In today’s increasingly complex technology environment, tech support personnel are a vital part of any school system. Yet these essential employees often are overlooked and almost certainly are underpaid, when you compare their salaries in a typical school setting with the money they could earn in the private sector. Keeping your support staff happy requires empowering them professionally, giving them ample opportunities to advance their skills and their careers—which, in turn, will pay dividends for your schools.

Our school system has moved from a mainframe environment with self-developed applications featuring hard-coded business logic and edits to a client-server environment using off-the-shelf software packages. In our legacy student information system, we maintained fewer than 500 users, compared with the 10,000-plus users we currently support. Today, we are no longer reactive and limited to reciting the moribund answers from manuals to support legacy applications; instead, we are proactive and act much more like consultants, providing advice and best business practices to many “clients.” Thus, our challenge was to professionalize our support team to better reflect our changing technologies and expanding roles.

Our first goal was to define our support activities clearly, ensuring that our technical employees were treated equitably and were afforded the same intrinsic rewards as other employees in the enterprise. We wanted to establish a system that recognized professional activities and encouraged self promotion and identification. That’s not to say material rewards aren’t paramount, for they are; rather, it reflects the reality of current budget cycles and acknowledges the lengthy processes that may be involved in changing grades and job classifications.

I recommend that you study the requirements for teacher recertification in your district and state to better understand and emulate staff development opportunities for your tech support personnel. In our case, we developed the matrix you see below as the core document to create career ladder opportunities for our team. I hope you’ll find this matrix to be easily adaptable to the circumstances and positions that exist in your own districts.

Ultimately (and deservedly so), we moved all of our specialists to the top of the career ladder—and, as a result, our schools and offices are better served and our customer satisfaction has increased. Another added benefit is that we often use the matrix in our interview process, both to help candidates understand what we do and as a tool for applicants to rate themselves and their skill set.

Here are eight more ideas to help you ensure that your tech support employees get the respect they deserve:

  • Update job descriptions to reflect new technologies and concepts, recognizing that many descriptors will need to be broad rather than narrow. For example, “supports web-based applications” and “writes scripts for web-based applications” has more longevity than “writes Java scripts.”
  • Make sure each employee keeps an updated portfolio of professional resources and time spent in professional development. Notify all employees of professional development opportunities and ask for feedback after each activity, so that only high-quality and meaningful training is provided.
  • Require attendance at conferences or vendor demonstrations as a way to stay on top of industry developments. Subscribe to and make available professional journals and articles, and share all resources whenever possible. Local and national user groups are another excellent way to encourage support employees both to gain and to share their professional knowledge.
  • Find a liaison or partner in human resources to support you in your cause, and ask this person to look in the professional literature for model job descriptions. Lobby effectively and gain an honest reputation as an advocate for your support employees. The information technology (IT) field is rich in descriptions and duties; job postings and listings are also good sources of information.
  • Encourage support employees to earn the certifications that are available from Microsoft, Apple, A+, and others. Encourage flexible scheduling to give support employees the chance to attend classes and seminars—including education classes outside the IT field, so they can become familiar with the unique vocabulary and requirements of education and thus better support the school system’s core mission.
  • Give support employees the opportunity to pair up with teachers and office staff to see firsthand how administrative and instructional applications are used. Invite school-based employees to spend a day at the central district office to understand the IT “big picture” and decision-making processes.
  • Professionalize the telephone demeanor and dress of employees to ensure that your IT department conforms to the values of your organization, regardless of whether they have client contact. At a minimum, use polo, denim, or other logo shirts to build recognition and pride while adhering to today’s business casual dress. Try to use a special shirt, logo, or pin to recognize excellent client service.
  • Form a representative group, council, or task force to study the issues and suggest ways to empower and professionalize the support employee. Provide template language and mentor each employee in resume development and updating.

It has been my experience that the more accurately and effectively you can articulate the role of support employees, the more willing colleagues and clients are to support you in the effort to upgrade their positions. The ability to attract and retain high-quality employees goes far beyond salary, benefits, and work environments; these are things we often have little control over. What we can control for ourselves and for others is the extent to which technology support positions are seen as an integral part of a school district’s operation. Remember that you don’t just support technology—you enable business processes and ultimately support student achievement.

Alan S. Brody is the coordinator of the Information Technology Functional Application Support Team (IT FASTeam) for Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia. He can be reached at alan.brody@fcps.edu.