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More with Less

By Kelsea Watson posted 10-26-2022 08:24 AM


More with Less

Trailblazers from small schools across the nation share ideas on how to stretch school resources and make tiny tech teams mighty.

Moderator: Dr. Ashley Cross, Senior Director of Education and Content, ATLIS
Tina Abbott, Director of Technology at The Heritage School in Newnan, Georgia;
Michele Bossick, Director of Technology at Nansemond-Suffolk Academy in Suffolk, Virginia;
Chris Cripe, Director of Technology at The Stanley Clark School in South Bend, Indiana;
Jonathan Jacobs, Director of Technology at Maple Street School in Manchester, Vermont;
Chet Rodriguez, IT Director at St. Barnabas Episcopal School in DeLand, Florida

ATLIS represents and engages with thousands of technology leaders across the nation. Many schools are understaffed in the technology department. In this issue’s Roundtable, a panel of creative problem-solvers came up with some interesting ideas on how to stretch their school’s limited resources. After a stellar presentation in Orlando, Florida, at the ATLIS 2022: Ignited conference, Ashley Cross spoke with panelists about their biggest takeaways as they reflected on being technology leaders of tiny tech staffs or in departments of one. After some chitchat about summer plans with a cat meandering in a participant’s background and the interruption of sixth graders returning iPads, the group dove into a discussion on best practices. Here’s their conversation.

Ashley Cross:
As a smaller department, what are some of the strategies you have for getting so much accomplished with limited resources? Jonathan Jacobs: For me, it’s always been finding internal resources within. Utilizing my tech-savvy staff that are willing to jump in and help out with tech-savvy students. At the school that I’m at now, it’s always been small enough that the admin team kind of knows what’s going on. So, making sure that admin team is also aware of everything, so I get support and buy-in for everything. So far, it’s worked out pretty well. I usually don’t have any trouble when I go to spend money on those things. That’s kind of what I rely on.

Michele Bossick
: For me, it’s what do I know the best? What are my strengths? Do I know networking the best? Yes, I do. So, I’m not going to outsource that. I know printers, hardware, and inventory. It’s the things like our backups (including off-site and cloud solutions), our virtual machines, or servers, that maybe I’m not as strong in. I use that as a way to strategize what I’m going to prioritize, and then what I might need to get help with.

Tina Abbott: I would add having an organization system for the things that you do on a repeated basis. Have a template and put that in a tickler file. That way, at the end of the year, you can send a mail merge to your employees saying, “Make sure you’ve still got all these components, and if there’s anything missing or broken, let me know.” So that way, I can take care of that over the summer. There’s a separate one for departing employees that focuses on “Here’s what you need to do to turn everything in at the end of the year.” If you have that template for yourself—and a reminder to send it—that just makes your life easier.

Bossick: I also have made it my business to create a knowledge base for our school of everything technology related. I’ve inherited this technology department with no information accessible to me. It’s been like peeling an onion, layers at a time. I’ve been painstakingly taking it on to just create this vast knowledge base of everything from “How do you use the sound booth in the cafeteria?” to “How do we shut all of our servers down, in what order?” and creating this knowledge base for the next person who might join our tech team. If something ever happened to me, or if I need to refer back to something I haven’t done in a year, I have that documentation already completed. I can refer back to it as needed.

Chet Rodriguez: When I first saw that question, I thought, “I’m a one-man show; there is no strategy!” It’s all reactionary. But I do try to work ahead. I have things in place, and spreadsheets and plans for the next year, so that when things come up throughout the year, I can always have that to refer to. I had anticipated purchasing some applications or materials. That’s always worked out to help with the panic situations.

Abbott: Yeah, one of Chris’ great additions to our talk at the conference was he has a really detailed spreadsheet, including all of his assets, including expected life, so that he always knows “OK, I’ve had this projector for five years, so I’m gonna go ahead and replace it.” He’s very proactive with his inventory scheduling. 

Jacobs: I do something similar as well. Just keeping track of when I buy things, even if it’s general, like I bought it middle of the year 2021 or whatever. When I’m thinking about it, if I don’t write it down, then I usually get interrupted, and it’s gone forever—or at least until it comes up again. And hopefully, I write it down that time!

Rodriguez: I have a huge spreadsheet that has probably 20 tabs on it. It’s separated into network equipment, student equipment, teacher equipment, what’s in every classroom, what’s in every office, etc. It gives me the purchase dates, the serial numbers, and each tab has all of that information, which probably could be automated in some way. For me, it’s manual, and I’m still working on it. I’m old school.

: Some of you touched on this, but if you’re a small team, you can’t necessarily do it all. How do you make that decision on what to outsource?

: I know what my strengths are and what my strengths aren’t. My strength isn’t networking, so I outsource our networking. All of our servers are virtual, our outsourced company can handle anything remotely; they also do some tech support for us. Anything that I can handle quickly enough on my own in-house, I will do, but if it’s going to take a few hours, and I don’t have a few hours, I’ll send it to them. So, anything that isn’t my strength, or that I just simply don’t have time to handle, I’ll outsource.

Bossick: For me, I outsource what I inherited. We have all of our multifunction devices across campus. That is, we outsource all hardware, all supplies, all of that is completely automated. I take care of the software end of it. As far as the ink, the toner … we’re renewing it this year; it is all going to be outsourced. If something breaks, we just put in a support ticket, and they come and repair it. That was something I wasn’t going to take back in-house because it’s working just fine. So, things like that were already previously outsourced. If it made sense for me to continue with that, then I did.
There were a lot of things, though, that I did bring back in-house, because I felt like it was better for me and our school to really have a handle on the ins and outs, the nuts and bolts of our environment. 

Rodriguez: I kind of did the opposite. I outsource things that I know but are very time-consuming, like monitoring the network system. Doing the professional development (PD) for teachers is another type of thing I know, but it takes a lot of time out of the day. I outsource PD because I can say quickly, “Hey, take a look at this. You need to include this in your training. The teachers are asking for this.” Those kinds of things I can respond to quickly, but I don’t have to spend the time actually doing them.

: How do you find where to outsource your professional development?

: I brought in a firm. Initially, they approached me years ago to do network management or on-site tech support. I kept them in my back pocket. Since then, they’ve branched out. They partnered with a school in Orlando to do some Google training. That has kind of exploded for them to expand that into training teachers in all sorts of areas. They hired a couple of teachers that were techs at their schools. I went to one of their seminars and said, “Hey, you guys are going to be great for what I’m looking for in handling the professional development I’ve got with my tech at school.” My edtech partner went to that same seminar with me, and she agreed that we can no longer handle the capacity that the teachers need. Bringing this company on board would be an excellent asset for us. We presented that to our staff, and they loved the idea. They have also helped us in developing a bit. I had a three-year technology plan that I had been using for years. The company actually helped in developing that into an expanded edtech and strategic technology plan. That worked out tremendously for us.

Bossick: For me, professional development outsourcing, that just simply means outsourcing it from the technology department. It’s more of a “train the trainer.” I’m finding point people in other departments that I can simply show or have them create some documents for their divisions or their departments. Then, they can take on being the point person. I’ll be doing a lot this fall with our preservice back-to-school week. There’s a lot of new infrastructure coming into place, including a new phone system, new Blackbaud authentication requirements, things like that. I’m going to find those people who I can just sit with this summer, train them, and then they’re going to take it from there to train the rest of the faculty and staff.

: What role did partnerships with other departments play in your success?

: I think that goes back to buy-in. I know without the support (not just the monetary side), but without the support of whomever, whatever I’m introducing will fall flat. Whether it is a new piece of software or device, if I don’t have the buy-in from the people that it’s going to affect, then it’s not going to work out well. When we decided to move our fifth through eighth grades from laptops over to iPads, we had to make sure the teachers were on board with that. We met with them and had them try some things, and I got a 100% “Yes, sounds like an awesome idea. Let’s move forward with it.” And it’s been a success. To a point, you may need some buy-in from the parents, but I feel like most of it really comes from the teacher side of things (as well as admin). Really, whatever, whoever it’s going to affect—make sure that they’re there, they want to do it.

Abbott: My biggest allies are the facilities person and the CFO (chief financial officer). The facilities person plays a huge role when it comes to installing things. If I buy a view board, somebody’s got to put it up, and it’s him. So, he and I are always on the same page, always looking ahead to what kinds of things we need to install physically. And then the CFO, you need a good relationship with that person. That person needs to respect your opinions, or else you’re not going to get the money to buy what you need. 

Chris Cripe: Yeah, I think it’s really important to build those relationships, because part of our role is driving change. We’re forcing people to change, forcing people to adapt. If you don’t have those relationships, you’re going to face a lot of resistance from everybody. I agree it’s important to establish those partnerships with your CFO and facilities, for sure. But I also think, for faculty, they need to know that you’re there and that you’re on their side. You have to communicate that you’re not just introducing new toys, but that you’re trying to make things better for them and for everybody. I find building those relationships, taking time to go to faculty meetings, dropping by their classroom at the end of the day—it’s important because you kind of build that goodwill. When you are trying to drive change, it’s uncomfortable, and those relationships really help roll those things out.

: Any other advice for fostering those relationships?

: I always have a really good relationship with probably the least tech-savvy teacher or the most tech-afraid teacher, along with what Chris was saying, because they’re going to be the most resistant to change. I start by bringing it to probably one or two people, but I find that going to them first, I have to make sure that they’re part of the process or whatever it is.
Getting them to really feel comfortable with it is important. When I actually go to introduce it to everybody else, sometimes it’s just that comment of like, “Well, if I can do it, all of you can,” or it’s just that person is already at that comfort level where that anxiety isn’t kicking in. If you don’t handle this proactively, then that person is asking all those questions that actually make teaching everybody else a little bit more difficult. So instead, I got all that person’s questions out of the way, and they are really, really comfortable with it.
For me, I think it really helps that they know I’m going to help them. I’m not just going to throw it at them and be like, “Alright, see you later!” I’m going to be there to support them throughout the whole thing.

Rodriguez: I think it’s necessary to be a part of the senior staff. Once you’re in those meetings, you see everything that’s going on, and everybody gets your understanding. There is that level of trust between the departments. For those who are not members of the senior staff, I share a lot of information with them. I shoot them emails throughout the year, to the teachers especially, sharing technology updates or technology concerns. It’s all in building the trust. Once you have that trust, everybody kind of understands where you’re coming from and that you’re not just trying to force things at them.

Abbott: To add another ally, or someone to work with, is the security department. That’s a growing department in education. The security person winds up having a lot of technology. You really want to be working hand in hand with that person so that you know what they’re ordering in terms of camera software, visitor software, etc. You always hate to find out, “Oh, hey, we’ve just installed an entire network worth of cameras.” Then you realize what they have done is not talking with the rest of our network.

Bossick: We have a separate security director of operations and security department—it’s just one person. However, with the cameras, as Tina talked about, all of that stuff is coming off of our network. I made sure that I made connections with the vendor immediately. We are the ones that work together when he’s installing new cameras, and he’ll just get online, and he has full access to our network at this point. I’m with him 100%. How can you fix something if you know nothing about it? Now I have him on speed dial because that’s such a critical thing. If cameras go down, security doors go down, and our keycards don’t work. That has been a huge undertaking. As well as figuring all of that out, we have put them on their right VLAN (virtual LAN) and made sure that they are consistently going, and no one can access that network as well.

: ATLIS recommends putting together a cybersecurity task force, which is usually part of the safety team. You probably already have something at your school—you may not even be aware of it—where there’s some type of crisis and communication planning. I would talk to your head about it. Cross: What are some resources for smaller/less-resourced tech teams?

: E-Rate. The more I talk to other people, the more I realized that there are many private schools who don’t take advantage of E-Rate. E-Rate is complicated in terms of paperwork, bureaucracy, and timelines. When you’re a tiny tech team, it’s just hard to keep track of all that. 
I compare it to doing your taxes and needing help with your taxes. I have an E-Rate consultant, and they will tell me it’s time to do things. I really don’t have to think about it too much. They break it down into small tasks for me throughout the year. I love having the ability to take advantage of E-Rate because I get great discounts; I’m therefore able to buy more things.

Bossick: E-Rate is complicated. I am very lucky that our CFO takes care of all things E-Rate, and we are able to get significant discounts on our fiber bandwidth as well as anything related to our network or inventory. It is a very helpful program to take advantage of. Abbott: Another way to stretch the budget is through a bring your own device (BYOD) program. Our school provides laptops for grades one through six, but then seven through 12 are BYOD. The onus of supporting the laptops that the school provides is on me, whereas the onus of supporting the seventh through 12th grade laptops is on the families. A kid may bring it to me for help with something minor. I will help them gladly, but I’m not going to take their laptop apart and do any hardware fixing or anything major—that’s on them. That does save me a lot of tech-support time.

Jacobs: Another resource is a mobile device management system of some sort. Actually, that’s been a lifesaver for a lot of things. Something that gives you the ability to just push apps and software out, as well as control where they have restrictions on it while it’s in the building. Give some power to parents, things like that. That is a solution that I know, if I didn’t have it, my job would be a lot more difficult. Definitely more time-consuming.

Rodriguez: It is huge to be able to remotely manage devices. Otherwise, you’re going to every device, and if you have hundreds of devices, it becomes very, very time-consuming.

: As a smaller department, what do you look for from vendors? How can they make your life easier?

: I’m really looking for people that want a relationship and that I’m not just another customer. I know that sounds really trite, but it’s true. And boy, I tell you, when you find those vendors that actually want to partner with you and care, it makes your life a lot easier. It’s a lot more of an enjoyable relationship. For example, our security vendor with our keycard system, our network vendor who manages my routers and switches, man, they’ve always got my back. They’ll be the ones saying, “Hey, did you realize that this battery needs to be replaced? Did you realize that your switch is having this problem?” It’s stuff like that, when you’re just busy day to day, that makes a big impact. I’d like to tell you, “Yeah, I’m digging through the logs every day and my routers and switches”—but I’m not. It’s great to have a true vendor partner.

It’s not just maintenance. I’m looking for a vendor that’s bringing me new ideas, asking questions like: “Have you thought about this? Have you thought of [blank] that could make the school better?” Of course, you don’t always go with those ideas. Sometimes I feel like when you’re deep into the day to day, you kind of get your own little kingdom where you know everything, and it’s all working really, really great. It’s easy to just get off the train and let it sit there. I like being challenged with “Hey, this is working, but you need to look at this as well.” That’s something I really appreciate in a vendor. I tell vendors, “Don’t be afraid to disagree with me. Don’t be afraid to tell me that you think I’m wrong.” Because that’s where you really get some wins. 

Abbott: I totally agree. It’s important to get a vendor you can have a relationship with. Sometimes bigger isn’t better. We have a local group that we’ve been working with for a decade probably. You’ve never heard of them unless you’re from around here. But they totally have our back, just like you said. When school started, they were not very responsive. In fairness, all the schools were starting back after having been remote for forever, and everyone was taxed. But I needed them. I reached out to the head of the company. He said, “Copy me on every support ticket, and I will make sure it gets done.” He was doing tech support for us! You want someone responsive and who wants the relationship with you.

Jacobs: Customer support is critical. For instance, we’re getting ready to switch to another database provider. One of the things that I wanted to make sure is that, if admissions is having an issue, that admissions can contact them directly (and feels comfortable doing so). Customer support can’t start throwing out a bunch of technical jargon. If the vendor has a good knowledge base, then not just the tech guy, but everyone can (get) something from that system. That’s been wonderful to have. It’s something that I always look for when I work with a vendor.

Rodriguez: I put it into three quick categories: their responsiveness, a contact person (not just a website), and buy-in into your mission/purpose. Without the buy-in, they don’t understand the urgency. Just as an example, one of the companies I deal with for network management, they have hospitals and financial institutions that rely on big transactions. 

Companies rely on money and rely on that transfer of finances. When I tell them it’s an emergency because a teacher can’t teach, they didn’t understand that—at first. They didn’t see the dollars in that. I had to get them to come down and to understand where our mission was. Once we got that coordinated, they’ve been fantastic. Abbott: Don’t be afraid to break the relationship if it’s not working anymore. Your company that you’ve been working with gets acquired by another; the same people might still be there, but the mission is different. We’ve had that where we’ve just had to say, “This isn’t for us anymore,” and you have to find someone else. That’s happening a lot—a lot of these companies are getting gobbled up, unfortunately. It’s good for them but not necessarily good for their customers.

: How can budgeting and asset management contribute to your team’s success?

: I personally think that your budget is your opportunity to really get to kind of prove your stuff with your head of school. When I got to the school, the guy that I replaced was very reactive. He kind of had a budget, but he didn’t really plan what to do with it. One year, they’d spend $80,000 on laptops, and next year, they spent $5,000. It resulted in this really big unknown, where sometimes the school wasn’t able to take that hit. What I did when I came in is come up with a five-year plan. I’ve got everything on there: laptops, all the hardware, access points, routers, switches, I mean anything you can think of. Even software subscriptions. I show them on the replacement cycle, and then I order it to kind of even out what’s going to be spent in any given year.

I told my head of school, “What you’re not going to get is surprises. Your IT budget is going to level out.” It really shows that you know what you’re talking about. You are a visionary that is thinking ahead. It’s not a surprise show. It’s a lot easier to say two years in advance, “Hey, we need to replace the phone system. I just found out that our phone system that we put it in three years ago just got bought out by another vendor, and our phones aren’t going to work anymore.” It’s a lot easier to have that conversation now, instead of “Oh, fire alarm, fire alarm, something’s not going to work next summer, and we don’t know what to do.”
I really feel like your budget is your best friend. It helps inform you to achieve your strategic plan with what you’re trying to do in technology. It informs me about what is working today, but also what could be improved in three years to five years. I love budgeting, if you can’t tell!

Rodriguez: Your budget and your strategic plan have to jive. That’s the only way you can plan ahead.

: Human resources are finite. How do you manage staff time?

: I adopted a ticketing system last year, and that saves me time from having to search through tech-support emails. It’s important to train teachers on how to send in a request. You don’t have people stopping you in the hall, and you aren’t constantly being redirected if you have a system in place. Just remind them to put in a help request, and that you’ll look at it back at your desk. So, the ticketing system definitely saves me a lot of time.
Something that I’ve found that helps save time is also being able to say no. I want to help everybody, but I can’t, and just realizing that even though I can’t say yes at this point, “Let’s have a meeting or let’s actually organize this in a better way, because what you’re asking me to do right now is just impossible.” Realizing that I am not sometimes as amazing as I think I am, and that I can’t do it all, helps. I just have to rely on “Let’s just wait, let’s do that another time.”

Bossick: We don’t have a formal software for our ticketing system. We just created a separate email address. It’s helpful for support requests not to get buried in my inbox. I have a separate dedicated email that I check constantly. It’s getting buy-in from our faculty and staff to submit ticket support. The email address is everywhere, so don’t stop me; I’m always on the go. Then I can keep things organized. I’ve created folders for different tickets and the resolution. It doesn’t have to be some software that you’ve purchased because, quite frankly, I didn’t have time to learn any new software or implement it. We also have our student tech interns; they have access to that email account. They can answer tickets as well. That helps limit the amount of time I may spend on simple tier-one help desk calls.

Abbott: We do have a formal ticketing system that we came up with about three or four years ago. It’s shared with our facilities department and the person who is in charge of buses. It’s a trip ticketing system, facilities, and tech support. Just like with Michele using one email account, it’s one place where all my tickets are so I know they don’t get lost or buried.

Our teachers are used to using it now, especially since we use it for three different things. When someone still stops me, I say, “Great. Thanks for putting in a ticket.” I’m able to see that the ticket is in process and write notes. The user is always automatically alerted to any changes I make in the system. I can search that database next year if I see a ticket with the same issue that I’ve previously addressed but I can’t quite remember how I responded.

Jacobs: You can also take some of the responses from your ticketing system and create an FAQ page for your website. Then, you can point people in that direction where it pops up when they go to get some support. They can search their problem. And then the system says, “Well, if you have tried all these, and none of those work, then contact support.” Build that for frequently asked questions.

: What is something a larger school might learn from a tiny tech team?

: All of the above?

Abbott: I would say the economy of time, which is kind of all of the above. Organization planning. Jacobs: Thoughtful approach to getting technology. Rodriguez: From what I see, the larger a school gets, the less they feel the IT director needs to be part of the senior staff. I think that needs to be addressed.

: Tell me about your student technology team.

: We’re kindergarten to eighth grade. They have a very limited schedule. I think it’d be different if we went through 12th grade. I train students on things that are discrete, repeatable, and can be done in about 20 minutes. Replacing a battery, replacing a display, and replacing a keyboard are things that come up fairly regularly. What’s really fun is I don’t really see it as a way for them to help me out; it’s really a way for me to get to know the kids better and provide them with a leadership opportunity. I find that sometimes the kids that are drawn to technology aren’t necessarily like the popular kids. It kind of gives them an area to shine. That’s something I really enjoy. Every year, I’m a little surprised at the people that shine and the people that don’t shine. Sometimes it’s those real quiet ones that are awesome at it. It’s fun to be a part of that!

Rodriguez: I bring in students from the local high school (we’re K–8 also). I kind of go shopping with all of the local schools to see if they could recommend some students that can come do an after-school type job. We do pay them a small amount. They come in and they do an internship as part of either an OJT (on the job training) program or a technology institute or academy. They are very helpful in doing some of the smaller things, but they’re a little bit older. Soon, they’re at a level that can also do some database management or some MDM (mobile device management) changes, or Google console-type stuff. That helps me out, relieving me of some of the more tedious things, like updating the huge spreadsheet that I have, making serial numbers jive across applications, things like that.

Bossick: Our student intern opportunity is extended to rising juniors and seniors. Usually, I’ll have two or three a year, and it’s a class they take. I’ll have them for dedicated class time, but every day we have a seven-day rotating schedule. So, the time is different, which is nice, because different problems seem to arise at different times of day.

Things that I can train them on quickly, like our AV support, helping me set up for assemblies, any special events we have, those are really easy things right off the bat. Then, giving them simple hardware, like fixing a keyboard or display. It also gives me the opportunity to interact with students, and I really enjoy that. You do have students that shine in this role that typically don’t shine in other roles. That’s a really neat thing to experience. The students can take it as far as they want it; they can really dive in and get to learn as much as they want. I survey them at the beginning of the year to find out what are they most interested in, and I try to teach them along the way on those things. That seems to be very meaningful for them and for me. Then, by the end of the year, they have a huge knowledge base that they didn’t have prior to this. The goal is for that junior student to do it again their senior year, and then they can almost be like a mentor to the younger student that comes in. It does help with these easy support tickets, where I can say, “Hey, can you go to Room 105 and look at their projector?” and within the first two months, usually they’re able to pretty much do basic troubleshooting. I feel like it’s a great opportunity for them as well, especially the ones who are really interested in pursuing some sort of computer science or technology degree when they move on to college.

: That’s amazing. I love the three very different approaches you all took to students in the technology department. We appreciate you sharing your story with the community!

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