Collaborative Leadership for a District's Digital Transformation

Ann was a long-time social studies teacher turned district technology leader from Klein ISD, located just outside Houston, Texas. Ann is a pioneer in technology integration, and her passion for imbuing learning with relevance and elevating the student experience helped bring digital tools to all 50 campus locations in Klein ISD, which today serves a student body of over 50,000 students.

She is the author of Life Lessons in Leadership: The Way of the Wallaby; and today, Ann is based in Los Angeles, California and works as a consultant, focusing on educational leadership.

Leadership Lessons from the Classroom…

Our conversation started with the question, What’s the biggest lesson you learned as a classroom teacher that has continued to inform the work you’ve done since?

“Relationships matter. Teachers have to make a genuine connection with students (and their parents) before focusing on content or subject matter. Relationships also matter when it comes to working with teaching colleagues and administrators. Quite honestly, the joy of the education profession comes from the people we are fortunate enough to interact with on a daily basis.”

This idea of relationships was a theme that scaffolded as Klein ISD built a district-wide commitment to technology integration. In speaking with Ann, she focuses heavily on the collaborative nature of this sort of strategic planning, from enlisting the support of teachers, connecting with principals, and seeking commitment from district leadership and the school board.

Ann explains, “One of the things I like to say in leadership workshops is that we are so much smarter collectively than any one of us is individually.”

This was a sentiment reflected in the initiative’s structure. Such a large-scale process couldn’t be top down, it required the participation and leadership from teachers, who were the end users along with their students.

…On Inclusion

“Collaboration with classroom teachers is critically important, and again that goes back to the basic fact that relationships matter. We honestly started with teachers, and we said, ‘Let's figure this out together.’

I was an eighth-grade history teacher. There is no way I could tell a high school chemistry teacher what she needed to do to infuse technology effectively into her teaching practice. But I could get a chemistry teacher to get into the technology and figure out how it fit in with the chemistry curriculum. The next step was to help and support that teacher in sharing the information and lessons learned with her colleagues.

We sought out teachers who were willing to serve as what we called TIMs (Technology Integration Mentor teachers). We recruited one teacher from each grade level in our elementary schools and one from each of the four major content areas at each grade level in our secondary schools. Those teachers were equipped with a computer and Internet access and were charged with ‘figuring out’ how the technology fit within their curriculum requirements. They were also given an extra stipend and over time each TIM would teach their colleagues about the use of technology, and the program grew.

In addition to the TIMs, I was able to hire some of the best teachers in the district to be ‘District Instructional Technology Teachers’ – today they would probably be called Instructional Coaches or Facilitators. This stellar group taught technology classes in the evenings and on Saturdays for teachers and staff. They also worked directly with teachers at the schools in their classrooms and computer labs.”

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…On Collaboration

“Our team of district instructional technology teachers met together every Monday with our clerical support staff and me. This was a critical piece of our process because together the district instructional technology teachers were servicing 40 different campuses. At those Monday meetings we would discuss what was going on at the campuses and how they were each working with different teachers at each campus. The team really learned from each other, and I think early on there was a recognition that we were never going to be out of the learning business.

I give all of the district instructional technology teachers and the classroom teachers they worked with (along with the building principals) full credit for whatever success we achieved in Klein.”

Ann noted that this level of collaboration is not always the standard of practice in K-12 education.

“K-12 education has traditionally operated in a very siloed environment. Teachers were often on their own once assigned to a classroom. But today there is so much to consider, that I think the growing notion of scheduling a common planning period for teachers to come together to collectively reflect and plan for instruction is very powerful.”

…On Buy-In

Klein ISD’s emphasis on collaboration and bringing teachers into the process and building relationships also played into how the district approached generating buy-in. As every education leader knows, teacher buy-in is critical to the success of any K-12 education initiative. Beyond seeking teacher leadership and grade-level and subject-area teachers to drive technology integration planning, Klein’s team also focused on building mutual collaboration between teachers and encouraging them to try, but we still also met them at the point in the process where each one was.

“It is critically important that teachers – especially the “resistors” – have an opportunity to observe firsthand how other teachers and their students are implementing technology effectively. This is especially powerful if they can observe teachers at their own campus, but visiting classrooms at other schools was also an option.

Teachers also need to be assured that “failure” is part of the learning process – not just for their students but for professional educators as well. Teachers need to know it is okay to ask for help when something doesn’t go right. Teachers also need to understand that “opting out” is not an option. They need to be given whatever assistance and PD needed to make them confident to move forward on their own. Finally, there needs to be multiple two-way conversations regarding the “why” behind any new initiative.”

…On Efficacy

This initiative was truly a process of discovery and teamwork. Even in the way Ann recommends measuring efficacy, she focuses on sources that honor the bottom up, collaborative approach:

  • “Make multiple classroom visits to observe how the technology and pedagogy are being implemented.
  • Survey (and converse with) teachers, students, and parents to get a sense of their perceptions and impact on student learning.
  • Monitor student data from multiple sources, not just end of year testing.”

…On Relationship Building

Relationships, here too, are deeply embedded. “There has to be an element of trust in those relationships. And it takes time to build that trust. That’s true among professional colleagues but also between teacher and student.”

As Ann said, teachers must build relationships with their students to facilitate learning. This is the most essential ingredient. And it is such an important lesson for educators – that this focus on relationships and trust, embedded in leadership, makes for much more effective and compassionate leadership.

Insights By

Ann McMullan

A 34-year veteran educator, Ann spent 18 years as an innovative social studies teacher, followed by 16 years as a school district administrator. In that role, she led the visioning, planning and effective implementation of strategies and tools for digital learning. Ann concluded her work in Klein ISD as the Executive Director for Educational Technology prior to moving to Los Angeles in 2013. Because Ann felt that the work she had been doing in leading the changes in education systems to meet the needs of today’s students was still urgent and relevant, soon after her move to Los Angeles, she started her own independent education consulting firm in the fall of 2013 and now works nationally and internationally as a speaker, writer and consultant.

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