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How 3 districts empower teachers as tech leaders

Teachers who use technology as a tool should be empowered to support their fellow educators

teachers-leadersPlans to transition to digital, technology-rich environments are forming in districts across the country, but the success of those plans largely hinges on one thing: teacher buy-in.

During a SXSWedu session, three school district leaders shared how they are empowering their teachers to be leaders when it comes to technology use and the digital transition.

Panelists included Terry Grier, superintendent of the Houston Independent School District; Dwight Jones, Superintendent in Residence with Discovery Education; and Todd Wirt, the assistant superintendent of academics with the Wake County Public School System.

Next page: Supporting teachers as digital transition leaders

“Creating a digital learning environment is critical to our children’s success,” Grier said. “I believe that technology, when done right, gives kids more time.”

The challenge, he said, lies in moving from having simply good teachers who produce average gains to having great teachers who can use technology as a tool to empower their instruction and support student achievement.

“The importance of digital learning environments–it’s critical,” he said. “You can create the environment but you have to have a high-quality teacher who is trained and who knows how to make the most out of that environment.”

“The classroom environment has changed dramatically,” Jones said. “How do we support teachers as they go to scale? Help them get the necessary professional development and help them ‘see’ a new classroom where they work with students who want to have a voice in their learning.”

“We’re asking teachers to be more vulnerable and trust their students more than they have,” said Wirt, addressing the need to create a shift where students and teachers use digital tools and resources and collaborate more. “How do you create the culture and conditions where teachers feel confident to take risks and experiment in that environment?”

In Wake County Schools, district leaders are in the middle of a three-year plan to help teachers tackle the Common Core. Each of the district’s 171 schools have a four-teacher team that trains five times a year around Common Core implementation.

The first year of training focused on creating a collaborative student-centered classroom, and adult learning theory and facilitation skills were embedded in those lessons.

The second year built heavily around literacy and using digital content and identifying resources to teach literacy. Year three is in development now.

Teacher teams build and repackage the professional development in a way that makes sense for their individual schools and teachers.

“There’s still a level of choice, but we’re able to communicate the goal of digital content integration and what we want our classrooms to look like,” Wirt said.

“You have to create innovative environments,” Jones said. “You have to fund districts so they aren’t punished for how they let staff innovate and do business.”

Identifying problems with professional development can be a good place to begin.

“The old way of doing staff development was a bore and in most cases, very ineffective,” he said. “The staff development we were providing was a huge miss even though we were spending tremendous resources. How do we make the engagement so much more meaningful?”

Teacher empowerment can begin before teachers are practicing in the classrooms, Grier added.

“I’m worried that colleges in this country are not producing the kind of teachers we need to be working with our young people,” he said. “Just because young teachers are young doesn’t mean they understand content knowledge and are able to facilitate learning differently.”

Involving teachers in resource development is another empowerment strategy.

“You have to create the space for teachers to have a voice,” Jones said. “You have to learn from the folks who are already doing it. There are amazing educators who have figured it out, if we just take time to listen to them.”

“Often, our effort to listen is not that authentic,” Wirt said. “what teachers need to see is the actual result from their feedback.

“[Our process is] always a result of what we see, what we hear from teachers, because we want them to immediately see a change when they come back. As we’re doing that, their level of buy-in has skyrocketed.”

Empowering teachers also means addressing hesitancy or fears about going digital.

“Sometimes there’s hesitancy, on the parts of some folks, to take the digital plunge,” Grier said. “How can you overcome the challenges?”

The answer lies in school leadership.

“The absolute critical key is the school principal,” he said. “If you don’t have a principal who is absolutely 100 percent all-in, you will not succeed. Leadership matters.”

Principals can empower teacher leaders and help them help fellow teachers.

“Great teachers are fantastic at working with students,” Grier said. “Great principals are fantastic at working with adults.”

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