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Dr. Rob Reilly

Ed-Tech Talk

Becoming the Technology Leader and the Electronic Janitor?
by Rob Reilly Ed.D.
Regular contributor to the Gazette
January 1, 2008
Computer education teachers seem to always be expected to be more than just classroom teachers. Being involved with technology seems to come with a mantle of expertise that most other teachers do not have but need in order to support their classroom activities. Certainly many administrators do not have expertise in technology either but need it to support their daily activities (e.g., educational leader, chief financial officer, chief operating officer, etc.). We all know this means that the computer teacher tends to be the de facto technology expert for the building, which has far reaching impact outside their classroom responsibilities.

Ok, so the computer teacher (or perhaps a techno-literate classroom teacher) becomes the technology expert - the source of all knowledge about computers and other technological gizmos. What does that really mean?

Well, too often it translates into becoming the electronic janitor. And, if not managed properly, has far more bad aspects than it has good aspects! But this is an opportunity to become the technology leader if you can avoid becoming just the electronic janitor. Ok, so how can you avoid becoming just the electronic janitor? At this point it's also important to ask yourself if even being the electronic janitor is worth the effort and aggravation!

It seems to me that if you have a wealth of technology expertise, you're in danger of being between the proverbial rock and a hard place. It also seems to me that being "between" is what's bad. It seems to me that you want to be either on the "rock" or on the "hard place" and not in-between them. I think that just being the electronic janitor is that in-between place where nothing good is going to happen to you. People who are in that in-between space seem to be asking to be treated like Cinderella. And for a professional teacher that does not seem to be a comfortable role.

So the next question seems to be: "Do you want to be a technology leader or do you want to be left alone (as far as technology issues are concerned)?" I trust that will be the question because consenting to be just the electronic janitor appears to be a situation with little reward and not much satisfaction for you!

If you want to be the technology leader then you must also become somewhat comfortable in the role of electronic janitor as this role will be one facet of being the technology leader. So the next question seems to be: "How can you be the technology leader and, at the same time, avoid the doldrums of being just the electronic janitor?"

Well, I have a suggestion or two.

To become a technology leader you must, as a matter of course, address electronic janitor issues! This may mean providing answers and understanding the staff's dilemma when asking such questions as: "My computer is not working; what's wrong with it?" Well that's more than a brief encounter, but the non-techie staff member may not understand that. Certainly the de facto technology guru (you) can try to assist a colleague, but after a while you may begin to get the feeling that virtually no one but you understands what is involved in solving the various problems that occur.

Let me offer this example: I remember going to a 5th grade teacher's room because she had a problem with her printer. It wouldn't work; it appeared to be dead! Her expectation was that I could do something in an instant and the printer would work properly. Well after a brief analysis (i.e., checking the plugs to assure they had not come loose, etc.), I could not determine if the problem was rooted in the printer, the computer, the cable, or the software she was trying to print from. But explaining that while she was teaching a class was more of an interruption than was appropriate. I could not work on her computer as I had a class of my own coming to the computer lab, so I had to leave. I promised the teacher that I'd return, and she understood.

To make a long story short, I fixed the problem by duplicating it on a spare computer in the computer lab; that project consumed 45 minutes of my time. During my next block of free time (free of students that is!), I returned to the 5th grade teacher's room and fixed the problem very quickly as I had finally isolated the problem. The "fix" took less than one minute when I returned to her room. She thanked me and asked why I did not do what I did when I was here the first time! I started to explain what I did back in the computer lab that consumed 45 minutes but that was clearly more information that she could understand or even wanted to know. I guess this a brand new educational belief that is somewhat similar thought process to the one that states: if you're not working directly with the children, you're not doing any work at all!

Certainly this was one of those electronic janitor moments. It may be one of those moments when the person receiving the assistance will not understand what was required of you to fix the problem; and that may be "ok" in the long term. It may not be "ok" for you if that's the only technology role that you have. It seems to me that a teacher with an expertise in technology is wasted when relegated to the role of electronic janitor. Going on to the next step to become the technology leader is not all that big a leap. It is however a leap into a LEADERSHIP ROLE, and that might not be comfortable role for you!

Now we have the question of becoming a technology leader, which is really a question of leadership. It is a question of knowing how to apply technology to educational curriculum and to non-curricular tasks that confront staff members (e.g., grade books, dealing with their email, searching the Web). And it's a question of having the personality to be an effective leader. Aside from what knowledge you can obtain from any of the many fine graduate courses on Educational Administration, if you lack the personality traits to be an effective leader, you're sunk!

My point is that if you're not an outgoing and tactfully assertive person, assuming the role of technology leader may not be a sensible or realistic goal for you. You might be a terrific classroom manager and a terrific teacher, but becoming an effective educational leader requires a very different set of attributes! No matter how much technology knowledge you have, if you lack a tactfully assertive aspect to your personality, becoming the technology leader may be beyond your reach. In this case, my advice is to also not allow yourself to become the electronic janitor.

But if you are going to be the technology leader, then you must be involved in the day-to-day events that require an electronic janitor. You must deal with these glitches/problems, BUT you must also assertively, tactfully, and aggressively provide insight into the uses of technology for your colleagues, and you must guide the administrators who will look to you for guidance and wisdom.

To accomplish this you must have a fairly thick skin and be a people person! You must be able to provide technology support as the electronic janitor, provide guidance, as an assertive supportive tactful considerate colleague, and you must provide leadership as a person with a wealth of knowledge and vision so that the daily lives of your colleagues are technologically better!

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About Dr. Rob Reilly...

Dr. Rob Reilly is the computer education teacher at the Lanesborough Elementary School in Lanesborough, Massachusetts USA. He is also a Visiting Scientist at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he is conducting NSF funded research in the area of affective computing, emotions and learning. He has been a Visiting Scientist at MIT's Center for Educational Computing Initiatives, a Post Doctoral Research Associate at the University of Massachusetts' Office of Information Technologies, and a Teaching Associate, at the School of Education at the University of Massachusetts. His email address is: His Web site is: