Sometimes it feels like a school district IT department doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Yes, technology is more a part of today’s education than ever before, but when tech is running smoothly, it is easy to forget IT departments and the staff that keep the infrastructure running exist.
In my six years as the director of technology for the Pittsburg Independent School District, a town about 120 miles east of Dallas, we’ve gone through many changes, not to mention what the pandemic put us through. But when COVID-19 forced us all to remote learning nearly overnight, my six-person team was able to move 2,500 students to a one-to-one program rapidly and quite successfully.
As I look back, I realize there were numerous factors contributing to the team’s stellar work. What follows are a few points that might help other IT departments better handle future challenges while generally improving operations for the long term.
Support from Administration is Vital
My superintendent, Terry Waldrep, has a degree in computer science, and the school board president, Greg Miller, is a technology company senior manager with a PhD in information technology. In some situations, IT directors might fear being second-guessed by leaders like these, but here it is quite the opposite. While some folks might perceive that fixing an IT problem or distributing new hardware is as simple as knowing what button to push, both individuals understand the complexities of IT and the importance of a planning and systems for an IT department.
For instance, when our district needed to implement multi-factor authentication to update ransomware policies, I knew the technical change was relatively simple. But when communicating the importance of this new policy and training staff, I feared resistance. Our school board president not only understood why we were taking this step, but he offered his expertise as a resource if needed to convince skeptical staff about the change. It’s very helpful to have someone, both at the board level and the executive level, who understands IT and is equally invested in its success as my team and I are.
Listen to Your Employees
When our schools transitioned overnight to one-to-one learning and we had to create a help desk for students, I was worried about burning out the staff. Not only was our department physically handling computers for students and staff during the early days of the virus, but each staff member was being pulled in many directions at the same time.
To help them, I secured approval to hire a help desk aide for the entire department to organize the help desk. This seemingly small addition helped immensely. Not only did it validate their importance as individuals and as part of a team, it reset the tasks for our six-person group. They became more effective, better organized, and less stressed. Never forget that switching in and out of different work modes is costly; eliminating inefficiencies makes the whole department greater than the sum of its parts.
Pay Attention to Hiring
I’ve always prioritized hiring workers who could adapt to meet challenges over those with the best credentials. In fact, some of my staff didn’t even come from IT backgrounds. When the pandemic rejiggered our goals and what we needed, having staff with this adaptability paid off. Our team was able to creatively meet new challenges, finding several ways to deliver computers and connectivity to students and staff, while also keeping us all up-to-date with the latest digital teaching tools.
Actively Invest in Team Building
We are fortunate to have several people on staff with aspirations to one day become district IT directors themselves. During the pandemic, it was clear we needed regular check-ins with everyone so that I understood the pressures they were battling, but I also realized this was a great opportunity to show them parts of my job as the IT director. In the past, I handled our district’s e-Rate application and budgeting, not wanting to bother my staff with these administrative tasks. But when considering their long-term goals, I opened up more to show them how I do these tasks.
Pick Software Tools Carefully
It’s easy for teachers to grab a free learning tool without thinking about the long-term ramifications of security and support. Our IT department decided quickly during the pandemic to standardize the tools offered to our staff. We did listen to teachers’ preferences, but we vetted their choices carefully and if those companies met our expectations, we made the tools available to the entire staff. However, we stuck closely to our standardization plan so that we didn’t dilute our effectiveness or stretch the team out unnecessarily. But we also realized that providing an array of tools gives teachers the flexibility to create their own solutions.
One example is NetSupport, which is used in the six Windows-based CTE labs we run at the high school. This tool allows teachers to see the screens of all their students, jump in and help a student who may be stuck, or simply freeze everyone’s screen to make a quick class-wide point. The company meets the criteria we’ve set for longevity, support, and technical standards so it fit into the district plan despite being used in a very specific setting. We leaned heavily on several software solutions, from a program to control our IT inventory to a way to upgrade our invoice system. Even something as simple as improving our digital signage helped control the influx of insurance forms we suddenly had to deal with.
During the pandemic, we originally thought that some of our teachers would struggle to use the technology that was handed out rather quickly, but we were proven wrong. Our staff, from newer tech-savvy teachers to veterans who fondly recall using chalkboards and erasers, stepped up and adapted their classes for an entirely different delivery mode. It was heartening and rewarding for all of us in IT to be such a tangible and visible part of instructional success.
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