Tech Leadership

Caught in the Middle: Redefined Roles for IT Staff

by Josh J. Middleton

My office phone rings. It is Monday at 8:23 a.m., and the caller ID reveals it is one of our school district’s two information technology staff members calling. I wonder what they are contacting me, the superintendent, about today.


Maybe it is Wendy notifying me about the homemade apple pie she brought in to share with the office staff or Druann reveling in her weekend marathon run. Perhaps it’s about the new student information software, or they are calling to report a violation of the acceptable use policy in the district.


MiddletonJosh J. Middleton

When I was a young high school teacher in Melbourne, Fla., two decades ago, the Apple IIe computer on my classroom desk could actually store 40 pages of notes, assignments or tests on one 5.25-inch-by-5.25-inch floppy disk. Forty pages! Things certainly have changed.

We’ve progressed from apple pie to Apple IIe’s to a whole complex and connected apple orchard. Management of the then handful of school computers in 1987 has shifted from our librarians and media specialists to full-time instructional technology staff members managing a network with a 3:1 student-to-computer ratio.

No longer is the priority task about keeping enough ink in the printer and ample diskettes on hand. Today’s tech staff must be flexible problem solvers and visionaries. They must be able to see things from different perspectives as they are called upon to provide expert analysis on technology trends, resource allocation, policy development and enforcement of rules.

Complicated Berths
The awkward position school districts, such as my own, experience is where to place IT staff members on the management flowchart, especially when those staff are former classroom teachers in the district. While individuals sometimes pursue these challenging positions with the admirable goal of integrating technology into the curriculum, it’s just not that simple.

The role has evolved into the management of million-dollar investments affecting resource allocation, personnel decisions and endless requests for immediate action. It’s a difficult position considering technology staff remain members of the local teachers union. As such, they may find themselves ostracized by the very people they serve for wielding perceived power.

Our school district has about 1,900 students with 275 employees. I have deliberately become the unofficial third member of the district’s instructional technology department for three reasons:

Druann and Wendy are our experts, but they are not administrators. They provide consultation and guidance, not final decisions.

Because of the perceived authority they are given, I want to stand shoulder to shoulder with them so actions are seen as collaborative, and it is not assumed by other staff members that decisions are made unilaterally by the IT department.

Our district recognizes technology will continue to play a large role in the ever-changing landscape of education. As superintendent, I need to wear the hat of instructional leader to facilitate this inevitable trend.

Feeling Friction
The tension we feel in our district shows up in two places. First, there are both real and perceived limitations regarding the creative freedom of technology use by our teachers. The unconnected era of yesteryear offered its own creative freedom. However, today’s network users must balance their technologically pioneering spirits with proper protocol. Without this, entire systems can be compromised.

Violations of the acceptable use policy are the second source of friction. Although users must acknowledge the policy every time they log onto a school district computer, we still find hits to inappropriate websites that are recorded on our tracking system. The IT staff are the first to see the daily report and the first to ask some preliminary questions before passing on the information to the administrative team. It’s uncomfortable for them to function as an internal affairs department when dealing with peers, but, again, schools are about students, academic achievement and maintaining a safe environment.

We recently had a productive discussion among the IT staff, local union president and me on these issues. And while we could address some of the current frustrations and reiterate the implementation of protocol during difficult situations, we will no doubt be faced with some technology issue that cannot be foreseen. This validates the importance of that timeless tool that must be used to ease any situation — communication.

Sometimes I reminisce about the simplicity of the unconnected Apple IIe days, but our aim is to provide an education that equips students for the future, and advancing technology must be part of it.

I’ll answer my phone now. I hope it is about homemade apple pie, yet with a forward-thinking tech staff, basic protocol in place and effective communication, we’ll get through whatever technology-related issue might be raised on the other end of the line.

Josh Middleton is the superintendent of the Laurel School District in Laurel, Mont. E-mail: