Recently, New Milford High School in New Jersey was recognized as the November/December “School of the Month” by eSchool News for its accomplishments pertaining to the use of educational technology.
As I look back on our journey and the path that was taken, I have been able to identify some key elements that have driven change and allowed New Milford to become a technology-rich school where potential and promise are emphasized as opposed to problems, challenges and excuses.
My social media journey has been well documented, and it was this journey that provided me with the knowledge, tools and ideas needed to initiate change. Knowledge is everything and it influences our decisions and opinions. Once connected through social media, I was given the knowledge I desperately needed. For my school, connectedness was the original catalyst for change. It has also enabled us to form numerous collaborative partnerships with an array of stakeholders who have assisted us along the way.
The seeds for change will only germinate if a coherent vision is established. It is important that all stakeholder groups contribute to a collective vision and work to subsequently create a plan for integration. With this being said, it is extremely important that leaders have a concrete vision that clearly articulates why and how technology will be used to support education. Without these two crucial elements, any resulting plan will fail.
One of the drawbacks to educational technology is the perceived lack of value it has in terms of student learning and achievement. The true value of technology rests on how it is used to support learning and create experiences that students find meaningful and relevant. This, in my opinion, is the key and should be included when establishing a vision. Technology has the power to engage students, unleash their creativity and allow them to apply what they have learned to demonstrate conceptual mastery. If stakeholders understand and experience technology’s value firsthand, change quickly follows.
Support comes in many forms. Teachers need to have a certain amount of access to technology in order to experience the types of changes it can spur. We made a commitment at the district level to install a wireless network four years ago and have consistently upgraded it over the years until teachers and students can use mobile devices seamlessly and uninterrupted. We also made a commitment to transforming a very old building (circa 1928) by outfitting rooms with the latest technology. To put some perspective on this, not one traditional classroom had an interactive whiteboard four years ago. We now have 20. In addition to providing access to technology, another essential support structure is removing the fear of failure and encouraging a risk-taking environment that fuels innovation. Driving change does not happen without this element.
Transforming a school culture based on significant shifts in pedagogy requires opportunities to learn how to effectively integrate technology. As there were not many quality professional development options in place when we started our journey, we made our own. This was accomplished by leveraging our teacher leaders and available resources. The majority of the knowledge, ideas and strategies came from the formation of a personal learning network (PLN). By harnessing the power of a PLN, I was able to impart what I learned to my staff. Trainings on various Web 2.0 tools were held after school. A year later the Edscape Conference was formed to provide more relevant and meaningful growth opportunities. The most recent initiative involved the creation of a professional growth period (PGP), a job-embedded growth model.
The final element that I found to be critical in driving change was empowering my staff to embrace technology as opposed to securing buy-in. To me, there is a huge difference. Embracement is attained through empowerment and autonomy as described above. Buy-in requires a salesmanlike approach that might contain if-then rewards. We have no mandates to use technology at NMHS. By empowering teachers to shift their instructional practices and giving them the needed autonomy to take risks and work on effective integration techniques, this worked to intrinsically motivate them to change.
There you have it. The elements described above put into perspective how we were able to drive change and eventually be recognized for the culture that has been created even with limited resources.
Eric Sheninger (@NMHS_Principal) is the principal at New Milford High School in New Jersey, 2012 winner of the National Association of Secondary School Principals’ Digital Principal Award, a Google Certified Teacher, a 2011 Conference Scholar of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, co-author of “Communicating and Connecting With Social Media: Essentials for Principals,” an education writer for The Huffington Post and co-creator of the Edscape Conference. His blog, A Principal’s Reflections, was selected as Best School Administrator Blog in 2011 by Edublogs. Learn more about Sheninger.