Why Teachers Make the Best Edtech Administrators

Why Teachers Make the Best Edtech Administrators

Alice Barton

It's virtually impossible to be a member of the Chicago education community and not have heard of Jennie Magiera--and that likely extends to the greater edtech world, as well. Jennie has moved through the educator ranks, from teacher to instructional coach to CTO--and she knows a thing or two about what it takes to make an effective edtech administrator. She's also a two-time judge for the Digital Innovation in Learning Awards (co-hosted by Digital Promise and EdSurge)--and she's got some dynamite advice on what makes a good application. 

Hear her thoughts in a recent Q&A with EdSurge, including some that Magiera describes as "controversial."

What's your background in education?

I've been in education for little over a decade. I began as a 4th grade classroom teacher in Chicago Public Schools (CPS). Stayed in the classroom bumping around the intermediate grades for seven years and ended up as a departmentalized 4th/5th math teacher. Then, I went from being a hybrid teacher to being a STEM instructional coach. For the past two years, I've been a digital learning coordinator for a network of CPS called the Academy for Urban School Leadership--we're 32 non-charter, totally public neighborhood CPS schools with the dual mission of supporting the highest-need kids in the city and training teachers to work in tough situations. But this past Monday, I started this new role as the Chief Technology Officer for Des Plaines Public Schools, District 62.

Wow, you've moved through the ranks--from teacher to STEM coach to CTO. What are some of the biggest differences in how your knowledge and talents were used in the teacher world compared to your administrator roles now?

The thing that I've noticed the most is, having been a classroom teacher for so long… I actually continued to teach when I became a network level coordinator. That's been the biggest thing for me. My teacher ability helped me to be a better version of my current role. I was really lucky to teach at a school where our administration really valued and encouraged teacher leadership.

Obviously, there's a lot that you need to learn when you go from the microscopic of your classroom to the macroscopic of an entire district. The thing that is really interesting to me is that I taught for those seven years full-time, and then the past three years, continued to teach a class once a week. It's really informed the way that I lead, and the way that I work from a higher vantage point, in terms of how things affect schools and parents and communities. From my current role, I'm still trying to stay in the classroom, which people think is kooky because you don't see a lot of CTOs teaching fifth grade. But I truly believe that if our end goal is always supporting students, I need that perspective and to remember what that is to work with kids on a firsthand basis.

Do you think then that all administrators should do that? Engage in some kind of activity (whether teaching or otherwise) that keeps them close to students?

I think so. I mean, I'm going to something sort of controversial: I think that all administrators need at least five years of classroom experience. Five is a really arbitrary number, but I don't think that two is enough--even three. Five is a really myopic number, but I don't think I truly hit my stride or self-understanding more than, say, two feet beyond my own nose until I had at least four, five, or even six years in the classroom. Your first year, you're trying to survive. Your second year, you're trying to survive. Your third year, you're trying to hone. And after that, you're becoming an artist in the craft. To lead schools, to lead districts, to support teachers, I feel like you had to have truly walked the walked for enough time where it became who you were. And I know we're getting a little existentialist, but I see that my district school instructional leaders who I learned from were those who taught for a long time.

Now, if you want to go the extra mile and say, "Should all administrators continue to be in the classroom?"… in an ideal world, I think so. However, I don't think it's always possible.

Connected to that, what about edtech in the classroom? Should you have used edtech before you go on to become an edtech administrator?

I believe so. It's one person's opinion, but I think about some colleagues who tried to learn a lot about edtech by watching videos or going to conferences. It's a really different thing to give someone advice about mobile devices when you've heard about them, rather than having actually used them yourself. It's like teaching someone to drive stick when you've never done that yourself. There are little missing pieces that you can't pick up in an hourlong session.

To be fair, I have a colleague who's an amazing instructional technology coach, but never actually taught. He started feeling that, saying, "I talk about this all the time and sound really smart, but I feel like I'm not as I could of been." Well, he took a 50% pay cut and went back into the classroom. I have so much respect for him.

Also, there's one big exception to these "administrators should have taught" rule--John Connolly. He's a great administrator and a great CTO (Community Consolidated High School District 230), and he's never taught. Shout-out to him.

We actually had a writer who went back from his administrator position into the classroom--Jin-Soo Huh--and took away a lot of lessons about how to work with edtech and teachers, based on his own experiences. Teachers and administrators don't always speak the same language. What do you think are some of the fundamental concepts that get lost in translation between teachers and administrators when rolling out technology, etc.?

It depends on the administrator and the teacher, first of all. It's hard to say a blanket statement. But one common miscommunication I see is the role of technology in the classroom. Sometimes, administrators see technology as a supercharged gasoline to push forward instruction. But what a lot of teachers are saying is, wait a second. We're not even on the same road--it's a different car, it's a rocketship. On the other hand, a leader might say, "I want you to innovate," and the teacher might say, "I want to stay on this road."

What's the relevance of the teacher vs. the administrator in the creation of a good culture to support tech?

Everybody, but the administrator definitely has to set it as a schoolwide expectation. You're going to see teacher silos in innovation in all of our schools around the world, where there's going to be that brave soul who says, "You know what? No matter what condition I'm in, I'm going to have this magical land of risk, failure, iteration, problem-solving and critical thinking." However, it's not going to be in silos if school leaders create environments where that's the culture and norm. A perfect example is Jason Markey at East Ledyden. He leads that school the way he would run a classroom. He sees every student as his student, but he also sees every member of his staff as his students, too, and people he cares about as human beings. He creates a culture of risk and trust. You walk in that building and you feel it.

On that note, you've been a judge for the Digital Innovation in Learning Awards for two years now. The awards for administrators focus on what you're speaking to, such as the Power to the People award, where we look for administrators who are empowering their staff. You've been in that administrative role for several years now. How do you recommend that applicants convey how they're leading these efforts with their staff through their application/video?

Don't just talk about it--show us.

As a judge, I don't want to see screenshots of webpages, or talking heads. Last year, the footage that really spoke to me had footage from schools, real stuff happening. It's the old "show, don't tell" idea.

The other thing is, you can tell when someone is passionate about something. Even if the production quality is a cell phone, with a shaky video, and no music, you can tell when someone's really geeked up about what they did. Those are just fun to watch. I think that over-rehearsed and overproduced may sometimes be less powerful. Talk from the heart about why you're passionate about teaching the world, leading schools, supporting kids. At least I am.

And any education buzzwords you hope you don't hear in these videos?

Oh my gosh… all of them. Well, hmm… blended learning. Let's go with that.

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