Cerebral Networking

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My first district tech director job was in Salem, Massachusetts back in the day. My predecessor left me notes and records and a very dedicated and talented staff, but when it came to the big questions about the education culture of the north shore of Boston and the technology drivers across the commonwealth, I was on my own. After digging and reading and feeling my way along, I picked up the phone and started reaching out to my counterparts in neighboring districts: Beverly, Manchester-by-the-Sea, Gloucester, Rockport, Marblehead, Peabody, Lynnfield, Lynn, Saugus and Danvers. Individually they each had unique district profiles and varied job descriptions. But it struck me that they shared one common denominator; they were all so busy managing district technology, they rarely talked to each other. Still, when I called, they each had an incredible wealth of information and insight to share.

One thing led to another, and as word spread that tech directors were having a shared dialog I started scheduling and inviting them to monthly lunches to network, compare notes and find ways to collaborate and build economies of scale. What started with maybe a dozen tech directors blossomed into all of eastern Massachusetts, as people began coming from the western suburbs and south shore of Boston, Cape Cod, and Worcester. Ultimately I found myself making trips to Springfield and Lennox at the invitation of tech directors in western Massachusetts, as word spread a movement was taking place…people wanted to be heard. And after a number of conference presentations, meetings and writings, this eventually formed into an official organization, The Massachusetts Educational Technology Administrators Association (METAA). And I am proud to say METAA took root and continues to serve its mission today.

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In reflecting on this, I realize it wasn’t about the personalities or the social interaction. I didn’t know any of the players when I began making those phone calls to my colleagues in neighboring districts. I was driven by questions, wanting to be fully aware of all my options to serve my district.  The professional connections and eventual friendships that emerged from those discussions was secondary to the networking and the work. Yes the personalities definitely enriched the experience; I am so grateful for the people I’ve met along the way. But it was the value I was able to bring to my district, and contribute to other districts, that was the difference maker in my efforts. It’s the ideas that drive the work, not the people. Names and faces change across the ed tech landscape, but the work goes on.

Another example, for your consideration. As board president of the ISTE affiliate in Massachusetts , The Massachusetts Computer Using Educators (MassCUE), I began asking questions of our neighboring affiliates in Rhode Island, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. As we compared our work, emails and phone calls turned into dinner meetings. Each affiliate had a very different set of opportunities and challenges, and yet the common thread of championing ed tech in our respective states provided a lot of common ground. I can still remember our first six-state meeting at the Radisson in Nashua, New Hampshire. The weekend began on a rainy Friday night, wherein those who had to travel the farthest arrived the latest, due to weather and traffic. But we all assembled for dinner fairly on time in a posh Tudor-style conference room, and dinner gave way to an evening of going around the lengthy banquet table cerebral2sharing each affiliate’s story: how they started, what they had accomplished, and their current status. We all warmed in the glow of those stories, giving and receiving, and by the end of the evening we all headed to bed smiling and eager to spend the next two days exploring the ways we could collaborate across state boundaries. On a subsequent weekend each of our state technology directors joined us, alternately meeting with us affiliate leaders and meeting on their own. They hadn’t, they confessed, had the opportunity to meet for a weekend retreat in a long time, and they were grateful to take advantage of our invitation. We were grateful they accepted! The result was ISTE’s first regional affiliate, New England ISTE (NEISTE), which I am again proud to say continues to carry on its mission today.

This was well before the days of social media (the closest thing we had was AOL chat rooms – hey don’t judge me – my 14.4 kbps modem was screamin….so long as the dogs didn’t bark at the doorbell and kick it offline!), but the concept of asking questions and following responses to chase ideas, gain insight, share information and build economies of scale was already alive and well. There are many other stories I could share about reaching out to colleagues and initiating conversations that benefited both our districts and the profession as a whole, but you get my point. These experiences confirmed everything I believe about working within the positive flow of life, watching doors open as I move forward because I am where I need to be to get the job done. At no time was it primarily about people or personalities. Making introductions and collecting business cards is all fine and well, but that’s more about playing the percentages than being in the positive flow. Yes, relationships are important, but they are more important given the context of the work in which they thrive. In my experience, the best, most fulfilling relationships have been those that were doing rewarding work. Even when the work is over and we move on, the relationships that have lasted long-term for me are those that grew out of significant, successful collaboration.

Why do I share these stories and make this point today? Because in an age where social media makes networking and collaboration easier than ever, I see a lot more instantaneous relationships and a lot more flash-in-the-pan points of synergy. What I hope to see eventually emerge is educators asking difficult questions, looking past easy answers, and reaching beyond social connections to build a new professional legacy. We need to be about the work of pushing one another’s thinking and doing the heavy lifting that our profession requires of us here and now. Social networking is easy. Cerebral networking: vetting thinking, doggedly doing, charting paths towards an unseeable future, building capacity not just for us in our own careers, but for our profession and for society’s future…that’s the real work. Because when I go back to see what METAA, MassCUE and NEISTE are doing now, I remember all the work that went into putting things in motion so they could get where they are today. And I am proud to know I had something to do with it…something worthwhile…something that sustains itself long after I’ve moved on. Social networking is all good, but cerebral networking is where we need to be.

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