Five to Seven Years

Twenty-one years is a long time.

I wore a pager to the interview because we were expecting a baby any time. That child is entering her senior year of college this fall. I was asked if I knew Visual Basic. “Sure,” I said. How hard could it be? I had programmed in a dozen languages by that point, and I was pretty sure adding another one wouldn’t be that hard. I was hired as a Visual Basic teacher who also oversaw all aspects of technology for the high school in my spare time.

My first ID badge, 1999

I needed a computer, and was told to pick one out. It was a 300 mhz Pentium 2 with 32 mb ram and a 500 mb hard drive, running Windows 98. I used it for years, and then repurposed it as a server. Among other things, it hosted the district’s first Moodle and WordPress servers before we finally recycled it. Since then, I’ve had three other desktops and six laptops. My current laptop is the oldest and slowest on the administrative team.

When I started, I inherited a new server that handled logins, network drives, and the district web site. It was the first time students and staff members had to log in to computers, and it was a brand new concept that annoyed a lot of people. We didn’t have any support agreements, and when things broke, it was up to me and Alta Vista to figure out what was wrong and fix it. There’s nothing better for developing problem solving skills than having a problem that you’re responsible for solving and people relying on you to solve it quickly.

I taught the Visual Basic class in a computer lab that had IBM PS/2 computers in it. We replaced that lab in 2000, and then again in 2006, 2012, and 2019. That’s five sets of computers in that room.

That first year, the goal of the technology team at the high school was to find a way to get a computer in every classroom. At that point, there were a few computer labs, and 10 computers in the media center, and computers in the department offices. We didn’t have computers in every classroom until 2002, and the high school was the last building to achieve that goal.

Instructionally, all efforts were focused on tools. We hadn’t figured out yet that technology is a catalyst for pedagogical change. We didn’t know that we could leverage technology to better differentiate and focus on higher order thinking skills and improve engagement and relevance. We were mainly focused on helping teachers use technology as a resource for preparing instruction. We knew technology was going to change the world. We just weren’t sure how.

I expected to stay for 5-7 years. In previous jobs, I realized that the person in charge of technology is really only effective for that long. Education is glacially slow at adapting, and technology is painfully quick. Those forces rubbing against each other cause a lot of friction, and the person straddling those two worlds gets burned out quickly. I saw technology directors craft a vision and set goals. But the goals took too long to accomplish. They were so laser-focused on meeting the goals that they didn’t realize that the goals were no longer relevant. I didn’t want to be that guy. So I gave myself seven years, max.

Six years in, I discovered personal learning networks. In late 2005, I started listening to podcasts and blogging. Somehow, I got roped into EdTechTalk, which led to that crazy Africa trip. I started doing conference presentations. I was bullied into starting a Twitter account. I engaged in an online community of practitioners who were doing amazing things. They were asking the same questions I was asking. They were struggling with the same challenges. They were finding successes and setbacks and I was learning from them. I found I had some things to share, too. I started seeing learning in a different way, and it changed my view of how technology can support the schools we need. I was renewed, refreshed, recharged. My participation in these communities bought me another 5-7 years.

In the early 2010s, I was losing momentum again. The online conversations weren’t as groundbreaking as they once were. More people were coming online and saying the same things. I got tired of people comparing schools to 19th century factories. I grew bored with the artificial STEM vs STEAM vs STREAM arguments that amount to little more than arts and humanities advocates acting on their insecurities every time someone suggests that math and science might be important. I checked out of the online world and focused more on what we were doing locally.

And we were doing a lot. Computers had become affordable. Thanks largely to the industry disruption caused by the otherwise deplorable OLPC project, we could start putting computers into the hands of all children. This started as classroom carts introduced with curriculum adoptions. Within a few years, it made more sense to transition the technology from “places to people” and the 1:1 program was born. To go along with this, we opened the Center for Innovation and Technology in Education in 2014. This space physically embodies the intersection of learning and technology, and houses both the technology department and the instructional coaches. It has space for big idea conversations and more traditional professional development. It’s flexible and adaptive. It’s perhaps not quite as innovative as we had originally imagined, but it’s a place where we can focus on the craft of teaching and learning.

But now, it’s been another seven years. I’m running out of steam. And I’m realizing that I’m running out of years, too. I’ve just finished 27 years in education. I probably have 10 more. If I’m going to do something different, now’s the time to make the change.

The school will be fine. Some things aren’t going to be the same. There will be problems. But those will be an opportunity for someone else to become a problem solver. I’ll be the bad guy for a year or so. All of the problems tend to get blamed on the person who most recently left. There have already been some significant efforts to discredit my work and set the stage for the blame that’s coming. That’s fine. It doesn’t really matter that much.

I’ll miss some of the people. There are some great professionals in this school district that I deeply respect and admire. It’s been a privilege working with them. It’s unlikely that I will stay anywhere else as long as I’ve been here. So in some ways, this will always bee home.

But now, I have new challenges to face, new problems to solve. And 5-7 more years.

Author: John Schinker

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