By KEITH RYAN CARTWRIGHT
Rutherford County Schools
For the better part of 25 years, the instructional technology department for Rutherford County Schools has quietly worked behind the scenes to support teachers with their technology needs in classrooms throughout the district.
In the mid-90s it was common for the two-person instructional technology department to train teachers on how to use computers. For many, their first experience with emails was the RCS account they were assigned. Once a teacher was successfully trained, they received a computer at their desk and five student workspaces.
Over the years, the technology being used in classrooms evolved with the times, but the support role of the Instructional Technology Department remained mostly the same.
That all changed in March when the pandemic struck and Rutherford County Schools announced it would temporarily close its buildings, eventually extending the closure for the remainder of the school year.
Since then, “instructional technology” has become something of a buzz phrase on the frontline of education for the 2020–2021 school year.
“Instead of using technology to support instruction in the classroom, now technology has become the way to actually access instruction in the classroom,” said Dr. Jimmy Sullivan, assistant superintendent for the RCS Curriculum and Instruction department. “That’s a complete shift in the way teachers and students have to think about technology.”
And in the middle of this shift in thinking, Jeannie Williams transitioned from instructional technology specialist to coordinator of the four-person department — only two of which are devoted full time to instructional technology.
When the first announcement was made in March, Williams said virtual trainings with teachers began almost immediately.
Those trainings sessions involved principals, teachers, coaches and professional learning communities with fellow instructors.
“We were working with them to make sure they were aware of certain features we had,” said Williams, speaking of Office 365, Microsoft Teams and eventually the addition of Zoom.
Williams added, “We were already using some of those resources, but we were using it for instructional purposes on a small scale. Then we began instructing teachers districtwide.”
Not only did each of the three grade bands — elementary, middle and high school—have unique needs that needed to be met, the technology needs for kindergartners and first-graders were also vastly different from fourth- and fifth-graders.
And quickly, Williams and her staff — Cherri McCrary, who took over Williams previous role as specialist, along with Kim Cing and Jennifer Brooks — became a “liaison between all departments because, with this role, technology is in every aspect of our jobs.”
They also worked closely with Steve Solomon, IT coordinator, and his entire hardware and systems support team regarding software and technology devices.
Williams, a graduate of both Riverdale High School and Middle Tennessee State University, and her team are all former teachers.
Relying on their classroom experiences, they strive to meet the needs of classroom and virtual needs by making sure everyone — administrators, instructors and staff — knows what resources and tools the district has available.
“We really try to do our due diligence and prepare trainings and support to make it easier to save time,” said Williams, who added, “This year has just been more focused on teachers and helping them balance the traditional in-person students and the distance-learners and making sure they … have the setup they need in the classroom.
“There’s just lots of moving parts and pieces to it.”
The key has been maximizing their time while prioritizing, dealing with and addressing a continuum of needs in a timely manner. In doing so, they have stressed the importance of communication in making sure everyone — educators, students, parents and the Central Office — are on the same page.
They continue to listen to needs throughout the district and supporting those who reach out with documents and trainings that focus on everything from sharing content to engaging distance-learners.
“It’s been teamwork across the district,” Williams said. “I cannot do this alone. The people I do work with, they’re awesome.
“We’re all troubleshooters,” she continued. “We just want everyone to know we’re here to help and serve and to listen to their needs and then help them find solutions.”
PHOTO / KEITH RYAN CARTWRIGHT
Jeannie Williams and Cherri McCrary prepare to collaborate with educators from throughout Rutherford County Schools via the latest in an on-going series of Zoom meetings.