EDTECH: Many IT leadership roles require a technical background to ascend the ranks. What did you do before coming to IT, and how does that inform your work today?
COWAN: When I was a teacher, I had a principal who mentored me, saw my leadership ability and helped me decide to go back to school for an administrative certification for educational technology and leadership. That was a pivotal piece.
The other piece is that while teaching, I had an opportunity to become a technology applications teacher and then an educational technology trainer; those skills helped me see the district as a whole. Understanding how campuses work, how to see goals and visions, and how technology is ingrained in the culture of a district were all critical for me to succeed in an IT leadership role.
GOSCH: I started out as a high school technology teacher. I taught more technical courses such as networking and telecom, but the technical side is not what I’d call my area of expertise. My strength is in the application of IT to curriculum and instruction. My current job encompasses both areas, and that requires a lot of trust between myself and my team. I don’t pretend to be the expert. I believe when you project yourself as the expert, you lose the collaboration of the team, and the efficiency of the department declines.
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HESTON: I came up through IT, starting in the private sector and then turning toward more impact-oriented roles. My experience as a project manager for technology projects is especially valuable in my current job; I rely on the nitty-gritty technology knowledge I gained when I dug into coding and testing.
As you rise up, you can use that knowledge to relate to your employees and make sure you’re asking all the right questions. If you’re troubleshooting an issue with an employee, you can support them by keeping the user perspective in mind every step of the way.
NGUYEN: I started out as a classroom teacher and became an educational technology coach/specialist supporting teachers before my current role. Here in Poway Unified, our IT department and our ed tech department work very closely together on all programs and initiatives. With my teaching background, I offer another level of support and perspective when implementing a new project or expanding purposeful technology integration.
It’s important to work hand in hand with IT to best support teachers in creating cultures and conditions to empower world-class learners.
EDTECH: Tell us about a recent career challenge and how you handled it. How did you use it as an opportunity to lead change in your district?
COWAN: I was serving as CTO at Duncanville [Texas] ISD prior to March 2020, and we’d worked hard to set up a device refresh program and outline a multiyear plan to implement a one-to-one device program for the first time. After months of planning, our leadership team was close to implementing it; then the pandemic happened, and schools everywhere rushed to purchase equipment.
Every department was competing for financial resources, but since I had invested time up front in building my team, researching the tech and creating a detailed budget for the device refresh plan, district leadership prioritized it, and we were able to work together to put new processes in place in the midst of the crisis. Even though it was a challenge, it brought our team together.
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GOSCH: I’d been in my role less than 30 days when our district was hit with a ransomware attack that led to a total network takedown. Managing the situation successfully came down to building trust and collaboration between staff and supervisors. I took over a technology department that previously operated as three separate entities with no superior officer to bring the team together. In working with the ransomware situation, I gathered individuals, not based on their titles, but based on who had the skills to successfully overcome the situation.
Taking this approach demonstrated to everyone that each team member was key to solving the problem, even if their role shifted to meet the need. Even my role went from manager to “doer;” for example, I showed I was there to collaborate by testing Wi-Fi hotspots and walking campuses alongside technicians. It’s about doing whatever it takes to get the job done. It’s one thing for a leader to say, “I’m here to support you,” but following through on that promise by taking action is extremely important, especially in a field dominated by men.
HESTON: When the pandemic started and schools closed, our team led the work to measure student engagement in the absence of a classroom experience. We stood up a new learning management system within a month, and to use it effectively, we had to develop new metrics to help us understand if chronically absent students were in trouble. Developing those metrics caused us to break down the question of what learning is in a thoughtful way.
The data, as well as tapping into our teachers’ perspectives, helped us target outreach to families during spring and summer 2020. It was a lot of door-knocking and phone calls to connect students to summer learning and just make them feel connected to their school community.
NGUYEN: I’m very proud of the work our district has done to reimagine our professional learning for all staff. When we couldn’t meet in person during the pandemic, we had to be innovative in how we provided professional learning for our teachers. By leveraging technology, we were able to offer voice and choice learning options for teachers, with self-paced options or prerecorded sessions. This enables us to meet teachers where they are, in the ways they need it the most.
EDTECH: How can schools recruit and support more women to advance in IT leadership roles? And what advice do you have for those women who are interested in a career transition?
COWAN: The phrase “you should aspire to be a chief technology officer” is typically not something you hear in education circles with regard to women of color or women in general. But having women in IT roles to show that it can be done and even encouraging others to get into these fields is a big deal. Mentoring current educators is essential, as is raising awareness of the opportunities that exist in IT for women.
GOSCH: I am a huge proponent of growing people from within districts. We should identify those people who are what I call the torchbearers — teachers who are enthusiastic about trying new things with technology. They’re the ones who carry the message for you that IT positions are attainable for educators. But leaders have to build systemic processes to support growth in the field through training and certification.
HESTON: My advice is, don’t be afraid to ask IT experts those “silly” questions; then listen deeply to what they say and channel that information into your next job. If you embrace the strengths and limits of your own expertise, you’ll show up with authenticity, and that will help you form collaborative, respectful relationships with new IT colleagues.
NGUYEN: Everyone has things to share that can make an impact on others. If you are interested in getting ahead in this field and you’re passionate about what you’re doing, then go for it. It’s important to have perspectives from diverse backgrounds and cultures so that we can make a greater impact for children.
READ MORE: K–12 CTO pushes for digital equity in leadership and learning.