Identifying and Grooming the Pioneers

© 1998, Jamie McKenzie,
All Rights Reserved
A version of this article first appeared in
eSchool News, April, 1998

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I. Introduction

The better the job we do of identifying, grooming and rewarding local talent, the greater the professional growth and development we will see. It is a simple [but usually ignored] truth. We are too often penny wise and people foolish.

Change takes root when grown from local seeds planted by those who know the soil, the sky and the prevailing winds. Programs and strategies grown elsewhere usually flounder and founder.

Home grown. Home made. Home cooked. Innovation thrives when you find and encourage the right people. They return the favor by customizing and adjusting programs to match local needs, local people and local conditions.

Talent. Inventiveness. An almost cussed irreverence for the way things are spozed to be . . . Be on the look-out for talent. Find it. Grow it. Encourage it. We can never have enough.

II. Identifying Talent

Think big. Your goal is to find and encourage no fewer than ten per cent of the district teaching staff to become technologically savvy trend setters, pioneers and leaders. These are the folks who will steer the invention of your program and will build enticing professional development opportunities for their colleagues.

Don’t go out and pick the obvious people. No more same-old, same-old. We are looking to change the mix dramatically. We are looking for all different learning styles and personality traits as well as representation from all the various factions and groups which are typical in most school districts.

We don’t want plain old pea soup. We crave five alarm, eight bean chili. The individuals don’t all need to be five alarm. It’s the combination which makes for hot and spicy chemistry.

At least half of this vanguard should be people who nobody would ever expect to see leading any technology efforts. That’s the beauty of the strategy. We jump right out of the rut. We are suddenly driving "off road" with plenty of flair and passion.

"I can’t believe Anthony is up there showing us all these fantastic new tricks. I thought he hated technology?"

We seek five essential traits and will cultivate the sixth . . .


1. Nerve

"That Anthony sure has a lot of nerve!"

All members of this cadre must be able to question the unquestionable and challenge the way things have always happened in the past. Each "recruit" must possess a "can do" attitude. A strong forward lean. The flexibility to test out a whole bunch of possibilities. A willingness to trip, stumble and fall into excellence.

Folks with nerve are not always easy . . .


2. Talent

They must be very, very good at something in their lives outside of school, but it need not be related to technology at the outset. What we seek here is the capacity to stand out and be exceptional . . . the passion to excel, to push the limits.

We ultimately expect to harness the intensity they have shown for cooking, dancing, painting, gardening, fly=fishing, constructing or whatever in the service of our technology initiative.

3. Respect

No pariahs, no cast offs, no outcasts and no [serious] troublemakers.

They must all be viewed with considerable respect by their peers. Not necessarily well loved, but well respected, at least .

4. Empathy

All members of the vanguard must have strong empathy for colleagues and the disparate frustrations, rewards and challenges which typify the work lives of teachers.

Each person must be caring as well as capable of working toward accord and harmony.

5. Balance

Each person must add to the overall balance of the vanguard, offering offsetting qualities, tendencies and preferences which are reflective of the larger professional community’s diversity.

To be cultivated . . .

6. Eagerness

A passionate love for new technologies is not a necessary "starting trait." If we do a good job of encouraging and grooming the vanguard, we should be able to inspire the eagerness we seek.

In contrast to those who have always been excited about technology, the teacher who has been recently "converted" may achieve a special level of credibility from peers.

Who does the selecting?

Each district must follow its own traditions when developing local talent, but the best approach probably intermixes a number of strategies. A designated leader in the technology area may do much of the selecting. Technology teams at the site level may play a major role. And self selection in response to advertised opportunities may round out the process.

III. Grooming and Encouraging

What do we do with these people? this vanguard?

We provide an incredibly rich menu of learning opportunities which will cause growth spurts and bursts. We seek more than increased skill levels. This is not just about knowledge. We are hoping for a major increase of the group’s imaginative and innovative spirit.

We are looking for experiences which will feed their creative instincts and nurture their spirits.

The [person] with a new idea is a crank until the idea succeeds.

Mark Twain

• The Excursion - Take Me Away!

Schools and school districts are (in most cases) remarkably confining. To provoke new thinking and inspire new possibilities, we must send teachers across borders and boundaries.

Most districts limit travel. We need to radically expand the travel opportunities of our vanguard so they can escape [and learn to challenge] the boxes and traditions they work within.

1. School-to-Work

Every member of the vanguard visits 2-3 technology rich workplaces annually to witness how information technologies may transform decision-making and problem-solving. Visits should include the not-for-profit sector. These visits lift their eyes beyond the horizon. "How do we give our students a taste of this world outside? How do we prepare them?"

2. Outstanding/Outlier/Anomaly Schools

We are looking for programs, teachers, students and classrooms which have "deviated or departed" from the normal way of doing business [but with some success]. These may, at first seem "peculiar, irregular, or abnormal" in some ways [American Heritage Dictionary]. All the better!

Good time to hop on an airplane or a ferry. Too many visits take place within the same state or county. There are only a handful of states which have done much with networked technologies in schools. Even if you live in one of those states, you should be visiting the other 6-10 who are doing something worthwhile.

In all too many cases, schools twist new technologies to perform old tasks. Visits to "mainstream" programs may do more damage than good. In two decades of using computers, they have remained, according to many studies, peripheral to the regular program.

We are seeking models where the technologies have become fully integrated tools supporting powerful student thought and invention. But beware of marketing and PR efforts. You cannot judge a school by its Web site!

3. Great Gatherings

We send members of the vanguard to join groups of other inventive souls who are trying to create the future, using whatever tools and inspiration they can find, whether it be research, exploration, discussion, speculation, metaphysical inquiry, or scientific inquiry. The important ingredients are inquiring minds and ample curiosities.

Oddly, educational conferences and workshops (even those devoted to new technologies) may not always be the best source of inspiration. The institutional pressures to maintain tradition can undermine the innovative potential of such events. Same-old, same-old can prevail over dramatic change.

Seek out unusual gatherings sponsored by the World Future Society [], Internet World [] , the Participatory Design Conference sponsored by the Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility [] or The National Center for Urban Partnerships [].

Some of the best experiences will occur outside the official proceedings as members of the vanguard swap ideas, questions and insights with other attendees.

• The Club House - The Play’s the Thing

Some of the best new ideas occur in the tree house. It’s not the elevation . . . it’s the company . . . the playful and foolish atmosphere.

Teaching being a profession which isolates adults one from another for the most part, we need to create gathering places and rituals so that the vanguard can enjoy the fruits of synergy. Perhaps we take turns inviting colleagues to our homes for coffee or wine. Or maybe we find a coffee shop down town which offers strong brew.

The important thing is getting away from the ho-hum drum of regular school meetings and meeting spaces. If we expect people to take flight, we need to get them together where their ideas can flow and percolate, roll over and boil. Synergy [the chemistry of good minds joined in chewing upon a challenge] responds to good surroundings, good company and good coffee.

• Flights of Fancy - Imagine That!

Every member of this vanguard should have a substantial budget to support the purchase of books, the use of electronic resources and the payment for subscriptions of various kinds. $400-$500 can make a very large impact upon the information resources available to fuel each person’s imagination.

With the advent of "push technology" teachers can sign up for all manner of information "alerts" which are customized to match their interests and arrive daily or weekly in their e-mail baskets. Some are free - like listservs . . . DejaNews provides a good search mechanism to locate listservs and newsgroups. ( - while others cost money.


The investment of each dollar in good information for members of the vanguard will pay pay tenfold in flights of imagination.

• To Build a Fire - The Inventor’s Workshop

Little funding is available in most school districts for folks to gather together for the actual construction process. Professional development is often viewed as training, not building. Ironically, it turns out that the process of invention actually motivates more learning of technology skills and greater integration into regular classrooms.

This kind of invention proved successful in the Grand Prairie (TX) ISD as teachers and librarians collaborated on the development of student online research modules []. Some of the teachers walked in as novices but emerged as competent searchers and technology lesson planners thanks to the support of the group.

Grants writing can serve a similar purpose. Pull together a dozen inventors and watch the sparks fly.

Home grown. Home made. Home cooked. Innovation thrives when you find and encourage the right people.

• Nobody’s Fool- The Power of Mentoring

We plan so our vanguard may meet with sages and seers from nearby and far away. We expect that they will, in turn, provide support and guidance for the learning journeys of their peers.

The challenge is finding someone worth questioning. For every dozen so-called "experts" and consultants there may be one soothsayer. We need to be cautious of those who label themselves as gurus or futurists.

Before someone might qualify as a mentor or TEACHER to our vanguard, we would hope their ideas, theories and suggestions were tested in the classroom, their wisdom won through experience. There are far too many glib technologists propounding and marketing and testifying. They market a bandwagon without axles, yoke, wheels or oxen.

We ask three simple questions:

What work are you doing with teachers and students to see which strategies actually make a difference?

What have you invented?

Where have you failed?

If they haven’t failed, chances are they haven’t taken risks, created real programs or learned much worth sharing.

We meet with outsiders because we hope to learn from their mistakes as well as their victories and successes. We hope they will help us steer by the stars as well as some chart or compass. We expect that they will not insult us with simple answers and prescriptions and recipes.

We yearn for the thinker who knows that the questions are more important than the answers. Questions give us power. Answers rarely match local conditions and circumstances.

Within our own districts, the power of mentoring is immense. Peer-to-peer, we see teachers extending a helping hand, an encouraging word. First one leads. Then they trade places. Each possesses a special expertise. No hierarchy here. Mentoring can be a movable feast.

Issues of Cost

Many of the suggestions offered in this column cost money, some will complain, but the most costly mistake of all is failing to develop the "human infrastructure" adequately so a district invests millions of dollars in networking and equipment which is shunned.

Rather than penny wise and people foolish, reserve 20-25 per cent of your hardware investment for adult learning. You are better off with fewer computers used actively than many computers sleeping through the day underutilized.


We don’t want plain old pea soup. We crave five alarm, eight bean chili. If we expect to see our students and our teachers leaning over monitor screens, intently exploring rich information with powerful tools, we must encourage local talent and invest mightily in providing opportunities for growth.


This article was first published in eSchool News, April, 1998


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