I remember back in the day, interviewing for a Director of Technology position in my home state of Massachusetts. It was a well-to-do district right on 128 outside of Boston. Eight schools, tight budgets, excellent reputation, committed staff, dedicated leader: a pretty typical profile for the region. I was impressed in talking with the superintendent and his senor staff. But I knew my value proposition: to bring in my expertise and experience and help move the district forward. For all my accomplishments and reputation, they were in reality looking for someone to keep the district’s technology running on a shoestring. They found me an attractive candidate; I came back three times for interviews, culminating in a day visiting all the schools and building administrators and technology staff across the district. Still I was aware of the disconnect between what they wanted and what I had to offer. I pushed the envelope in the interviews and in the side conversations: I believe in the transformative potential of technology.
It finally came down to one conversation. After a very upbeat ninety minutes sharing ideas with district department heads, everyone moved on with their day and I was left to have a one-on-one with my prospective immediate supervisor. Our minds were in the same place. “Walter, how do you see the role of the Director of Technology in our district?” Without pause I responded, “To create and carry out a vision for educational and administrative technology that best serves the superintendent and his staff and most importantly, the students.” The fact that the district Director of Technology did not report directly to the superintendent was a red flag for me. Technology is too important and pervasive in a school district for the tech head to have anything less than direct access to the superintendent. I figured if he and I got the point of discussing a job offer, I would bring it up.
“So how would that work, when the superintendent has his own vision for the district?” she asked with less of a smile, more of an assertion. “Well of course, I serve at the pleasure of the superintendent. But it would be my job to advise him and provide him with the best information and professional judgment possible in forming his vision around technology.” A look of concern came across her face. “But isn’t it the job of the Technology Director to carry out the wishes of the superintendent? What happens if you disagree? Where is the line between advising and serving?” I’m sure I looked similarly concerned as she belabored the point. “I want to work in a district that values my expertise; where I am part of the superintendent’s leadership team. I would certainly carry out his wishes, but I have a responsibility to the district to push thinking around technology and deliver the very best value for its use in instruction and professional productivity.”
She leaned in over the table. “Walter you can’t just come in and expect to push an agenda. The superintendent has an excellent vision and our team is all on board in supporting it. You need to fulfill your role in supporting his programs.” I continued to diplomatically agree with her points – I certainly wasn’t disagreeing – and at the same time collegially advocate for a robust, energetic Technology Directorship. As the conversation went on, I understood this was less about the work or the superintendent and more about this proud professional who did not want some live wire reporting to her. We concluded our conversation amicably and I went on my way. I wasn’t sure of the outcome, but I was comfortable that I had conducted myself genuinely and professionally.
A week went by, and the next Monday morning I got a call from that district’s superintendent. He was still interested and offered me the job. The salary, benefits, everything was acceptable; except for my one concern. I told him that I would be interested in accepting the position if I could report directly to him. He seemed caught off guard. After an awkward pause, he said he would be glad to consider it; he would get back to me in a couple of days. But when he called back, he asked if there was any way I could work in the current reporting structure; he had a lot of hoops to jump through to get my position reclassified and approved as his direct report. In Massachusetts, even administrative positions are part of collective bargaining, and it can be difficult to make changes to positions and contracts at will. I told him I understood, but I did not feel I could be effective in the position as it was currently structured. We thanked each other, he expressed his regrets and we agreed to move on our separate ways.
I guess I could have told that school district what they wanted to hear, played the game and got the job. But then what? I never would have made the difference in my career that I intended. And by sticking to my guns, I held out for opportunities where I could have impact and be true to my values and vision for technology in education. Running technology departments in Salem and Northborough-Southborough, Massachusetts and later in Arlington, Virginia, I learned that just finding the right fit is not enough. No matter how great the working situation and technology advancements, that fundamental choice continued to confront me every day: to do the heavy lifting on behalf of children and their future, or to give in to the dead weight of the status quo. It’s a choice we all face – each of us – every single day.
I felt prompted to write this post in response to Dr. Spike Cook’s blog post, “Do We Really Want Gutsy Leaders?” in which he asked pointed questions and made important points about the realities of education leadership. I always thought if I advanced up to higher spheres of influence, I’d have a greater ability to make change. The reality is, the higher I moved up, the more time I spent addressing administrative demands and navigating pressures to conform to the institution, instead of dedicating myself to the real work that demanded my attention. I never gave into those pressures, but after a 25 year career in public education, I made the decision I wanted to spend the remainder of my career working outside the system. It has been a refreshing and invigorating change, and I am having more impact than I ever did on the inside. And I continue to hold onto my belief that, regardless of what sphere of education in which we choose to work, the more educators who stand up and speak out for what is best for children today, the more the critical mass will build, and eventually real transformation can and will take place.