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To Be Tech Leader, Is 'Savvy' Necessary?

At an afternoon panel here at the International Society for Technology in Education's annual conference in Philadelphia today, five principals gathered to address, as the session was titled, "What does it mean to be a tech-savvy principal?"

After hearing them speak, I'm not sure the word "savvy" should come into the equation.

That's not to insult any of the five folks who spoke. It was a young, energetic, and very articulate bunch who related their own trials and tribulations when trying to encourage their staffs to leap into new technology initiatives.

But I kept hearing the same message from the group, who all contribute to the Connected Principals blog: You don't need to be the biggest tech geek in the world to lead technology initiatives at your school; you just need to be willing to learn.

"The first thing they need to do is reach out to somebody," said Lyn Hilt, principal of Brecknock Elementary School about an hour west of here in eastern Lancaster County (Pa.). "Get yourself connected. Ask questions. And don't be afraid that your questions will be irrelevant."

Hilt isn't exactly a technological dunce. For example, she related a story of taking to Twitter in search of ideas to update her district's acceptable use policy for mobile devices. Within half an hour, she said, someone had sent her a model policy that she was able to tweak for her district's specific needs.

Hilt and her colleagues on the panel stressed the importance of modeling any new technology for their staff. But that doesn't mean they have to be experts when they demonstrate.

"It's not, 'I'm going to sit beside you and show you how to do this'," said George Courous, the principal at Forest Green School in Stony Plane, Alberta, Canada. "It's, 'I'm going to help you, and we'll do this together.'"

Brian Nichols, the executive director of school leadership at the 30,000-student Newport News, Va., school district, said principals should also accept that in any initiative they lead, some teachers will be well ahead of principals in their tech knowledge, and some will be well behind. This should shape how principals differentiate communication with staff, as well as professional development.

Nichols even suggested scaffolding professional development based on the needs of the instructor, a sentiment that reminded me of when U.S. ed-tech chief Karen Cator said she thought the need for professional development is overstated.

In the end, it seems being a "tech-savvy" principal may merely mean understanding the same rules that apply to other interventions also apply to digital ones. Which means there are rarely one-size-fits-all solutions.

"Because we walk through one classroom with a teacher doing amazing things [with a tech tool], we shove it in everybody's face," said Patrick Larkin, principal of Burlington (Mass.) High School, who argued that a "standardized classroom," with respect to technology or anything else would not be an effective one. "We hire good teachers. We need to trust them to tell us what we can provide [them] with."

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