For the last decade or so, I have enjoyed the opportunity to speak to new school district superintendents about what is important to know about technology as a superintendent, and how to leverage it most effectively in their districts. My background is somewhat unusual. I completed graduate degrees both in computer science and in education administration, and have worked in technical fields (as a software developer and manager, and sales), and in educational roles—from leading large scale technology-driven teacher training and curriculum reform programs to roles as teacher, school district superintendent, and headmaster in an international school in Asia. Given that background, I get asked about technology in education on a fairly regular basis.

Let’s remember that superintendents are typically judged by their leadership and communication, by the school or district student academic performance, and by prudent management of fiscal and human resources. Setting aside rogue school boards that get preoccupied with sports coaches, transportation schedules or other distractors, these are the measuring sticks of school district leadership. Enter technology.

From the superintendent’s perspective on learning—and this transcends test scores, though I assure you if you get this right, the test scores follow, there are skills and attributes you want to foster in your classrooms and schools. And these are timeless. As my friend Marc Prensky likes to say—the nouns change, but the verbs tend to stay the same.

Consider for a moment the “cool tools” garnering educational attention in 2012: Prezi, Zotero, Zamzar, Evernote, Sliderocket, Jing, Tripit, Orbicule, Gliffy, Pageflakes, Zoho, Gabcast, Google Tools, Slideshare, Blinkz, Wolfram Alpha, Chacha, Internet Archive, Wordle, Trello, Poll Everywhere, etc. A few of them are still relevant, many are not. These are the “nouns.”

However, consider some of the skills and attributes we want our students to master: Analyzing, Calculating, Collaborating, Cooperating, Creating, Debating, Estimating, Ethically Question, Evaluating, Experimenting, Exploring, Innovating, Listening, Negotiating, Observing, Predicting, Presenting, Questioning, Reflecting, Searching, Sharing, Simulating, Thinking critically, Employing logic, Verifying, Writing. These are the verbs. Those haven’t changed so much, have they?

We employ technology where appropriate to make sure we are fostering these skills, attributes, and perspectives that lead to intellectual curiosity and meaningful learning. Our job, as superintendents, is not to know all about the nouns, but to insist that when our teachers and administrators advocate for using specific nouns (technologies), that we always tie those nouns back to the verbs that those nouns support.

Furthermore, it is vital to have the grit, the tenacity, and the courage to sustain convictions. “Sexy” technologies emerge all the time. The nouns are involved, but the verbs are the commitment. Recall the chicken and the pig at the ham and egg breakfast—the chicken is involved, but the pig is committed. Your vision will surround the verbs, and the vision works best when everyone knows it is a commitment. Helen Keller once noted that “there is something worse than not being able to see. That’s being able to see and having no vision.”

Another significant place where technology is important to superintendent success is how it impacts leadership, in the key areas of effective resource management and communication. In the leadership and management realm, superintendents should know a couple simple but effective apps for managing projects and staff. Just one example is Trello, a simple tool that you and your senior staff can use to track deliverables, projects, team progress, individual assignments, evaluations, and deadlines. You can easily adapt such tools to match your management style, be it Covey, Franklin, Lencioni, Collins, or some other management guru, or you can use it for 10-minute “standup” meetings done remotely every morning.

Shifting to leadership and communication, embrace a simple tool to communicate. Social media is the rage, but again, remember the nouns and the verbs. Don’t adopt a new tool every time one comes out. Blogs can still be effective. Twitter can be effective. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, autodialers and other tools can be effective. The keys to effective communication aren’t the tools (nouns).

Keys are:

  • Clarity — briefly, succinctly tell your story.
  • Predictability — regularly share what you want to say.
  • Empathy — think about who is receiving your news, and how to make it easy and thoughtful for them.
  • Integrity — if you share good news through your preferred technical medium, you better share the news when it isn’t good, too.
  • Accountability — assume everything will be fact-checked, and unless the content for fact-checking is readily accessible, your information can be shared out of context.
  • Vision — your vision must be articulated consistently and understandably.

At the end of the day, we are all solving the back end of the equation of student achievement. Keep these thoughts close at hand and technology can indeed be a great asset for superintendents seeking to solve that equation.

Our job, as superintendents, is not to know all about the nouns, but to insist that when our teachers and administrators advocate for using specific nouns (technologies), that we always tie those nouns back to the verbs that those nouns support.