming more automated and edtech companies are responding to this pain point. Lean on edtech companies to play nice with others and give suggestions on what dashboards and features would be helpful.
5. An instructional technology position is important
This one comes off a bit self-serving, but hear me out. There have been several times this past school year that I wished for someone who was in my old position--someone who could serve as a thought partner and come up with solutions to solve some of my pain points.
If your organization is interested in investing in instructional technology, consider a position specifically targeting technology leadership and development, even if it’s a part-time position offered to a teacher along with a stipend. Other positions have too much already on their plate and the instructional technology position is in a unique intersection between instruction and operations so they have to interact with most of the staff. Plus, having one coordinator means they can see how all of the pieces fit together. Give this role meaningful responsibilities in the instructional space, because technology needs to be integrated into the overall instructional plan, and not just treated as an afterthought.
I look forward to returning to my non-classroom role, and the return back to the classroom has equipped me with a deeper empathy of teachers and a greater understanding of how I can best serve faculty students in that role.
Educators, now that you've read my takeaways, what advice would you give instructional technology specialists?