Thursday, November 28, 2013

Ahh, yes, the holiday season is upon us. The time of the year where my kids argue relentlessly about whose turn it is to hold the iPad in back of the car, my in-laws debate all topics ranging from politics to school reform, and my family reflects on the great mysteries of life - like why our pre-lit Christmas tree refuses to light. Also, between my threats to pull the car over, my political and school reform rants, and my wrestling with christmas lights, I do often reflect on my blessings. I think about how lucky I am to have my health, my home, Tonya and the girls, and - yes - my job. I realize that it’s not just the work itself that I find rewarding. I find great joy in being surrounded with the wonderful people that I get to work with every day: in my office, the administrative team, the teachers, staff, and students, but certainly last by not least the technology department that I have the pleasure of leading.

So, before the tryptophan begins to numb my body, I want to share 3 qualities of the technology department that make me thankful. In doing so, I also hope to initiate thought and conversation about what qualities in general makes a good IT department.

#1 -- I am thankful that the tech staff cares.

If you met any of the Danville technology staff members, they may not initially strike you initially as the warm and cuddly type. And, I can't say that we sit around watching Lifetime TV until we break into sentimental sobs. But, spend any time at all with any of them, and there will be no mistaking their caring hearts and genuine pride in the work they do. They take it personal when network performance isn't at it's peak, when there is a delay in getting an iPad updated, when there is glitch with our SIS, or a training doesn't go as well as planned. And, it's really not a carrot or stick that keeps them doing their very best day in and day out. Certainly, our teachers kind and appreciative nature makes it easier to keep a bounce in their steps. But even on the bad days, they are constantly thinking and working to make things better for our students and staff.

#2 -- I am thankful that the tech staff is curious.

I think the secret of being "good with technology" is being curious about technology. No one ever knows all there is to know about technology. If anyone even pretends that they do, I certainly don't want that person on my team. Although I am generally a fan of technical certifications and formal education, my tech staff excels because they are always hungry to learn something new and they continue to sharpen their skills at becoming better learners on a daily basis. So, when a new, unpredictable problem arises, they don't just sit back scratching their heads saying that's never happened. They turn to Google, online tech forums, and professional colleagues to learn more about the issue and then quickly dissect, isolate, and ultimately resolve the problem. Even when we face the tough sporadic, random problem that is hard to isolate, their curiosity keeps them persistently chipping away at the problem until they do find the answer. Being curious just doesn't strengthen their ability to fix what is broken; it keeps them searching for new and better ways to be more efficient in their processes and more effective in serving our stakeholders.

#3 -- I am thankful that they are different.
During Halloween one of my tech staff came to work completely dressed in a pink, furry, bunny suit. Another tech staff member had to look away at the mere sight of seeing the other person in the suit. One member of the staff will perfect a spreadsheet - taking the time to add nice soft color schemes and various font styles to make it easier to read. Another would be content to share the same report in plain text in notepad. One challenges me to be less controlling of what technology teachers and students can bring to school. Another challenges me to be more controlling to limit problems and liabilities. These different personalities, perspectives, and opinions make our team stronger. They disagree with me and each other without being disagreeable. So, in the end, I find us all laughing with (not at) the picture of a big pink bunny working on iPads, while equally laughing with the person that must turn his head away from the site. We can vigorously discuss how to handle a situation and quickly hear the pros, cons, challenges, and opportunities that will surface depending on the path we take. This open honesty better prepares us regardless of the path that is chosen. And in the end, even if the conversations become animated, I am confident that we will still go enjoy lunch together and the team will stick together to make the best of the chosen path.

So, Danville Tech Team, thank you for all that you do! Thank you for caring, for being curious, and - yes - for being different. I appreciate your amazing talent and effort that you regularly give each day. So, in honor of the hard work that you and all the good techs out there that serve others with compassion and competence, I decree the last Thursday of the month in November a national holiday.

Happy Techsgiving Day!

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

I came home the other day to an all too familiar scene: Anna Mae and Lizzie had several papers scattered across the floor of the living room. Another “project” in progress. I could only speculate what the activity was that they might have concocted this time. A game of hopscotch? A paper snow storm? A new obstacle course? Perhaps tracings of some princesses whose names I still have failed to learn? Instead what I found was something unexpected - something I had never seen them create before: Halloween drawings--and they were actually good.

There was a drawing of a cute little cat, a drawing of a witch on a broom, a skull and crossbones, a scary ghost, a happy ghost, a flummoxed ghost (ok that’s my interpretation), a skeleton, two drawings of jack o’ lanterns - one accented with a cat lurking in the background. I asked who drew the pictures. When asking the question, I wasn’t just being goofy (this time). I really was genuinely curious.

Anna Mae quickly responded with a proud grin, “I did.”

Although I wish this was the story of a young, emerging, modern-day daVinci, it’s not. It’s really a personal reminder to me of some simple art supplies of third graders: paper, pencil, crayons, markers…

...and YouTube.

You see, after seeing the drawings, I went through a series of questions trying to better understand how this “talent” could have possibly manifested itself. She said she didn’t trace them and that no one helped her draw them - or as she put it, “Well, I didn’t get help from a ‘real’ person.” And then she unveiled her secret weapons: Google and YouTube. She explained in great detail that she needed some Halloween decorations for her bedroom and wanted to have some good drawings. So, she searched “how to draw halloween pictures” and apparently found a series of YouTube videos, picked ones that were within her ability and ones that she thought would go well in her room and started drawing. In about 45 minutes she had 11 drawings complete.

I remember as a young child breaking open a fresh little plastic container of watercolor paints on our kitchen table draped in newspaper -- positioning myself so I was in the line of sight with the TV off in the corner of the living room. My “art instructor” at that time, was the classic Bob Ross, painting a “happy little tree” on PBS. Bob, made it look so simple. Dip a little green, a little brown, a little dab here, a slight swirl with the brush, feather it out a bit, and - voila! - a gorgeous tree would emerge on his canvas. And after trying to mimic his exact move, I would look down at my paper to always find…. a mossy splattering of random circles that looked more like a swamp than a tree.

So, I had Bob Ross in my day. Anna Mae and Lizzie have YouTube. Although there was something magical in the way that Bob made a beautiful tree appear in plain site from splattered paint, I’m only guessing that others may have also struggled to follow along with his lessons. Anna Mae and Lizzie, on the other hand, simply tap their fingers on a screen next to them to pick from thousands of videos (including Bob Ross by the way) to get the artist they like with the drawing they want at the level they need when they need it.

But, in all that is different, something remains unchanged. You see, the real secret behind Anna Mae’s Halloween drawings isn’t YouTube; it’s her interest in drawing and art in general that was cultivated by “real” people in her life, especially her art teachers. Anna Mae beams when she talks about the time she made stain-glassed ornaments last school year with Ms. Pourcho and was so proud of the fact that she was recognized by Mrs. Albright as the “Grade 3 Outstanding Art Student of the Day.” For me personally, my “difference-maker” was my high school art teacher Mrs. Berry, a free-thinking spirit that somehow convinced me, a left-brained, concrete-sequential, sports-nut to end up taking four years of art in high school.

Although my trees still look like swamps, Mrs. Berry gave me an appreciation of art and genuine love of the creative process. So, although we live in a time when our students have access to tools for “do-it-yourself learning”, the next daVinci will not be because of YouTube. It will be because of teachers like Ms. Pourcho, Mrs. Albright, and Mrs. Berry that continue to cultivate student current talents and awaken new ones.
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