The last few years have seen a huge shift in roles, responsibilities, and relationships at private and independent schools — particularly for technology leaders. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, IT staff worked largely behind-the-scenes in a siloed environment (or so was the common perception). Now tech leaders are a vital part of school operations, policies, and decision-making across every department.
This transformation wouldn’t be possible without the support of school leadership. Technology directors are working closer than ever before with school heads to not only meet the daily needs of the school, but to safeguard and strategize for the future. We recently sat down with Dr. Catherine J. Hall, Head of School, and Devareaux Brown, Director of Technology, from Noble and Greenough School in Dedham, MA. The pair opened up about their working relationship and how they have managed to build a strong and strategic partnership that furthers their institution’s mission.
Evolution of Technology
Technology use at K-12 schools has exponentially increased in recent years. Prior to the pandemic, technology was largely seen as a problem-solving tool and a means to an end. Many faculty and staff hesitated to fully embrace tech and hid behind the “I’m bad with computers” excuse. They viewed the technology team as IT support and rarely sought the tech leader’s input beyond broken hardware or software upgrades.
Now, technology is a core part of the school’s workflow and decision-making process. Individuals have been empowered to interact with technology in a way that improves teaching, learning, and communication.
This change didn’t happen overnight! Dr. Hall cites the pandemic with posing three big questions that reframed Noble and Greenough’s approach to technology.
- How do we innovate? The question shifted from “Should we innovate?” before COVID-19 to “How?” It was no longer a choice but a necessity.
- What can we consistently deliver and promise to our families? In the height of the pandemic, this meant adding cameras to classrooms and finding ways to provide equal access to online learning.
- How do we do our jobs better? This is an evolving question used to prioritize job duties and responsibilities. For instance, Nobles quickly learned that the same cameras they added to classrooms were not the right choice, so they worked together to find a better solution.
The answers to these questions helped Nobles navigate the pandemic and provide the best possible experience during an uncertain time. They leveraged technology to solve problems, engage users, and connect with their community. The technology team’s expertise allowed them to pivot quickly and explore new possibilities based on what made sense at the time.
Perhaps the most valuable lesson learned was how critical technology is to the school’s ability to make informed decisions. Says Hall,
We simply couldn’t make decisions about school reopening or academic decisions without being certain we had the infrastructure and support systems. And I think that change [will] stick; I think we look differently at school leadership and decision-making… other school leaders have an understanding of what the technology team can provide. It’s a decision-making process that’s truly more integrated and much better.
Nobles is not alone with these realizations. Schools across the country are investing more time, money, and energy into technology resources and personnel. Technology leaders are embracing the spotlight and making concerted efforts to keep their newfound seat at the table, even beyond the pandemic.
Evolution of Key Roles
As technology has evolved, so have the roles of school heads and tech leaders as they’ve adapted to the changing needs of the private school community.
Dr. Hall says the most transformative part of her role as Head of School has been communication. Prior to the pandemic, she sent a bi-weekly newsletter to connect with parents and inform them of school happenings. That quickly became a webinar series in 2020 when families needed extra reassurance and security from school leadership. Looking ahead, Dr. Hall plans to find a balanced approach to facilitate communication and connection at a slower pace.
For Brown, he says the biggest development was moving from helping to partnering. Brown and his team strive to empower faculty and staff through technology; to teach individuals how to leverage tech tools instead of shying away from them. The outdated perception of technology as a troubleshooting help desk was (thankfully) erased during COVID-19 as schools relied on IT staff to operate. Today, faculty and staff view technology leaders as a strategic partner to brainstorm with and accomplish key tasks.
Building a Strategic Partnership
These themes of communication and empowerment translate nicely to the relationship between school heads and technology leaders. While every school is different, there is always an opportunity to partner together for the greater good of your institution. Even more, heads of schools have a unique vantage point and can use their position and expertise to challenge technology directors and help them develop into well-rounded leaders for the school. Here are five tips for school heads and technology leaders to foster a strategic partnership with one another.
Five Tips for School Heads
Reframe: it’s crucial for today’s school leadership to view technology leaders as leaders in the school, not just leaders in the technology office. Reframe your perspective and encourage others to do the same! This new mindset will empower the technology leader to step up with confidence.
Communicate: regular communication is a must. Find a meeting cadence that works well based on your school’s operational and organizational needs. Running out of time to chat? You might need to meet more frequently or extend the meeting time in order to fully address one another’s priorities.
Dr. Hall and Brown found that a monthly 1:1 combined with a monthly meeting with their CFO was a good rhythm for their relationship.
Trust: your tech director is the expert. Show them you trust their expertise and opinions by involving them in the decision-making process for school initiatives across the board. Delegate key tasks and give them the tools they need to succeed. When you have the right person in the job, they will flourish.
Educate: not everyone on your staff will recognize the value of technology. Empower your faculty and staff to partner with technology by looping tech into every decision-making conversation. It’s better to engage tech early on than to realize you wasted valuable time by leaving them out of critical decisions.
Support: have each other’s back! Not every technology decision will be met with open arms — as a school head, sometimes you’ll have to step in to rally the troops and get buy-in for key initiatives.
Five Tips for Technology Leaders
Ask: mentorship is a key component of a strategic relationship between tech and school leadership. That being said, not every head of school will offer their time or advice outright. Ask for it! Go the extra mile to find time in their day for 1:1 conversations and make it valuable for both of you.
Show Interest: express an eagerness to grow, not just in technology but within the school’s leadership as a whole. This authentic interest can open new doors and opportunities outside of your office.
Be Proactive: say yes to things and put yourself out there. School leaders love to see faculty and staff engaging outside of their department. Don’t compartmentalize yourself in the back office and only show up when something is broken; volunteer for a new committee, attend the school musical, and get to know parents and students in organic ways. Making an intentional effort to show up for your school community will show others that you are a real leader in the school.
For Brown, this looks like coaching the football team and facilitating leadership workshops for department heads. He identified a gap and seized the opportunity to broaden his skillset.
Prepare: school heads juggle umpteen priorities and constituencies. When you are able to find time on their calendar, make the most of it! Come to each meeting with a set agenda and list of talking points. Prioritize your agenda based on what absolutely needs to be addressed versus what is more of a nice to know.
Translate: the world of technology can be full of complicated jargon. Make it easier for your school head to support you by taking out the technical explanations and focusing on the need-to-know details. Keep it succinct and lead with the benefit for your school community. For example: “To help ensure our students’ safety, I think we should invest in RFID technology for our campus.”
Building a strong relationship also requires you to understand each other’s roles and responsibilities. This will help you better understand how to leverage one another’s strengths and skills, but also provide insight into their priorities, pain points, and overall process. We asked Hall and Brown what they wished their counterparts knew about their role.
Head of School’s Perspective
“At any one moment, I’m attuned to a demographic that has such competing needs within it,” says Hall. “People think they have the full picture… I’m often picking the best worst option based on priorities that the tech director might not always agree with. The blind spots are often where the pressures are. Different priorities have to take precedence.”
School heads are in a unique position with so many shifting needs and priorities. As a tech leader, approach these conversations with empathy and know that your head of school is working towards the same goal as you are — even if they take a different route than you would’ve. Be mindful of their time and mental energy. A good philosophy is to bring strategic or budgetary decisions to your head’s door, but keep them out of the daily tasks and conversations that they don’t need to address.
Technology Leader’s Perspective
“For some people, technology change is hard,” says Brown. “It can be a real challenge for my department to work with end users to make something happen, even if we know it’s the right decision… we have to work with some tough people. Right decision, good call, but the time it actually takes to win over people due to the [school] culture might not always be readily known to senior administrators.”
Change management can be difficult, as Brown alludes to. But it’s necessary! In these situations, it can be beneficial to bring in a third-party resource to audit your school’s processes and identify opportunities. Often a fresh set of eyes can help reframe the conversation, garner buy-in, and strengthen your team’s dynamic.
An interesting new trend in K-12 schools is that of technology leaders transitioning into head of school roles. Dr. Hall is one such example! This could be a result of newfound responsibility and engagement in strategic initiatives, or it could be coincidental — either way, it further reinforces the importance of a strong partnership between both roles.
Alignment between your head of school and technology leader is imperative to your school’s ability to innovate, sustain, and operate. As you look to further your institution’s mission and strengthen your school community, lean on one another as strategic thought partners. You’ll be surprised at your newfound strength.
For more guidance on building a strategic partnership with your school or tech leader, download our free workbook. You can also watch our on-demand webinar to catch up on the full conversation with Dr. Hall and Brown.