Democratizing K12 From IT Perspective

Randy Phelps, CTO, East Side Union High School District
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Randy Phelps, CTO, East Side Union High School District

In K-12, who is the tech guy? The initial answer may be “Stan or Patty, who have that position.” But that doesn’t answer it. The skill sets and backgrounds of the professionals who fill positions in IT departments in K-12 is as diverse and varied that when taking over the management of an IT Division. Even a very small division requires some time to know your team and discover what are the constraints and possibilities for them now and in the future. They may have the same job title and responsibilities, but they are usually not alike at all in what they can do and how they go about their work.

The constraints of many employment agreements are very different from ‘at will’ workplaces in Silicon Valley. The pay for the IT roles in K-12 is never close to similar roles in private industry. As an employer, you must create a value proposition that will invite great candidates when your organization has positions available to attract and keep those candidates.

Who makes up your current team? What do they do well? What do they love? Where would they like to grow? What is there expertise? What is their passion? Too often these questions remain unconsidered and put entire teams through the same training and attempt to create generalist experts of entire IT staffs and grow frustrated when all staff doesn’t grow in the same directions and in the same time frame. Because technology is so pervasive and because it is so broad, we try to train the entire team assuming that they could all do the same work. It doesn’t work.

For IT managers new to a job, interview each of your staff. Find out what they love to do and what they dread. Develop your team around their strengths. Have them do what they do best. Even if your team is small, building from strength will build morale and improve overall performance. The team will recognize that the tasks and roles that are not their favorites still need to be done. In our experience, since they have been heard and valued in adjusting their roles and are getting support for their passions, they will dive in as a team on the more mundane tasks in a cohesive manner.

When IT is about to adopt a technology, one needs to make sure that the folks who will support that technology see its value and look forward to supporting it. No matter how good ‘the deal’ is, if you don’t honor a process that values support staff, the costs for the solution will be higher in the long run and the success of the adoption is not possible.

When planning projects, bring your entire team together and begin a planning conversation about your goals and asked them about their future plans. Democracy works and your team wants to provide input and they want you to be the person who makes the decisions. The IT manager gives nothing up by asking for additional voices and input. If your team sees the vision, understands it, you greatly improve the chances that they will support it. Successful projects share one common element: Consistent and unforced support for the project. If your team doesn’t support the project, it may get done, but they rarely succeed.

Most IT departments are like the United Nations. Many and varied backgrounds. Skill sets range from interested former teacher, multiple CCIE network engineer, retired ATT engineer, former lab tech at a large university or a former student who was always ‘into computers’ but without any formal training. Because of that diverse richness, we need to play to their strengths and overlay their abilities and abilities to the tasks at hand. Have a range of training opportunities and types. Sure, a few trainings are also great team building opportunities, so do those, but the rest should support different learning interests, styles and modalities.

The successful manager will weave a complex fabric of skills, resources, training and outside help to create a work environment that has both high morale among the IT team and happy users who put in help desk tickets. In K-12, we cannot offer the highest salaries. But, we can determine other elements that motivate our team members and reinforce those things to create happy and high functioning teams and to foster growth in areas that will benefit the district. Great teams are built on cooperation, respect and listening. Growth comes from areas that are fertile, that receive nourishment and that want tending. When we remember these things, we have time to write articles!

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