Connected Learning Professional Learning

Cultivating 21st Century School Leaders


Melissa Shields describes a year-long 21st Century training with her district’s school and central office administrators. Originally published on July 24, 2011

As a school district technology director, I know that for my teachers to successfully utilize 21st Century tools and instructional methods, it is paramount that their building administrators have a fundamental understanding of emerging technologies and methodologies. In turn, they can truly support and nurture in the 21st Century instructional programs in their schools. To better build a bridge from principals’ offices and teachers’ classrooms, I focused 21st Century training on my district’s school and central office administrators for an entire year.

“ENGAGE” (Empowering Next Generation with Authentic Global Experiences) is a locally created initiative that the Etowah County School District unveiled in July 2009. ENGAGE is an ongoing, transforming process to better prepare our students for the 21st Century workplace. ENGAGE began with all administrators in the Etowah County School System striving to meet performance indicators for administrators in the 2009 National Educational Technology Standards for Administrators (NETS-A). Other components of this initiative included ongoing, sustained professional development for teachers in project-based learning, integrating 21st Century skills using NETS-T (Teachers) into the core curriculum, increasing rigor and relevance of assignments, and ensuring readiness for students to move to the next stage of their lives.

As a prelude to the launch of the ENGAGE initiative, all principals were challenged to create a vodcast during the 2009 Summer Administrator Retreat. In small groups, principals were given a small, inexpensive digital video recorder (a Flip camera) and 30 minutes to write a script, create the vodcast, and publish it to the entire group of forty administrators. Some were skeptical at first, and just a handful of administrators had ever seen a Flip camera. However, within a few minutes, each group was engaged as they created their videos entitled “Why Your Child Should Be a Student at Our School.” With literally no training, all groups finished their podcasts promptly and eagerly awaited to view them. I quickly uploaded the videos to our Professional Development Ning, and we watched their first attempts at podcasting as a group. Just like our students, each group of administrators wanted their production to be the best, and I reveled in the competition between my district’s administrators. I received many, “This was fun! Can we do another one?” and “Where can I get one of those cameras?” Before the next week had passed, my assistant was processing multiple orders for Flip cameras across our district, per principal requests.

While most principals may not be “Digital Natives,” they still learn by example and by being engaged, just as our students do. This simple project-based activity gave our administrators a birds’-eye view of authentic learning opportunities, as well as the multitude of goals it addressed. They were hooked, and I was not going to throw them back in the water. Seizing their interest in 21st Century tools, I assigned new “activities” for administrators over the course of a year.

Activity 1 – Ongoing 21st Century Professional Development for Administrators

All administrators attended ongoing professional development, which further demonstrated project-based lessons and 21st Century technologies that could be integrated into the curriculum. Some of the trainings were “in-person,” while other trainings were podcast to all administrators from the Central Office. These meetings provided training, resources, and exposure to 21st Century tools and teaching strategies.

Activity 2 – Conduct ENGAGE Training

Principals conducted at least three ENGAGE trainings at their respective schools and/or the Etowah County Summer Technology Fair. They demonstrated or shared best 21st Century practices, Web 2.0 tools, or other 21st Century technologies.

Activity 3 – Improve Web Presence

All administrators were required to improve their professional web presence for themselves and their respective schools. They attended trainings and/or conducted trainings to help them accomplish this goal.

Activity 4 – Join Ning and Wiki

Administrators joined the district’s Professional Development Ning and wikis, thus creating a 21st Century culture of collaboration and professional growth. A ECBOE Professional Development Ning ( had been created so that administrators and teachers with administrative certificates could participate in ongoing discussions about the ENGAGE initiative, as well as post best practices and podcasts. An ECBOE Administrator Wiki provided necessary resources to support the ENGAGE initiative. Administrators joined this wiki and visited it often for updated information and assignments. They were encouraged to add supporting ENGAGE content (widgets, pictures, links, etc).

Activity 5 – Social Media Exposure

Social networking tools have become integral part of students’ lives. It is paramount that educators are educated about these tools, as well as experience them, to fully understand their potential impact on students, both negative and positive.

Administrators “followed” ECBOE on Twitter and/or join the ECBOE Group on Facebook. If they choose to become “Twitterers,” they were to tweet at least once a week. If they joined the Facebook group, they were to post a discussion question or respond to a currently posted question (at least four times).


Many ask me how I motivated administrators to participate in these activities for an entire year, so I would be remiss if I did touch on that question. Fortunately, I work in a school district that places a high emphasis on 21st Century student engagement and technologies. My district’s principals want each of their schools to reflect best 21st Century practices, so I did not meet any resistance. I endeavored to make the activities relevant and even fun, much like I did in the classroom when teaching difficult content. To sweeten the pot, I did dangle two carrots over their heads. First, if they completed all the activities, I would award them with a PLU (Professional Learning Unit). All of my state’s principals are required to obtain five PLUs in five-year period. Secondly, and perhaps most important, I reminded principals that if I witnessed them demonstrating 21st Century leadership, I would do everything in my power to secure funding to add technologies, along with 21st Century professional development, for their schools.

A few months into this initiative, I received a grant to place multiple Flip cameras in each of my district’s twenty schools. Using the “train the trainer” model, I met with two teachers from each school to demonstrate the use of these cameras, who later met with their respective faculties to do the same. I also posted a “Flip Camera Resource” webpage for added assistance: A year later, I can barely keep up with all the innovative student videos that are being posted every day via these expensive video cameras.

Trying to stay true to my word, I applied for and received over $400,000 in grants last year for instructional technologies and professional development. In addition to netbook labs, interactive whiteboards, document cameras, and student response systems, I sent over 60 teachers and administrators all over the country for 21st Century and content-specific training. These opportunities included ISTE, NCTE, NCTM, T+L, NCTM, and NSTA conferences.

With technologies and training funded through these grants, it is my goal that our students will learn to apply their knowledge and skills in real-world applications by building a bridge from their core curriculum. The ENGAGE initiative has further armed administrators and in turn, teachers, with the tools and strategies to both facilitate and nurture authentic learning opportunities for all students.

Principals, Meet Facebook

Undeniably, social networking has become an integral part of students’ lives. As a school district technology director, I am often asked for social media guidance from school leaders. Like other school districts around the country, we have had students and teachers do some questionable things using social media. In speaking with principals about these issues, I discovered that many had never visited social media websites and in turn, knew very little about them, other than what they read or heard in the media. To overcome this disconnect, I gently nudged my district’s administrators into the social media arena so they could later have informed conversations with students, parents, and teachers when social media issues presented themselves.

I must first admit that I am an avid fan of Facebook, Twitter, and now, Google+. I have three Facebook pages, two Twitter accounts, and two Google+ pages, which represent both my personal and professional interests. I was a late bloomer to social media, but once I discovered its transformative and connective power, I was hooked. Having said that, I do not expect every educator to manage multiple social media accounts to prove that he or she has embraced social media. However, I do expect 21st Century educators to understand what these tools (and they are indeed tools) can mean to them, as well as their students.

For this initiative, I narrowed my focus to social media exposure for administrators, to be followed with our teachers. I have found it to be counterproductive to begin an initiative with teachers if their principals are not on board. To start off, I simply asked each administrator to “follow” ECBOE on Twitter and join the ECBOE Group on Facebook. If they choose to become “Tweeters,” they were to tweet at least once a week for four weeks, as well as respond to other tweets. If they joined the Facebook group, they were to post a discussion question or respond to a currently posted question (at least four times).

To get the ball rolling, I posted a series of discussion questions on our private ECBOE Facebook group page. These posts were in direct response to the ENGAGE (Empowering Next Generation with Authentic Global Experiences) initiative we were implementing at the time. A Wordle cloud of each post has been included to provide a snapshot of their responses. As you know, the more a word is used, the larger it will appear in a Wordle cloud. I find it interesting that the word “student” was the most common theme in all four blogs. I presented these images, along with the respective discussion questions, at one of our board meetings to update our stakeholders about the ENGAGE initiative; here are the questions we used:

  • #1: What do you find are your weaknesses in regard to your role as a 21st Century school leader? What are your strengths?
  • #2: What are you doing as the instructional leader to encourage 21st Century teaching and/or learning at your school?
  • #3:What 21st Century technologies and/or Web 2.0 tools would like to see more of in your classrooms this year? Why?
  • #4: Name a technology, lesson, or Web 2.0 tool that you feel has made a significant impact at your school in preparing students with the “3 R’s” (Relevance, Readiness, and Rigor)?

After completing the social media blogs with the district administrators, I encouraged them to further explore Facebook and Twitter for both professional and personal pursuits. I also shared social bookmarking websites, such as Diigo and Delicious, with them so they could better manage and share their favorite websites. I published many of their Facebook and Twitter ENGAGE responses on our district’s Facebook and Twitter accounts. These posts stimulated some very interesting conversations, especially from parents and students. In retrospect, I think it was a really good thing to post our administrators’ epiphanies, successes, and concerns for the stakeholders to see. Sure, the posts demonstrated their commitment to 21st Century education, but more than that, they allowed viewers to see them as real people who genuinely care about what happens in their schools.

I was pleased when several of our schools created Facebook pages, with feeds embedded on their websites, much like the district website: Many teachers have since followed suit. I began to receive a lot of questions about what educators should or should not do when using social media. In response to these concerns, we developed what we call “Social Media Guidelines for Educators,” which are unique to our district: These guidelines were created on a Google Doc, which was shared with all administrators, board members, and school technology coordinators. Everyone was asked to contribute and revise, and within a few weeks, we had a final draft. In a nutshell, the guidelines encourage teachers to be smart about what they post and use “professional” social media accounts to converse with students and parents (if they choose to utilize social media) as opposed to their personal accounts. These guidelines are not mandates or board policy, but simply recommendations to help teachers make wise decisions when connecting with social media.

Facebook is currently blocked in my district, but I have shared some ways teachers can utilize social media in their classroom activities. Most recently, I met with teachers and shared some really interesting Facebook-like websites called Edmodo, Collaborize, and My Fake Wall. Edmodo and Collaborize allow students and teachers to connect with one another safely and easily in a social media venue, without the security concerns that Facebook and MySpace present. With My Fake Wall, students can create fake Facebook-looking pages for historical or literary characters. One of the teachers who attended, Rachael Couch, conducted Fake Wall activities the very next week with her language arts students, and the sites were incredible. It was amazing how deeply the students connected with the characters they portrayed.

Great Gatsby Fake Walls (10th grade)

Our Town Fake Walls (10th grade)

In summary, it is critical that school leaders and teachers are educated about social media, as well as experience them, to fully understand their potential impact on students, both negative and positive. Since this “administrator social media exercise,” I have had much fewer social media crises, and many of our schools’ principals are now avid users of social media themselves. My current focus is to provide “appropriate online behavior” training for our students, when using all web-based tools, including social media. Social media is not going away, and it is incumbent upon us as educators to arm our students with tools they need to become lifelong, successful digital citizens.