4 lessons for IT pros from a tech-savvy teacher

People need to be effective educators in order to be effective technology leaders.

Photo of Matthew Arnold in classroom, with Chromebook open and chalkboard in background

Matthew Arnold, a high school teacher in Fergus, Ontario

Photo provided by Matthew Arnold

Matthew Arnold, a teacher at Centre Wellington District High School, in Fergus, Ontario, works in a school system that was an early adopter of Google tools, such as tablets, Chromebooks, Google Classroom, and G Suite for Education. Arnold works with a variety of students. Some students live with learning challenges. Many are people who have not historically "done school" well. And a few have heard the words "sit down" or "sit still" or "be quiet" too often from people in positions of authority or power. 

When Arnold describes how he serves students, he sounds like an effective IT leader. "They need to know that their success is up to them--and that I'm here to listen and help them succeed." That sentiment permeated our hour-long conversation as he talked about the role technology plays as he engages with students and colleagues.

SEE: G Suite: Tips and tricks for business professionals (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Prepare hardware and software

Students can grab a Chromebook from a cart when they enter Arnold's classroom. They power on and sign in with their school-issued G Suite account to access Google Classroom and all of the G Suite apps. Many teachers at the school also use Classroom to assign, evaluate, and track student work.

But Arnold doesn't assume that students know how to use Google Classroom--he takes the time to make sure students know how to "get to the tab in Classroom that gives them access to their work."

For students who want to work from their own device, often a phone, he'll also make sure they install the apps they'll need. That may mean installing Google Drive, Google Classroom, and G Suite apps, as well as Google Docs, Calendar, and Keep on an Android or iOS device.

Those last two apps, Calendar and Keep, are especially important. "Outside of school, students need to know how to keep track of appointments and manage a to-do list. Keep and Calendar are tools they can use throughout their life, for free."

Arnold also talks through choices and settings with students. "So many apps turn on notifications by default. That can be distracting, especially when they get a notification for every Snapchat or text. We talk through what's important to them and turn off notifications from a lot of apps." This approach, called purposeful device use, is a mantra of the entire Student Success team.

Focus on "What's done?" and "What's next?" 

Arnold tracks each important portion of the current project on the chalkboard; of course, he also tracks the work in Google Classroom, too. But the tangible record of progress before a student leaves the room, combined with digital tracking of that progress reinforces a focus on forward movement. After a student documents progress on the chalkboard, they can capture a photo to refer to later. The practice encapsulates the core of nearly every sophisticated modern management technique: "What's done? What's next?" 

Classroom videos posted on a YouTube channel also let each student learn at their own pace. And the use of YouTube gives students a glimpse at how to use social media in a positive manner. 

A computer or tool isn't working? Don't panic. Pause.

Arnold also teaches the value of a pause. For various reasons, he's noticed that many students get impatient with a computer or tool that doesn't respond immediately. He teaches them a few tactics to deal with that frustrating feeling.

First, "when a system isn't responding," he says, "don't panic." (Yes, he's a Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy fan.) "Don't mash the keys," he says. "Move your hands off the keyboard, hold them in the air, look at the clock, and wait 10 seconds. If things still aren't working, turn off your Chromebook, then turn it back on, and try again." This works, in part, because Chromebooks restart so quickly.

Arnold also works with students to apply the same strategy to other aspects of life. "When you get a Snapchat or message that makes you mad, stop. Pause. Wait. Take your hands off your device and hold them in the air for 10 seconds. Remember that you don't have to respond immediately."

That's the pause that we all need to remember: Set the device down, wait, and then choose how to respond thoughtfully.

SEE: How to manage job stress: An IT leader's guide (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Prioritize people over process optimization

Arnold also told me a story that conveys how serious he is about learning. At Upper Grand, teachers recommend students to be recognized for various achievements. Historically, that meant long meetings filled with teachers who talked (a lot) about why a particular student merited recognition.

Arnold thought that these long meetings seemed like a problem that could be better solved with a more efficient process. Like most analytical, outcome-oriented people who dislike meetings, Arnold identified a potential process improvement.

So, he built a system. People could fill out a Google Form with a convenient pick-list to choose the recognition category, and a few short fields to type reasons for recognition. The Google Form would give everyone easy access to every recommendation in a spreadsheet. And less time would be spent in meetings.

But Arnold had forgotten a key fact: People wanted a forum, not a form. The process-efficient Google Form removed the opportunity for people to talk. Much of what people loved about the process was the chance to tell success stories about a student to colleagues. The "time saving" form eliminated the very human part of the process, the one where we know that other people are listening to us speak of something that matters. The form remains--and so do discussions during meetings. And Arnold continues to listen and consider ways that technology can help people.

Your experience?

What learning experience most influenced how you approach or use technology? Was there a particular lesson learned? Has a work experience caused you to reflect on machine efficiency and human development and effectiveness? Let me know your thoughts and experiences, either in the comments below or on Twitter (@awolber).

Also see