Specialization...aka, "I'm not a handyman"

Can schools break the one-techie-to-rule-them-all mentality?

As I crouched in my well Sunday afternoon, looking nervously at the well head assembly that was stuck a foot below where I could reach it and was precariously missing three of the nuts that held it together, I was tempted to admit defeat. Three days and a bit of Googling before, I didn't even know what a well head assembly was. However, after getting fleeced by a plumber earlier this summer, I swore that I would fix a clogged jet assembly myself.

My wife will gladly tell you that I'm not terribly handy. I can do average homeowner stuff, but I was clearly out of my depth here. Googling "clogged jet assembly 2 pipe system" does not a plumber or a well specialist make. I may not be handy, but I am a deadly combination of cheap and inclined to take risks. So along about 4:00 Sunday afternoon, I broke out a saw, sliced the two horizontal pipes you see in this picture, and started hauling up the jet assembly for cleaning. The jet assembly, by the way, is where the two pipes join in the picture at the left. It's prone to clogging, especially when water levels get low and iron (read "rust") levels get high as they have during this very dry summer.

So I called a guy I found under "wells" in the phone book.  I would have used my Droid, but my hands were caked with rust and mud and the look in my Luddite wife's eyes when she handed me the Yellow Pages brooked no argument. You know what he told me? "Geez, buddy, you're screwed."

OK. Like I said, not handy, but determined. My oldest son suggested we give it one more try and I put on my engineer's hat. A mini crowbar, a string of expletives that rival anything ever uttered by Jack Nicholson (the best swearer in Hollywood, in my opinion), and a Herculean effort by my two oldest sons later and it was out. I was not screwed, although a few hours later, it became quite clear that we'd be stealing water from the neighbors until I could buy some parts Monday morning.

The point, of course, is that hard work and determination will get you a long ways indeed. However, they tend to be mediocre substitutes for genuine expertise. Just one more Joe Homeowner story and then I promise I'll bring this back to Ed Tech. The first house I ever owned needed some extra lights in the basement. Seems simple enough, right? I'd aced physics in college, so I knew all about moving electrons. There wasn't even a ceiling to get in the way. To this day I don't know how I managed to electrify everything with a metal surface in the basement, nor did the electrician I hired to clean up my mess.

Next: Back to the Ed Tech »

The new technology director my old school district hired to replace me is very different from me. I was on the search committee -- that wasn't an accident. Whereas my focus was always on the tech, building infrastructure, and providing students and teachers with whatever tools I could, she is completely focused on education with a very clear vision for the way students should use, learn, and assimilate technology in the classroom. In an ideal world, we would have been a crack team, with me focusing on geeky stuff and extracting the very last penny of value from the tech that we had while she went to town on professional development, coaching, and curriculum around technology.

This isn't an ideal world, though, and budget constraints dictated that there would never be more than a single, high-level technology person in the district. Unfortunately, neither of us ever (or probably will ever in the average school district) get to really play to our strengths or if we do, it will be to the detriment of other areas of the job. I rolled out some great systems during my tenure in the district, but never spent enough time in the classroom, modeling best practices in the use of technology-enriched learning, for example.

Everyone (students, staff, parents, and faculty) are best served by some degree of specialization. This doesn't have to mean that every district needs a technology integration specialist and a chief geek (or whatever you want to call them). Many larger districts have plenty of geeks and curriculum-oriented staff to ensure that all technology needs are being met. Many do not. Yet they can still use technology richly and well by enabling and empowering staff to specialize wherever they can.

Teachers and administrators can take on many of the geek squad tasks if they are well-suited for them. In the same way, staff with an understanding of curriculum or a passion for the use of SMART Boards or interactive response systems to really improve instruction can take the lead there. The key is knowledge management and shepherding the various efforts and initiatives that arise from the empowerment of teachers. This, in many ways, can and should fall to principals and other educational leaders.

I'm not advocating for the elimination of dedicated technical staff. On the contrary, I'm advocating for the technological empowerment of all staff so that they are free to pursue their specialties and let students benefit from them. Otherwise, too many will wind up in a metaphorical well, wondering just how they're going to solve the next problem.

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