What makes a great leader in education and technology these days? As I travel down the road of my professional career, I am constantly asking myself this question. Who out there is someone I can turn to, emulate? If I want to be considered a great leader, then what qualities should I possess? Is it knowledge of content? Should I be proficient in all use of technology hardware and software? Should I have a vision for the future and lead on the edge? What will it take for people to look at me and say, “He made a difference”?
Having started my teaching career in a very poor, inner-city school where over 85 percent of the students live at or below poverty level and just as many are Hispanic and speak English as their second language, I have learned a lot. Sixteen years ago, I was placed for my student teaching in a state-of-the-art, brand-new school where urban-trained educators out of Boston College such as myself were recruited and encouraged to come and stay in Lawrence, Mass.
During my student teaching, one of the most transformative things in my career happened to me. I took part in a study with Harvard Smithsonian Institute with Annenberg Media. I was asked to take a look at a single aspect of the curriculum that I was teaching, to find out what I didn’t like about it—and change it. Part of the curriculum that was given to me was for Science. It was pathetic. The whole curriculum was based on big discs called “Windows on Science”—the teacher was expected to follow a script from a book and to share science with their students through watching a video.
To make a long story short, I wanted to bring the fun, excitement and inquiry back to Science. I actually wanted to pull some of the technology out of it. I wanted students to get their hands on learning. In any case, the best part of the study was that—for the next two years—I was asked to be reflective on my teaching style. During the study, I was asked to regularly watch a video of myself after my teaching and to comment on it. I was asked to reflect on my teaching style. After it was over, the following year Annenberg came back and asked me to reflect on how the study had changed my teaching. To this day, I still do just that. I reflect. I look back on what I have done, and I ask myself, How can I do it better? A great leader will do just that, reflect.
My first few years of teaching, I was given six computers plus a teacher computer—a laptop. Though I had more access to technology than most of my peers did, the problem was that most teachers at this point had no idea what to do with it. Yes, my school was “cutting edge”—we had spent more in our K-8 school than most other schools. We had a built-in television studio, access to loads of software and plenty of opportunity to integrate technology in learning—but most of us had no idea where to start
At the time, I was given access to the whole Lotus suite that existed then. It was much like the Microsoft Office we know today, only made by IBM and Lotus. I had no idea how to use half of it, but I told myself that was no excuse. Near that time, I joined a group that helped transform our school from a K-8 school with over 1,300 students into a school-within-a-school. We were going to make our school one of the first middle schools in the district. During that summer, while planning for this change, I taught myself how to create and work with a database. I had never seen one before, but we needed a custom schedule for our students that first year and I wasn’t going to shy away from a challenge due to lack of knowledge; fear of not knowing was not going to stop me from finding out.
I started teaching myself the software, staying up countless hours at night—and I figured things out. I started having my students do project-based learning while using technology. They were presenting, making slide shows—they were integrating. I helped launch the television studio within our school and our students were producing a live broadcast daily. I was not going to be intimidated. I had received next to no formal training, but I knew this would engage my students. In my eyes, a great leader doesn’t shy away from a challenge. Instead, they face it head on and they do not back down. To this day, I still love to learn from those leaders who are blazing the trail. I know that they may make mistakes along the line, but mistakes are what help us grow.
A few years later, I was transferred to one of the oldest schools in my district, a marked contrast to where I had spent the first five or six years of my teaching career. I found myself in borrowed space while waiting for my transition to another, brand-new school. Man, was I humbled. I used to complain about things where I worked, but these people had nothing. They were teaching in a school building over 100 years old and most of what was in it looked like it had not been updated in nearly as long. In my room alone, the wiring was so poor that the fuse would blow about every 13 minutes. Things were changing, but not fast enough for me. Nonetheless, what I learned was immeasurable. I learned to be humble. I realized that there were many teachers out there operating just like these teachers, and had been for years. They didn’t have the tools they needed to help them succeed. If they did, those tools were purchased with their own money. I realized that great teachers know when they may not have everything they need, but can still manage to inspire their students, other teachers and people around them. We as educators can still make a difference in the lives of many, even when we have so little. I learned the meaning of the old saying, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Even where most see failure, great leaders still see potential.
The next year, I was transferred to another state-of-the-art school within my district. Here is where I started to think I had reached my peak. Everything I could ever need or want was given to me. Once again, I was given a brand new television studio and the gift of being able to launch it and mold it into what I thought was best for our school. Every classroom had four PCs plus a teacher computer. Every classroom had a large-screen TV. My room had started as a wireless laptop lab, but was quickly transformed into a desktop PC lab and the laptops were placed in carts for teacher use.
Within a few years, we were given additional hardware such as business-quality video conferencing equipment and software such as Discovery Education streaming content, as well as many other resources. Problem was, there was lack of vision. Many people didn’t know best on how to use and integrate the equipment. Little if any training existed. It was here I learned that, if I was going to learn any of it, I would (once again) need to teach myself.
I had so many tools at my disposal; I started to figure things out. Every teacher computer had a video card installed. With this card, I figured out I could connect the computer in the classroom to the TV hanging on the wall, so I simply went around and started connecting computers. I reached out to others in the district and I sought help as needed. Boy, I thought I was the cat’s meow. I was giving up my planning period and I training others in my building. I was transforming my school and I thought I knew everything a great technology teacher needed to know, but I was also starting to feel like I was no longer being challenged any longer, and this began to worry me. I knew from back when I first started teaching that a great leader is one who knows that a day where nothing new is learned is a wasted day. I was not ready to start wasting days. I had too long to go.
One day, I reached out to a career counselor to give me guidance. I knew there was so much more potential for me to become a great leader, but I didn’t know where to start. I had to learn much more if I was to become that great leader I wanted to be. What happened there changed my life.
Of the many things she taught me that I found useless as an educator, one thing in particular stuck: she told me that I needed to get myself on “LinkedIn”. Little did she know at the time how powerful professional networks could be. I joined and started looking to others for guidance. I had a look at what other great leaders in the instructional technology world were up to. Steve Hargadon was one of the many who turned me on to the power of professional networks. It was then that I learned there was so much more I could learn from others. It was here that I found my passion to share with others what I was learning, too. A great leader, you see, doesn’t live on an island. If he wants to truly lead, he has to realize that his true strength is in helping others realize their potential by being that support in times of need. A great leader realizes just how small our world truly is and helps others realize the impact we all can have on each other.
So, here I am tonight—still contemplating the questions: How can I become a great leader? What qualities does a great leader in educational technology truly possess? What do I have to do to help others reach their potential and give them the training and skills they truly need so to become just that leader? How do I truly support them and in turn become that great leader?
One thing is for sure, a quote I learned back in my Eagle Scout days still rings true in me today. It’s from an unknown source—undoubtedly some great leader (sometimes Ralph Waldo Emerson is given credit for it), and it goes like this: Do not go where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.
Greg Limperis, now Supervisor of Instructional Technology for his district, was recently the Middle School Technology Facilitator in Lawrence, Mass., and founded the very popular Technology Integration in Education professional learning network, reaching thousands of educators worldwide. He has shared with others what he knows and they have joined him in sharing their insights as well. Join them in bringing about change using your 21st-century skills.