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Teachers vs. tech: Alum helps overcome classroom struggle

Donald White in a classroom

Donald White, Ph.D. '04

The adage that defines school as the place to learn “Readin’ and ‘ritin’ and ‘rithmetic” doesn’t hold true for the classroom of 2011. Technology has been added to the list as a fundamental factor in today’s teaching and learning equation.

Working it into the curriculum throws off more than the rhythm of the popular lyric written in 1907. It puts many educators into a tailspin, especially as it becomes increasingly obvious that students are more techno-savvy than most teachers and administrators.

Donald White, Ph.D. ’04, is not intimidated. As superintendent of Troy Community Consolidated School District 30-C in the Chicago suburbs of Shorewood, Joliet, and Channahon, he preaches the merits of teaching with technology. Perhaps more importantly, he models within the state of Illinois and beyond the myriad ways embracing technology empowers administrators, energizes teachers, and engages students.

“Kids are coming to school with an expectation that technology be available, and they have a higher level of skills because they are growing up with technology. There’s a real pressure on leaders to put technology at the top of the agenda,” White said.

“From a sociological standpoint, technologically unsophisticated schools are losing their credibility and thereby their effectiveness with pupils because they are no longer congruent with the larger societal context.”

The paradigm shift from yesteryear’s norm is so significant that education will never be the same. While some consider this reality a threat, White sees unlimited possibilities to enrich the childhood learning experience for all involved—including families and the community at large.

White’s perspective comes from personal and professional experiences that have done more than make him an extraordinary educator who now leads seven schools serving students from Pre-K through 8th grade in Illinois’ fastest growing county.

He is also a national leader and consultant in introducing technology into school districts, and specifically its use in data collection and analysis as a means to improve what happens in the classroom.

“I am a technology geek,” White said with an openness and humor that defines his engaging personality. His resume confirms that he has been a pioneer at the keyboard since his College of Education days in the Educational Administration and Foundations program. He was one of Illinois State’s first doctoral students to complete his graduate work online, inspired to do so by his mentor, Professor Emeritus Rod Riegle.

White began the degree while serving as the principal of LeRoy Elementary School. While there he coded and created the school’s first Web site. He also garnered a technology grant that enabled him to create Internet access within the school in 1993.

He found a way to offer the service to residents as well, making LeRoy the first local community in Illinois to provide Internet access to its homes for a cost of only $25 per month. The district partnered with a Bloomington business that kept $18 of the fee. The remaining $7 went to the district, which used the money to expand access to technology.

“I wired the entire district myself. I served as principal during the day and then worked on the network in the evenings and weekends,” White said. “The district could not afford to hire someone to do this work. If you want to get something done you just have to be creative and put in some sweat equity.”

There has been plenty of hard work for White, who enrolled at Western Illinois University as an education major eager to teach. Yet upon graduation he took a job at Walgreen’s and quickly rose to the management level. With a passion for teaching unfulfilled, White decided to follow his dream.

“After two years I quit my job. I remember vividly the day when I told my wife that I had quit. She replied with ‘Honey, I’m pregnant,’” White said. Undaunted by the news, he began working as a substitute teacher during the day while taking a night shift at Walgreen’s.

“I taught almost every day so I was up at 5:30 a.m. and I worked at Walgreen’s until midnight,” White said. “It was a very rewarding year, but I wouldn’t want to repeat it!”

His first full-time teaching job was with fourth graders in Mahomet. By 1991, he had completed a master’s degree at the University of Illinois and was ready to take an administrative role. White worked for two years as an assistant principal and athletic director in Dwight. By 1993, he was at LeRoy. Three years later he became the district’s director of elementary instruction and technology.

Interaction is an integral element of Don White’s leadership methods as a superintendent. He regularly works with students, including those in a fourth grade class at Troy Hofer Elementary School within the suburban Chicago district he oversees. He is determined to provide students with technology that enriches learning.

From there White moved to the Champaign Community Unit School District No. 4 as the director of educational technology before becoming its deputy superintendent. His first superintendent’s assignment was at Pleasant Plains. He held the job at Pekin as well, which partners with Illinois State’s Professional Development School program, giving White the opportunity to mentor Illinois State students.

By 2007, White was again ready for a new challenge of school construction in a growing district, which the Troy 30-C position has offered. He’s also had the opportunity to create a prototypical modern classroom.

“We began with the concept of an empty room and then began to put things back in that are needed to teach in a 21st century classroom,” White said. While traditional standards such as the reading rug remained, he added at least five netbooks or laptops for portable technology, white boards, a document camera and Mimios, which are devices that make a white board interactive.

“Every time we get the funding, we continue our mission of building engaged classrooms with tools,” White said. “But if the teacher doesn’t use them, it’s an expensive paper weight.”

Training is consequently key to White’s plan for introducing technology, which he advances for the fundamental reason that it’s an integral part of life for young people. “We don’t do this for the bells and whistles but because students today spend more hours on social networking sites, texting, and using emerging Web technology than they do studying.” Yet educators not only expect but typically demand students unplug when they enter the classroom.

“Frankly, students are learning how to use these tools outside of the school,” White said. “Why would we as educators not take advantage of the positive impact these tools could have in engaging students in learning inside the school?”

The answer is often a fear factor. White has witnessed it in teachers who are hesitant to take advantage of emerging technologies and administrators who would gladly eliminate data analysis from their daily duties.

He is gifted with an ability to help individuals overcome their anxiety by working at a personal level. When trying to get his LeRoy staff to accept the foreign concept of email, he engaged the most senior teachers by promoting the technology as an easy and inexpensive way to connect with distant grandchildren.

“I got them emotionally hooked,” White said. The approach worked years later when a veteran staff member was hesitant to attempt a Podcast. The opportunity to record books for future generations and create a legacy beyond retirement was the only motivation she needed to make the effort.

“Fear does not drive improvement. We can’t improve unless we try something new, and we will not grow in a punishment mode,” White said, which explains his willingness to be vulnerable and openly admit mistakes.

Using honesty and candor while building partnerships results in White’s ability to remove perceived obstacles so that all sectors of his district benefit. He is guided by a leadership philosophy grounded in the belief that his job is to serve children first, then parents and teachers.

White facilitates, motivates, and leads by example. He communicates with his board, staff, and families electronically. School menus, newsletters, board minutes, and student grades are all available by computer. Many of White’s scholarly presentations and papers are online, as are Podcasts that serve as tutorials.

He also blogs regularly as a way for interaction with individuals from across the district and frequently posts online surveys to gather information, with the results also on the Internet.

Yet he remains very much physically in touch with those he serves, meeting with every teacher in the district, staff, students, and constituents. “The best part of my job is interacting with others, even when problems arise,” he said.

“There are always headaches and negatives, but I view them as an opportunity. I appreciate individuals who tell me when something is not going well and take me out of my happy place,” White said.

Such candid feedback results in growth and helps White reach yet another of his leadership tenets: “Get together better so that we can get better together!” It’s a guiding principle that enriches his home life as well as his career. White’s family includes his wife, Lori, who is a registered nurse. They have an adult son, Bryant, and daughter, Traci, who is also an ISU College of Education graduate.

Their lives have been shaped by a man who opens doors of opportunity for others through his vision, determination, and enthusiastic encouragement that nothing is impossible. It’s a personal philosophy that White literally conveys in every message, as he signs his email with the reminder that “You can choose to dream or you can dream and do something about it. I prefer the latter.”

PLUG IN WITHOUT PANIC

Although now holding an administrative role, Don White remains very much a teacher to superintendents and principals who value his leadership in data driven decision-making.

White has served in myriad training and mentoring roles, including as a designer for the Illinois Leadership and Technology for Change program out of Illinois State University. He is also cochair for the Illinois Association of School Administrators (IASA) School for Advanced Leadership.

The work has created opportunities for him to share best practices in school leadership and technology applications. He now presents nationally, providing practical steps that enable others to become a technology leader and modeler. White also created and administers several surveys for the IASA, making him “the data person” in Illinois for educational statistics and analysis.

“I had a dream to have superintendents and principals use technology. I wanted to teach them how to fish,” White said. His motivation to provide user-friendly data stems from his core value of “informed practice. This means that I work really hard to study and think before I act.”

White uses humor and his own experiences to exhibit how data reveal a story from which conversation evolves and outcomes can be achieved. “We want to get to the Emerald City so we need to develop a path. We do it one brick at a time,” White said, using the metaphor to share his conviction that data can lead the way to better teaching and learning because “output takes care of itself if you have good input.”

To ensure districts begin with solid information, White has created a Web site full of tools and insights. Sample surveys are posted, as well as data files accessible only to Illinois superintendents. He has samples of his instructional leadership teaching and Podcast tutorials online as well. All are designed to help school districts find a way to use data as a starting point for planning.

“Without it,” White said, an educational leader is “just another person with an opinion.”

BACK-TO-SCHOOL LIST FOR ADULTS

Another school year is about to begin, which can often spark more anxiety for parents than students. Superintendent Don White can understand the apprehension, especially given the expectations for young people to perform at higher standards in school systems that are increasingly scrutinized and criticized.

As he begins his 25th year as an educator, White is more encouraged than ever because of the promise and ability he sees in today’s youth. But he also perceives a troubling attitude that suggests schools should fix everything wrong in society.

White considers a community connection crucial in every school district’s success and consequently promotes partnerships. The bond often begins in the classroom with a teacher. He offers the following tips to parents and guardians eager to connect with school staff, and seeking advice to make the academic year a positive experience from the first day the school bell rings.

  • Read, Read, Read! Read to your child, listen to your child read, and set aside time for your child to read alone every day.
  • Get to know your child’s teacher by attending as many school events as possible and don’t hesitate to call with concerns. If you have a question or concern, the teacher typically wants to hear from you.
  • Look for signs your child does not comprehend schoolwork. This is best done by helping your child with homework. If you notice something that concerns you, share that with your child’s teacher.
  • Make sure your child is prepared for school by getting enough sleep and eating a well-balanced, healthy diet.
  • Closely monitor the time your child is spending playing video games, watching television, and using the computer for leisure. These hours add up very quickly!
  • Carefully review how and when your child is using technology and teach appropriate uses of technology. For example, talk with your child about the pros and cons of using social networking sites to stay connected with friends, but let them know that you will periodically sit with them to review their site. Adults should never assume that children automatically know the pitfalls or misuses of technology.
  • Get your child involved in before and after school activities. Children who participate in sports, service or scholastic clubs, and fine arts such as band and chorus enjoy school more and are typically moremotivated to do well in their academic classes.

 

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