Tech Whisperer: drive out fear

This post is my contribution to Scott McLeod’s Leadership Day 2009.  His site will aggregate the many excellent offerings from bloggers around the globe in the coming days. I’m writing my post for anyone who has influence in education–which is all of us, really. My hope is that it becomes a conversation starter. Please agree, disagree, and stretch my thinking.

Going to the dogs

I have learned a lot from the Cesar Milan, The Dog Whisperer. He’s a terrific teacher: he models, he encourages, he shares as much of the “why” as the “how”. His vision is transparent: achieving balance between people and dogs. He changes people by building a trusting relationship with them, and they in turn build trusting, balanced relationships with their animals.

On the episode I saw last night, Cesar was working with a family whose dog Hula was very fearful. Hula would run and hide when anxious, or bite the husband and children when she felt felt threatened. She was calm only when in her owner’s arms, but clearly the relationship was unhealthy. I can only imagine the ripple effects of Hula’s behaviour on the whole family: the tension, the anxiety, the resentment, the retreating from community. I am paraphrasing here, but Cesar’s response to Hula’s fear was to approach the dog from the side. His message to Hula was I am with you, I am not a threat, we can face what is ahead, we are together. Initially the dog struggled, trying to bite, trying to run. Cesar calmly persisted, and eventually Hula relaxed and found a more balanced way of being part of the family and engaging with the world.

Now, I don’t want this metaphor to get twisted. I’m not advocating for a “you’re my pack, I’m your Alpha, follow me” approach to technology leadership in education. But there is a lesson here about how to lead when teachers are uncertain or fearful, as many still are, when it comes to integrating technology. When people are anxious, stand with them. Edward Deming talked about driving out fear in his 14 Points:

8.  Encourage effective two way communication and other means to drive out fear throughout the organization so that everybody may work effectively and more productively for the company.

Most leaders are used to being out front, paving the way. Some lead from behind, distributing the leadership, helping others nurture their passions, find their voices, and influence others. In times of profound change, I believe as leaders we need to be beside the people we influence if all of us are to thrive.

Lead from beside, as well as from the front and from behind.

What does this look like in practical terms? I offer my thoughts on a 360° approach to (tech) leadership:

Lead from ahead:

  • have a vision for learning that includes the wise, ubiquitous integration of technology in education to connect, create, communicate, collaborate, and care. Live your vision.
  • model your own use of technology to meet your personal and professional learning needs and share your experiences with your colleagues.
  • Be transparent. Build your personal learning network (PLN) Read blogs, get on Facebook and Twitter and figure out why others are there.
  • advocate on behalf of the learners in your community (all staff, students, parents). Lobby for technology integration support positions in schools so staff, parents, and students can learn and practice new pedagogical approaches with a guide, not in isolation. Promote openness, not blocking.
  • focus on what technology affords, not what it costs.

Lead from behind:

  • encourage punishment-free risk-taking and experimentation. Be ready to prop up teachers and kids when they stumble–not shut them down. See failure as a stepping stone to success. Teach.
  • build capacity for technology integration by creating on-going, just-in-time professional development that meets the needs of teachers. This should not be done off the side of someone’s desk, but by a dedicated position.
  • translate the acceptable use policy into a document that kids, parents, and teachers understand. Frame it as an agreement to tap into the opportunity to learn and practice digital citizenship.
  • read, write, and talk about technology. Understand that learning is social, and that social learning is facilitated and nurtured by digital communication. Know too that kids are using the tools and we are obliged to get with the program.
  • do the behind-the-scenes heavy lifting by getting essential jobs done: for example, get data projectors installed in the ceiling rather than leaving them on carts. This will increase internet/Smartboard use ten-fold. Guaranteed.

Lead from beside:

  • relationships are built side by side. Leading from beside people means you and those you influence are facing things together. Put the problem/challenge in the middle.  You communicate more effectively when you are close, you build trust, and as you experience struggles together you can reflect and tell the story of your journey as “our story”. Trust drives out fear.
  • bring people together to talk about their challenges, successes, and failures with technology. People who complain about BCeSIS, ReportWriter, problems with logins, screen resolution, access to the lab–their concerns and frustrations are real–seek to understand, commiserate, and find solutions to problems. If you can’t, communicate the problems to those who can make a change. Understanding drives out fear.
  • learn and teach a trouble-shooting mindset and skills to kids, staff, parents. Getting unstuck builds confidence. Confidence drives out fear.
  • connect people to each other. Become a social convener. Create structures that allow people to collaborate face-to-face and virtually. Community drives out fear.
  • being close means you can strike a balance: provide scaffolding but don’t do for people what they can do for themselves. This is an old idea by Pearson and Gallagher (1983)–gradual release of responsibility: moving from demonstration, guided practice, independent practice, to application.  Adult learners need support as they learn to integrate technology into their lives.  Lev Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development applies, too. Learning drives out fear.
  • laugh together. So much of the net is devoted to humour for a reason. Laughing feels so good. The video below was shared by Lesley Edwards, a friend and mentor. Pay attention at 2:54. I haven’t met anyone who doesn’t see themselves in this sketch. Laughter drives out fear.

I’m not a tech whisperer but I am a learner. And I am working on driving out fear by leading and learning side by side.

6 thoughts on “Tech Whisperer: drive out fear

  1. If there’s one thing I’m learning from all these Leadership Day 09 posts, it’s that effectively integrating technology into a school is a huge task. I like how thorough your 360 degree approach is. You do a good job describing the many dimensions of effective leadership and I really hear the voice of experience in your writing. Thanks for that YouTube video, I can’t wait to share it at the first staff in September!

  2. Errin, thanks for your feedback. I tried to stick a little video at the beginning of some of our staff meeting. Some colleagues on our staff also put up slide shows of silly moments or classroom videos around themes. A particularly fun one was called Dr. Duty–laughter really binds a community.

  3. What a thorough post, Jan. I like the idea of leading from all directions. In the leading from behind section you focus on the fear of those not already using technology. Do you see fear being the major obstacle for technology integration?

  4. Hi Claire, I think Deming’s idea about driving out fear concerns creating a culture where risk is ok, where it is actively fostered. For complicated reasons, a lot of teachers are risk-averse. We have time constraints and a packed curriculum, so experimenting is not that natural to us. The other part of driving out fear is that a supportive environment is a safer place. Yes, some would come out and say they have anxiety or fear around technology. Others will give reasons for not trying that more or less deflect the fear.

    If learning communities and those responsible for integration approached the process with the idea of side-by-side support I think we’d be more successful. We do a lot of one-off professional development and then wonder why it doesn’t stick. A little more side-by-side might make a difference.

    Claire, I know you’ve worked with many colleagues on technology integration. Do you think fear is an obstacle?

  5. Hi Jan,
    Yes, fear definitely seems to play a big part in many teachers reluctance to dive into technology. I did a pro-d session last summer on how to use Google Reader and Blogger. A lot of the participants were very interested, but still quite reluctant to put themselves ‘out there’. Do you remember when your principal or vice principal had to sit in on your classes and write up a review/critique of your performance? And when you were on your practicum, your faculty advisor was there to assess how you were doing. Sometimes this was the only time an adult was in your room to observe what you did. For many teachers I wonder if this is their only experience of being observed? If so, blogs and wikis and other on-line venues to post what you’re doing must feel a little scary.

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