Speaking Out: Cross Over the Digital Divide

By Andre Benito Mountain Principal, March/April 2017

By Andre Benito Mountain
Principal, March/April 2017

The Barrier Islands along the Georgia coast are a well-kept secret. The islands were a traditional vacation destination for our family in the 1980s. We’d pack up the car on a Saturday and spend days basking in the sun and sand along the coast. Whether it was a trip to Tybee, St. Simons, or our favorite, Jekyll Island, there was always the uncomfortable and inevitable moment of crossing a bridge as we left the mainland and entered the island. My mother would cringe and cover her eyes, my father would try to hold in his laughter, and my brother and I would brace ourselves in the back seat for the chills we’d experience as we’d cross the bridge. It was an exhilarating and terrifying moment that marked our arrival. There are those, though, whose fear of crossing bridges prevents them from even venturing into new territories. Crossing over from the familiar to the unknown is always uncomfortable.

As a school leader, I’m tasked with helping staff transition from old ways of doing business to more forward-looking ways of collaborating and planning for instruction that leverages technology to enhance student learning. For some educators, navigating the digital divide is as challenging and intimidating as crossing those suspension bridges onto the islands of my youth. I’ve seen classmates and relatives whose fear of crossing a bridge in their own professional life has led to a paralysis of potential, leaving them to watch from the shores of the familiar as the world moves on.

Bridges in the Classroom

Bridges in life lead us out of one experience or phase and into another. Those bridges in life could involve exploring new ways to present a familiar concept, evaluate teachers, or collaborate across grade levels. Crossing those bridges requires risk-taking, courage, and a resolve to be undeterred by one’s own fears. Many of us have a fear of bridges that confines us to the mainland of our own lives where we remain around the same people, the same ideas, and the same experiences.

My work as a school administrator with Tacoma Public Schools has put me in the midst of teachers who are gradually reshaping the way they collaborate. This year, our school has decided that all teams will share their agendas and team meeting notes via Microsoft OneDrive. Our district’s technology department completed a needs assessment to determine how to best develop a professional development session to support this shift. There was great interest in making the work more efficient, so teachers were excited about moving toward a more digitally collaborative workplace. We are also enhancing our collective knowledge of how to integrate Microsoft Outlook into our everyday work more pervasively by ensuring that every staff member is proficient in scheduling, categorizing, inviting attendees, and accessing a shared calendar of schoolwide events.

In Washington State, the Smarter Balanced Assessment is administered to assess student proficiency in mathematics and reading. The test is administered online, and one of the critical factors that influences students’ proficiency on the assessment is their familiarity with navigating a computer. This is especially true for the portions of the test that require them to construct sentences or paragraphs in a digital platform.

The opportunity gap that exists between students who have access to computers at home for academic purposes and those who do not affects student outcomes considerably. Students who lack those experiences enter the testing environment with an added dimension of anxiety that inevitably affects their ability to apply the skills they have acquired during the course of the school year. In a recent meeting, teachers on a fifth-grade team discussed the possibility of students blogging as a way to help them develop as writers, increase their keyboarding skills, and document their growth as writers over the course of the year. Educators are charged with helping close this opportunity gap by ensuring that all students have access to technology and the meaningful experiences technology brings that will help them be successful beyond the classroom.

Bridges in Leadership

A role of leadership is to guide and foster innovation. That requires leaders not only to remain informed by engaging the steady stream of information from professional literature, conferences, and professional development, but also learn to navigate social media feeds on emerging trends. Leaders also have to help teachers balance the use of technology with authentic interaction and face-to-face communication with colleagues and parents.

There are moments when efficiency must take a back seat to authentic connection to strengthen the infrastructure of the school community. For example, an auto-call to invite parents to an event might be efficient, but a call from a teacher is a more personal way to extend the invitation. The idea of the printed weekly classroom newsletter is being replaced by more visually engaging and dynamic formats such as Sway, which is a digital storytelling app in the Microsoft Office Suite that also allows teachers to integrate photos, videos, and important information for parents.

Some leaders struggle with crossing the bridge between being a manager of the nuts and bolts of an organization and being a visionary and inspirational leader. I’ve encountered leaders whose fear of crossing the bridge into the digital age has hindered their effectiveness in an era of cloud computing, mail merging, and social media. They can clearly see the beauty of the destination in the distance, but are unwilling to go through the uncomfortable process of changing their practices and the risk of not being in their comfort zone is too great to bear. For other leaders, the bridge to cross is one of developing broader and deeper relationships with staff beyond those who share your core values. As we rethink our own authority as leaders, we open the door for learning from our staff about the new ways of engaging technology and how to leverage those tools to increase student learning.

Teachers and leaders who bring their communities into a new phase of harnessing a district’s technological resources are pioneers engaging in the right work at the right time. Aligning people with resources and the right opportunities is the synergy that nurtures innovation in schools. Perhaps you are entering a season where you are seeing new bridges in the distance. It takes courage and resolve, but the outcomes for the students who will be the beneficiaries of this work compels us to overcome our collective fear of bridges.

Andre Benito Mountain is an assistant principal in the Tacoma Public School system in Washington.

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