The Changing Role of the School IT Director

Empower your school's CTO and give them a seat at the table

empowering school CTOs

I’m sure all of us can agree that no other role for school leaders has changed as radically in the past decade as that of the K–12 school IT director. We all recognize that technology, in all its myriad forms, has changed how we see the world, how we live our daily lives, how we are entertained, and how we learn. 

Only a few years ago, one of the technology director’s priorities was to focus on network security, which often meant locking down the network to enforce security even if that meant overshadowing instruction. It was also the IT department’s role to fix that glitchy whiteboard, the antiquated phone system, and anything else that plugged into the wall.

However, with the implementation of 1:1 programs, technology has become a major player in day-to-day curriculums in most classrooms, regardless of the grade level or the size of the school. In many schools, CTOs (Chief Technology Officers) now have a seat at the table with other educational decision-makers, and deservedly so. It is their ability and knowledge that can put technology to work, making a meaningful impact on the educational success of teachers and students in today’s digitally connected world.

What to look for in a K–12 CTO

Today this role can no longer be filled by a “tech guy/gal” who happens to be the most advanced IT person in the school or district, but it requires a more strategic view of the place technology has in today’s education. They still must know how to fix what breaks, but they also must know how and when to integrate technology into the classroom and help educators and students understand and use these new tools.

Some skills a school CTO must have often go unidentified. Today’s K–12 IT director must:

Be a continuous learner

Change must not be something they fear. They must be willing to look at their preconceived ideas regarding devices or solutions. They should be able to set aside ego and be prepared to seek advice from others, even those from outside their field. They should willingly continue their own education, including instruction and not just infrastructure. When you find a technology director who can speak to solutions beyond technology, know that they are a valuable member of your administrative team in moving education forward. A wise IT leader is now an integral part of every school’s success, and that includes instruction integration.

Be a problem solver

One significant change in the field is that tech directors no longer walk on and “fix” an issue on the operational side alone. They must be willing to sit down with their customers (administrators, teachers, support staff, and students), understand what works and doesn’t in the classroom, and apply his or her expertise to solutions and improvements in curriculum and assessment to help everyone involved be more successful. 

Be an excellent communicator

Beyond infrastructure and bandwidth, the ideal IT director is a good communicator. That includes listening to the input of others. They should have patience with veteran teachers and staff who may not be up-to-date on the latest technology changes. They also need to be able to create professional development programs for teachers and staff to provide training before rolling out new devices or processes. This often requires writing, speaking, and presenting skills. It includes being able to collaborate and understand the goals of teachers, classified staff, and administrators to provide practical technology solutions.

Be curious

An effective CTO will constantly be looking for innovative solutions, from wherever they are found. He or she will be curious about ways to use technology to solve problems, driving positive change for staff and student outcomes. Many of these solutions are found outside of educational circles. An outstanding CTO enjoys sharing these advances with others.

Be tenacious

In the K–12 educational landscape, it is extraordinarily challenging to make a case for progressive technology plans in the face of cash-strapped schools, union resentment of increased technology training for teachers, and in competition with antiquated buildings requiring capital expenditures. A CTO must be willing to make the case for leaving the status quo behind and moving forward past stagnant philosophies about student achievement or teacher capabilities and motivate others to take the same risks for the good of student outcomes.

A seat at the leadership table

K–12 school CTOs do far more today than just keep the network humming and the lights on. They can identify the technology trends that can help a school implement innovation that improves student success and accelerates teacher productivity and creativity. Their perspective from a tactical, long-term strategic approach can have a huge impact on your school’s success. 

Many schools still treat the CTO as a middling manager. But to utilize their unique perspective, they should be an executive first and a technologist second. If they are not privy to the educational challenges your school faces, how can they deliver successful solutions? How can they solve problems or make improvements when they don’t know what issues exist or what challenges the solutions should address?

Every department in K–12 education is leveraging technology—from facilities management to fiscal accountability. Schools should utilize technology’s value and contributions, and a good CTO certainly deserves a seat at the executive table to provide that perspective.

From interviews I’ve had with K–12 CTOs, one of their most common complaints is not being treated as professionals by directors or superintendents. Deadlines are often unrealistic (“I want this done now!”) when a bit of prior planning on the part of the supervisor is the real issue. Crisis mode being the standard mode of operation creates stress that is entirely avoidable. When school administrators see the CTO as a partner in education instead of a tactical grunt, everyone wins. Especially the students and staff. Are your school leaders treating your IT professionals with the respect they deserve, considering their time and goals?

What your CTO should NOT be managing

Your website involves technology. But then so does the refrigerator in the teacher’s lounge. However, neither require the expertise of your IT professionals.

Yet, in many schools, particularly in small and mid-size schools, website management and its associated communication strategy is laid at the feet of the IT team. Doesn’t it stand to reason, since IT manages the network, the phones, the computers, the email, and maybe even know some coding that they would also manage the school’s website?

The answer is quite simple. Your school website is a marketing and communications tool. It exists to facilitate effective, engaging, and up-to-date information. It exists to appeal to a specifically targeted audience. One of its goals is to attract, educate, and convert your website visitors. Why in the name of all that is sane would anyone expect IT professionals to also be trained in the areas of marketing, communications, public relations, copywriting, design, accessibility, and a myriad of other skill sets not included in CIO or CTO educational curriculum? 

IT professionals are trained in a wide variety of technical areas. Those skill sets dramatically differ from those with a marketing and communications focus. Just ask them. They will agree. Don’t expect them to manage your school brand consistency issues, style guide, target audience and persona goals, intuitive navigational structure, SEO or keyword strategy, or integrate your social media engagement with your school website marketing efforts. Just don’t!

When you charge your CTO and his or her team with the website design and management, over time the website goals of marketing, PR, and communications will take a back seat to technical (or expediency) decisions. It is unlikely that your IT team has any training in any of these specialized fields. 

Don’t set your IT professionals up for failure by expecting them to be skilled in areas where they have no training (and likely, no interest). Put the right skill sets on the job, and let the IT professionals use their training and knowledge to implement technology that will create exceptional student outcomes.

Steps to CTO leadership roles

The position of CTO in K–12 schools is on the rise. In a 2017 study by the Consortium of School Networking (CoSN), there was a 10% increase in the number of senior-level technology titles in just the past five years. 

How do you create and utilize this strategic leadership role? It’s relatively simple. 

  • Hire for the skills mentioned earlier in this article (in addition to the technical skills, of course). 
  • Provide clear expectations from the outset about the strategic leadership recommendations you expect from them and the long-term goals tied to data. 
  • Encourage, or maybe require, that they listen well and understand the challenges and needs of each department and particularly the needs of the students and teachers. 
  • Budget for conferences and networking opportunities for this individual so they can see what works well in other areas (not just in schools) and create a network of experts. 
  • Treat them like the C-level professionals they are.

If your current CTO isn’t fulfilling his or her role at this level, provide them with encouragement and training to get them there, and set professional development expectations that will empower them to rise to this level. Often just setting expectations and providing the freedom to achieve these higher goals will be enough to create amazing outcomes. There is also an excellent article by Marc Prensky for some more ideas about what a school CTO should know.

Whether it is integrating technology into classroom learning or using it to increase hiring efficiency and professional development processes, your IT directors can help you get better outcomes for less time and money. When we all work smarter, our students benefit. When our students succeed, so goes the nation. 

Allow your CTO to help your school lead the way in moving you from legacy, or sometimes even manual, processes to more efficient digital methods that will benefit both your staff and your students. Don’t let technology decisions get pushed to the backburner, especially when it comes to implementing technology strategies that will affect student performance.

In summary…

What it boils down to is that when you equip schools with the right technology and with a CTO who is knowledgeable about what is available to help meet your school’s particular goals, you help all of your stakeholders (students, teachers, administrators, classified staff) enjoy better outcomes at lowers costs. 

Utilize your IT Director or CTO for strategic planning. Empower them to use their technical expertise to help students and teachers achieve. Don’t tie them to tasks they do not have the interest or expertise for (like communications, PR, and marketing, which includes your website management). Get communications folks for that. If you don’t have communications people, you can always contact School Webmasters. We’ve got your back! Call Jim at 888.750.4556 and learn how we can free your IT Director to do the job they are trained to do.

Bonnie Leedy, CEO, School Webmasters, LLC.