The Tech Conductor

Below is a post that was written by Jeffrey Bradbury.  I have been very proud to call Jeff a colleague and great friend since we met at the first EdCampNJ in 2012.  Since then, Jeff has helped me navigate the educational seas on a myriad of levels, ranging from creating a new district website to offering in-person professional development to support staff. Read his great post below:

The other day, I had a technology coach from a neighboring school district visit my school and shadow me for the day.  It was a fantastic experience and something that I hope to be able to do with other districts this year and beyond.  The teacher and I had a great day of learning from one another, but I couldn’t help but use the day to reflect on many of our common conversation topics.  One of the deep conversations we had was around the simple question: “What is a Tech Coach?

Rather than use this post as an opportunity to dive into what a Tech Coach is, and what a Technology Integration Specialist is, I would like to propose a question to my readers that might shed some light on how I have approached these titles and my current position for the last two years.  The question is one that might sound strange, but those knowing my background might find quite interesting.  Should I consider myself a Tech Coach … or a Tech Conductor?

Let’s dive into this topic …

Everything I Know … I learned From The Podium

It’s no secret that my background is in Music Education.  I have countless memories of rehearsal sessions, and amazing performances of the worlds greatest pieces of music.  About 10 years ago (or more) I decided that I wanted to get up and instead of sitting in the orchestra, I wanted to start down a path that allowed me to stand in front of the orchestra and work along side them to perform sonata’s, symphonies, and operas.

It was during that time that I started taking formal conducting lessons from several amazing teachers.  From there, I learned how to physically stand and present myself to not only an orchestra, but a paying audience, and of course work along side a board of directors to help promote my vision, the orchestras vision, and most importantly, the composers visions.

Of all the things that I learned in the world of conducting, these lessons stand out:

  • The conductor is the only one on stage that doesn’t make noise, yet his actions are what tie the group together
  • The musicians don’t need a conductor to know what to do. A conductors job is simply to start everyone and guide them through transitions.
  • Treat every musician with respect, but understand that different instruments require different needs.

It has been through these lessons that I approach every day as a Tech Coach.  It is through these lessons that I find myself more becoming a Tech Conductor.  Let me try and explain how these lessons can be applied in a school system.

From Podium To Classroom … and Back Again

When you break down everything that happens on the podium, it starts and stops with the simple concept of Respect.  I can honestly say that I have my good days and I have had my bad days as I learn how to be a Tech Coach to over 400 staff members.  As a conductor, you have your good days and bad days too.  You have your rehearsals where everything goes well, and you have those times where someone puts you on the spot in a rehearsal and you simply don’t know the answer.  This happens in the classroom all the time.

What is important is that you come prepared to every rehearsal, meeting, classroom, as prepared as possible.  If you don’t know the answer to a question, you always make sure you have a resource (your PLN) that can help you find the answer quickly.

From early on in my conductor training, I learned that the word Maestro is one that gets placed upon you from day one, but the concept of Maestro, a word that literally translates into Teacher, (or coach) is one that is earned day after day, rehearsal after rehearsal and is earned only through respect.  This is extremely true for Technology Coaches who not only work with everyone in a district at all levels, but must also be walking talking resource centers of technology and pedagogy that are essentially on call 24/7.

You Are The Only One Who Doesn’t Make Any Sound

In an orchestra setting, the violin players, play the violin, the tuba players play the tuba, and the bass players play the bass.  Each of these musicians or groups of musicians has an instrument that they can pick up anytime and practice.  A Conductor on the other hand has the orchestra.  There is no try way to practice late at night with an imaginary group of 50 people.  The preparation for Conductors is mostly mental and requires you to study scores of music and practice “gestures” in the air, sometimes in front of mirrors to make sure that the one single time you are in front of a group you get it right.

As a Tech Coach, it is very much the same.  Teachers have the opportunity to learn from their students every day.  They learn how their classrooms work, act, and interact with each other.  As a Tech Coach, you have just one moment to walk into a classroom and nail your lesson.  When you are given an opportunity to present in front of a building, you are given an opportunity to showcase your self in front of 150 (or more) strangers who are all there to learn from, and support you. They know you are in front of them to help them become better educators, but there might not be the same friendly connection that a teacher and a group of students has, or a principal and a faculty have.

Walking into a building to give PD is very much like bring asked to come into a new orchestra and guest conduct a rehearsal or performance without ever getting to meet the musicians.

Your Teachers … They Don’t Need You

Let’s face the fact that teachers have been teaching for hundreds of years without the need for a “Technology Integration Specialist.”  They don’t need “Tech Coaching.”  But … do they?

One of the first rules of conducting is … Show Up When Needed, and Get Out Of The Way …

There are times when you can simply tell a musician how to play something, times when you can describe a sound, and times where you have to grab an instrument from the violin section and demonstrate for a group.

This couldn’t be more truer as a Tech Coach.  There are times where I have worked with a teacher and my role was simply to answer a question or two and back away.  Other situations have lead me to helping them create a co-teaching lesson where together, we worked with the students on an innovative lesson.

In the classroom, the role of a Tech Coach is to quickly enter and assess a situation and provide whatever the teacher needs when they need it.  Perhaps it’s by simply answering a question and other times it’s by picking up the instrument to demonstrate how something should look or sound.

If you choose the right method of support, the group/teacher will appreciate your help and together the rehearsal/lesson will move forward.  If you choose the wrong method at the wrong time, you are libel to insult someone and create a situation you never intended to have started. As a Conductor and as a Tech Coach, it’s always important to know the personalities you are working with so you can quickly make the right decisions and choices.

Some Teachers Are Section Players … Some Are Soloists

If you really think about it, a school district is very much like an orchestra. To conceptualize this, lets break down the different parts of each.

The Orchestra

Violin SectionThe Strings

In the front of a symphony orchestra lies a massive section known as the Strings.  All together, their instruments are in the “violin family.” Their instruments look similar, they play with a bow, and there could be as many as 24 of the same instrument in each of the 5 distinct sections.  Together, they can be broken down into string quartets, trios, and often, composers write for them as either a full section, or as soli sections. Each of the subsections (violins, viola, cells, bass) are seated by rank (ability level) and there is a section leader who is for conversation sake, “the boss” of that section.

The Winds

The next group of musicians behind the strings is the Woodwinds. This section is composed of your Flutes, Oboes, Clarinets, and Bassoons.  They are your mid range, mid level instruments who are put in the awkward position of sitting behind the massive string section, yet they sit in front of the might brass and percussion sections so it’s often possible that while playing loud and proud they don’t get heard when the entire group is playing together.

Winds and BrassThe Brass, Percussion, etc …

Composed of the Trumpets, Trombones, and Tubas, Drums, Marimbas, Cymbals and all other instruments these musicians are highly specialized and are only in your group because, like the winds, they passed an audition based on their ability to be leaders and soloists.  When addressing these musicians a conductor should simply be able to describe in as few words as possible the sound or quality they wish to hear and it should happen with as little retakes as possible.  These are HIGHLY skilled and trained musicians who spend hours in a practice room learning what is known as “excerpts” or very tiny solo passages just to have the opportunity to audition for the group.

A School District

Elementary Teachers

Elementary Teachers, should be approached as a group. In any building, for example, you have several 4th grade teachers all teaching their own class, but teaching a common curriculum to the classroom next door.  They meet in departments to plan common activities but they often do their lesson plans on their own.  When you work with one and not the others, it is often not looked highly on. Sometimes it’s best to talk about concepts such as blended learning, or SAMR models, but they are also the first to allow a Tech Coach to pick up their instrument (classroom) and come in to demonstrate something new and amazing in the world of Technology.

Elementary teachers often have degrees in general elementary education rather than a specialized degree in a subject area and for that reason it’s often best to show a wide variety of examples and build lessons together.  Elementary Teachers and Buildings should be approached the same way a string section is approached.  It’s always best when you are able to demonstrate the concept as well as describe.

Middle School

Much like the proud woodwinds, Middle School teachers are caught between elementary and high school teachers. They have the hardest job because without them students don’t have a solid direction when they get into the older grades.  Also much like the Woodwinds, Middle School teachers are soloists who often times are remembered the most when a student looks back at their favorite years in school  Their hardest job is that they often have to work with a group of students who came from multiple elementary schools and haven’t yet jelled together as individuals yet … and oh, did we mention those wonderful puberty years.

High School

Much like a conductor should never (unless specialized themselves in the instrument) tell a brass player how to play the trumpet, a good Tech Coach should never (or hardly ever) approach a high school teacher and tell them how to teach their subject. . . Trust me …

High School Teachers are HIGHLY talented, and HIGHLY Specialized educators who command the respect of teenagers every day and for those reasons I love popping my head into classrooms each day, asking if they need anything and moving on.  Often, I find myself sitting down with high school teachers to plan out lessons the same way I would sit down with a soloist to plan out a solo passage in a symphony.  If you show them respect, they will reciprocate and come back time and time again because their only goal each year is to produce the best students and pass them on to college.

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