I finally got the clarity of mind to put this together and to publish it for a few colleagues who either getting their feet wet in being a Tech Dir or have questions as to how to get better at it.. I decided to release a podcast of it as well. Listen to episode #15 here.
Whenever I am asked to consult on a project or to join a learning community for a long term post, I usually break down my approach into a 3-year plan. Year 1 is about the heavy lifting, relationship building and establishing myself. Year 2 I tackle fundamental changes in platform, communication and program; moving forward with solidifying my team; and bringing in students. Year 3 is about finishing what I started and building on what has already been done from year 1. Of course year 3 is not the end of it all, but it serves as a good long-term goal as I begin the relationship with whatever school I’m working with.
If I do well on most of the items on the following list I stand a better chance of building something that lives for a long time after I have moved on to another project. My aim is to cut down on overall community stress; to maximize innovative teaching possibilities; and to ensure I am home early in the evenings and for the whole of weekends as much as possible. Yes, that last one is not about work at all – and if life is worth living non-work must play an important role in any professional long-term plan.
So here are my top 10 things to have in mind as you head into a new project and/or take that first step into becoming a member of a learning community that is new to you (and perhaps your family). I started writing this as I thought of a dear friend of mine as she is the incoming Tech Dir at a nearby school, and then I thought that much of it applies to any director-level position at any type of school. Some of it is tech-related, but you’ll find that much of it is applicable to the broader administrative realm.
1. Do nothing
Listen. Talk to as many people as possible and learn the ins and outs of this new community you’ve just joined. If someone hands you a piece of paper to sign, think of the precedent you’re about to set, and of how little information you have to make that move. If it is a must that you sign that piece of paper, be sure your Head of School has your back. Otherwise let the person who brought you that paper that it needs to wait until you can gather more information about the community and your role in it.
I have seen directors of all sorts and even Heads of School come into a community and quickly be influenced by a group of people leading them to make rash decisions that ultimately set them up for an early exit. Be sure to gather as much information as possible, and be sure you are not listening to a one-sided story all of the time.
In a learning community you will those who love being there, who support change, and are always ready to jump in when called on. In all places I have been there are few members of a learning community that oppose anything that is proposed by “the administration”. Usually these people are in the minority, and they are the most vocal and influential in some cases. Consider the source whenever someone brings you their problem or their view. There are many angles to a story, and be sure to get as many angles before making any type of decision.
2. Walk the walk
Walk around and get a sense of what the infrastructure is like. Walk around with either a tech or a network admin if they are there already. Open closets, find out how stuff is wired, where it goes to, how phones and data interact on the network. Are there AV services, security cameras, VoIP, voicemail, other management systems tied into the same network. Think ventilation, air systems, lighting, alarms, etc. Get to know the campus. Get to know what’s behind every door.
Take your time to say hello to as many people as possible as you are walking around campus. Find out where offices are located, particularly the Business Office and HR. Get a sense of distances, campus activity, areas where more students congregate versus areas where there are more admin offices. This is important as you are trying to piece together the many components of a sound network architecture and design.
3. Get comfortable with numbers
I know a lot of people who struggle with this part of an administrator’s job. I also know of people who are not assigned a higher post given their reluctance to deal with budgets and proper administration of resources. Sure it is not the most exciting part of the job, but it is fundamental. Get your head around the numbers, budgets, processes and policies.
Current and past two years’ budgets I have found are the best to get in order to have an idea of how money is spent. Key in the budget is finding out how capital and operational expenditures are separated and function. Every school sets their own rules, and once they are set they are held to these rules by whatever external-auditor they rely on. Also key is any budget line item that is not tied to a set monthly bill such as phones, Internet connectivity, external backup, etc. These line items are your flexible line items, which you can use to impact change within the same year. You may be walking into a situation where the budget could have already been set.
Also important is a line item for professional development for the IT department personnel as well as a line item for an outside consultant. This last part is important in case you identify something that needs changing or implementing and you will require outside help in order to get done.
4. Talk Biz
Talk to the business office and find out how budgeting works, how and what you are expected to do with receipts, contracts, letters of agreement, credit card limits, etc. What are the authorization protocols for the different amounts you may need to spend? Find out about taxes. Not-for profits work differently even within the same state or region. Find out fiscal implications as much as possible. What is involved in taking a donation, or giving a donation? Can you give a donation? Ask questions around budgeting.
Another important issue to discuss is HR processes and policies. Be sure to cover all bases. Ensure that you are as well informed about your team members as possible. I request all contracts, salary scales and any other contractual documentation of my team as soon as I land. I want to be sure we have the right people in the right place, and that each person is supported by the institution as best as possible.
Find out the status of policies on tech use and social media around the community. Who wrote them, how long ago, what do they actually say; and do people even read them? It is likely that everyone has signed a tech use policy document at some point or another during their introduction to your school. Do they actually understand them? Are there things in there that need to be pointed out and communicated better with all community members. The best way to find out about this is to read and go through current policies and then walk around and ask random people questions about these policies. You’ll find that most people have a vague idea about some of the things in your policy manual, but most could use a refresher.
6. Who’s on your team?
Is there an IT department, or are you flying solo? Find out what your resources are. If your team is not the right one, will providing professional development opportunities make a positive impact? If you don’t feel that would help, you have some tough conversations to prepare for. Be sure to reach out to your Head of School and HR. Do not get into hot water discussing contractual matters with team members as these comments may later come back to bite you.
Directors and Heads of School seldom measure their responses to people when they are starting off. Know the power of your words. If you agree with a team members you may be committing to something if you’re not careful. If you have any doubts about labor laws reach out to your school’s counsel and get yourself trained properly. Dealing with employees is no easy task, and I have seen most directors take this matter lightly.
Talk to students of various grade levels. Sit with them and find out what they are required to do for classes, and what interactions they do with the school network. What do they depend on most, and where are areas they feel things can be improved. Perhaps they won’t say so, but notice where the “frustration” points are. Find out where they are not sure about what to or how to do something. Look for all the telling signs of confusion. These are areas of opportunity.
Outside help: Find out about any recent audits that may have been done in regards to campus technology and related services. If there are reports, read through them. If you can get in contact with the person/company that did the audit, reach out and see what else they can add from their memory of having done the audit.
Community Leaders: Speak with other directors and find out who the key players are within the faculty, within each academic department and/or grade level. Who are the most tech-friendly faculty, and who are most likely to help you impact change when the time comes? Who needs more help and who is most capable of helping them?
Balance: At the end of the day, you have to go home. If there is no balance you run the risk of burning out. Be sure to dicipline yourself to leave work at work and when you are home be sure to be fully there with your family. This recharges you, and gets your mind clear from any challenges you may be facing at work such that when you come at them again on Monday you’ll have a different vantage point from where to resolve them. Be sure to take your time to enjoy your time off campus.
- Begin to impact change. Whatever major platform changes, deactivations, or implementations you need to make, be sure to do it during the summer. Let faculty know well ahead of time. Start getting the message out between February and March so that folks get used the idea that things will change, and why they need to change.
- Is your team the right team? Reach out to your Head of School and HR if you know you must have one of those difficulty conversations with someone from your team.
- How can students be part of the system? Find out from them what they want to or need to work on so that life is easier one everyone using the system. Give students ownership of certain projects and you’ll be amazed at how much they can get done.
- Budget changes implementation. Speak with your CFO to make the necessary changes to budgetting and whatever business office process you feel will benefit all.
Finish what you started and get into a rhythm. If you’re going to remain in that school for longer than 3 years, be sure to get longer-term planning done during your first couple of years such that year 3 is part of that cycle as you move forward.