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Administrators: How To Model Digital Leadership

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The more I write and speak about education, the wider the disconnect I see between our ever-changing world and our unchanging schools and administrators. Outliers exist among those schools and leaders, but by and large, the one-size-fits-all American education system hasn’t changed much in over 100 years—and from my vantage point, too few administrators effectively model change-making leadership to help spur a much-needed revolution in education.

For a more authoritative perspective, I recently read Eric Sheninger’s courageous book, Digital Leadership: Changing Paradigms for Changing Times. “We can no longer afford to sustain a school structure built for a time long past,” writes the internationally recognized, award-winning principal, whose leadership transformed the teaching culture at New Jersey’s New Milford High School. “What will it take for the light bulb to finally go on and the long, difficult process of change to begin?”

My thinking on that question is deeply influenced and informed by my recent talk with Sheninger:

Lead By Example

Too often, I hear about administrators asking teachers to use technology without proper instruction or implementation. All the while, many of those administrators have little or no clue about the same technology—even as they advertise its classroom use to parents, board members, and prospective students.

“Those often tasked with leading change in a digital age are the least knowledgeable about the digital age,” Sheninger says. “There is nothing more discouraging than having leaders that put you in a position where they’re barking orders at you, and they’re not modeling the same expectations that they ask of you.”

Leadership is about action, not position. An effective administrator leads by example, and she isn’t afraid of failing or making missteps in front of others. Sheninger says, “I never ask my teachers to do something that I’m not at least willing to try myself.” This includes trying to use and understand new and evolving technologies, and an administrator who lacks such interest not only has no business supporting or evaluating teachers, but should also consider another career.

Get Connected

Too few administrators are active on Twitter, or even know what the platform is or does. Still, administrators demand creativity from teachers, even as many higher-ups refuse to tap into social media, or do not know how to do so.

“If I had not become connected, I probably would have still been on that hamster wheel, doing the same old thing, maintaining the status quo,” Sheninger tells me. “No longer do we have to feel that we live on these isolated islands or that schools are silos of information. Social media and the ability that social media provides us to connect and engage in powerful conversations really provide the foundation for what I consider the ability to change and grow professionally in unprecedented ways.”

I couldn’t agree more. Several years ago, my brother, who works for a major marketing firm in New York, convinced me to connect. “If you want to make an impact, get on Twitter,” he told me. Almost immediately, I began engaging with interested people, all of whom wanted to better their own teaching practices. Through Twitter, I also connected with Sheninger—along with dozens of others whom I’ve written about and featured on my blog. With schools placing an even greater emphasis on “interconnectedness” and “global citizenship,” I can think of no better professional-development tool for administrators than sharing their ideas online—or for learning about up-to-date teaching methods.

“The bottom line is if something is important to you, you’ll find a way,” Sheninger says. “If not, you’ll come up with an excuse. Education is good for one thing and one thing only—that’s making excuses not to move forward.”

Remove Web Filters

Speaking of moving forward, Sheninger points out another disconnect—this time between Information Technology directors saying that they want to prepare students for the 21st century, while blocking or not allowing students access to social networking sites. The Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) requires a filter, but, Sheninger says, only to “filter things such as violence, pornography, gambling.”

CIPA mentions nothing of blocking Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube, tools which teachers and students need access to for teaching relevant 21st-century skills, such as sharing, collaboration, and self-promotion. Sites like Edmodo and Cel.ly (popular school alternatives to Facebook and Twitter, respectively) allow teachers more control, including approving posts before having them appear live.

But here as well, Sheninger makes an important point: “Schools are setting kids up for failure. We are not allowing them to use real world tools to do real world work. School has in effect, become the exact opposite of the real world. We are failing our students mostly because we are not teaching them how to create positive digital footprints, how to be digitally responsible, and digitally literate.”

IT directors are facing a losing battle. With the increased popularity of tethering, which provides computer web access via mobile devices, more and more people are bypassing school servers altogether. Depending on one’s carrier plan, this feature remains relatively expensive—but for many, the ability to surf the net freely is well worth the added expense. Either way, it’s only a matter of time before tethering becomes significantly more affordable, especially if this technology hopes to compete with 3G and 4G tablets. iPads and knock-off clones already offer unfettered web access, so long as users have decent cell reception or are within range of a Wi-Fi hotspot.

Takeaway Message

During Sheninger’s seven years as principal at New Milford, his leadership ushered in a dramatic rise in graduation rates and acceptances to four-year colleges, while reducing disciplinary problems. I ask him to sum up his recipe for success: “It’s all about adapting and evolving with the times, and worrying more about learning than numbers. When you focus more on learning, everything else falls into place.” Administrators would do well to heed this advice, or else risk our children’s future.

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David Cutler is a dedicated independent school teacher at Brimmer and May School in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, where he teaches United States History, United States Government, and Journalism. He also serves as Assistant Boys Cross Country Coach. Cutler is proud to act as a Teacher of the Future for the National Association of Independent Schools. Occasionally, he also writes about education for Edutopia and The Atlantic. Cutler attended Brandeis University as an undergraduate with a major in History and minors in Latin American Studies and Journalism. He holds an M.A. in Comparative History, also from Brandeis.

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Guest Monday, 24 October 2016