Making Technology Work for Schools
- Expertise: Technology Management
- Position: Director of Technology
- District: Vail School District, Ariz.
When principals in the Vail district near Tucson, Ariz., immediately send feedback to the teachers they’ve just observed, that’s because of Mark Breen.
When the district is easily able to reward teachers with extra cash or a voucher for a gardening club or other extracurricular activity they’ve started, that’s also largely thanks to Breen.
And when the district got principals and teachers to agree on a new systemwide portal to help teachers share student progress with parents in an easily digestible way, that was also Breen’s doing.
Breen, the technology director for the more than 12,000-student school district and a former band director, is often behind the scenes doing the out-of-sight but crucial tasks that make educators’ jobs easier and help principals and teachers better serve students.
He’s part of a breed of school district leaders who are rarely in the spotlight, but without whom district operations would at best be chaotic—and at worst screech to a halt.
“He never makes you feel like you’re imposing on his day,” said Brian Turner, the technology site coordinator for Sycamore Elementary School and Corona Foothills Middle School. “He’s always willing to ride to the rescue.”
Lessons from the Leader
- Focus on relationships: Learn how to effectively communicate, actively listen, and treat people how they want to be treated. Meaningful work can only happen on the foundation of authentic relationships.
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- Know your values: Internalize and reflect on your personal values and those of the organization. Point to those value sets when making decisions.
Breen’s strength lies in bringing together different groups of people to revamp under-the-hood district processes, making them more digital and user-friendly, and less time-consuming and unwieldy.
In all of those efforts, he’s worked to understand his colleagues’ jobs and has asked for their input—a refreshing approach given that educators often lament that they aren’t always consulted when big initiatives are rolled out by the central office.
“We really want their feedback because a lot of times we don’t know exactly how they’re doing things,” Breen said.
Calvin Baker, the superintendent, thinks one reason Breen excels at getting employees from disparate parts of the system to work together is because of his background as a band leader.
“You think about the mental image of a conductor standing in front of an orchestra, with so many very different instruments all playing different parts,” Baker said. “Yet when it comes together under the direction of the person waving the baton, it makes a beautiful sound.”
That’s what Breen does for Vail’s technology, he said.
Breen, who taught band for seven years before becoming the district’s technology director, said his musical roots have helped him in his new job.
“Hopefully, that brings a unique part to my role, just having a passion for creative projects,” he said.
In a way, it was music that led Breen, 40, to technology. About 20 years ago, he started dabbling in music recording, which sparked an interest in technology and reignited his childhood love of computers. He started teaching computer music classes on the side.
When he went to work for Vail in 2009, the district was only looking for a half-time band director, so Breen added computer classes to fill the rest of his schedule.
“I re-fell in love with technology and some of the instruction around it,” he said. He was floored to see how technology was “affecting what everyone did—from custodians, to superintendents, to school bus drivers, to teachers,” he said. And there were boundless opportunities for instruction in the digital age. He became technology leader for Rincon Vista Middle School, then worked his way up to his current position, where he helps oversee technology for the entire district.
As the school system’s technology chief, Breen’s overhauled everything from the district’s teacher evaluation to its financial and human resources systems.
When the state of Arizona changed its teacher-evaluation requirements in 2013, Vail used it as an opportunity to ditch its arduous, paper-heavy system for recording teacher-performance reviews.
Breen knew that to get the job done right, he had to work with those who would be affected by the changes. He sat down with principals and district leaders to find out what they hated about the old system and what they’d like to see in the new one, before working with a developer to design the revamped digitized system.
“Getting into the weeds of how those processes work—that’s kind of the only way to figure out how to make it better,” Breen said. “It was just good to get shoulder to shoulder with that team and see how they are doing things and just bring a different perspective in.”
The new system saves principals time and allows teachers to get feedback on their principal’s observations right away.
Sarah Bates, the principal of Cottonwood Elementary School, used to spend hours duplicating and filling out Excel spreadsheets under the old, “cumbersome” evaluation system, she said.
Now, she records walkthroughs with teachers, with easy to fill-out categories like classroom management, student engagement, and instruction. She takes notes when observing lessons and can immediately email them to teachers.
“Our teachers teach hundreds of lessons, and if you don’t give them their feedback within a day or two, it’s irrelevant,” she said. “It’s incredible. It actually increases my time in the classroom. It helps me to be a better instructional leader, be a better instructional model on my campus. I have more time for that because I’m more their coach instead of their record keeper.”
Breen and his team continue to refine the system—known in the district as “the hub”—based on principal and teacher feedback.
Breen pulled off something similar with the district’s complicated system for approving “educational enrichment plans,” a network of some 500 clubs, afterschool activities, and other extra-curricular activities.
As part of the program, which has been a signature part of the Vail district for decades, teachers can pitch an activity—from robotics, to gardening, to a running club—and receive extra money to run it. Some Vail educators can earn up to $10,000 annually, plus other incentives. But the process for approving the teachers’ pitches—and figuring out just how much of a boost or voucher individual teachers should get for running their clubs—was overwhelming, given the program’s growth.
Breen met with teachers, district leaders, and principals who participated and, with their feedback, created an easy, digitized version that even allows teachers to approve, reject, or appeal the amount of money district leaders earmark for their bonuses. The new digital system saved those who approved the pitches from combing through “stacks and stacks of paper” and staying up past midnight to get it done.
“If you’re not bringing people in throughout the process, there’s no buy-in for them,” Breen said. “We want it to feel like something that they also own.”
Breen also used his skill in convening different groups to tackle another district challenge: the learning management system, an online portal that serves as a classroom tool and helps teachers share student progress with their parents.
Schools and teachers were using different interactive online systems for sharing grades, assignments, and other information, which was confusing for parents who had children in different schools or in different grades.
Before bidding on a new system, Breen gave teachers and principals a chance to test drive different programs and weigh in. “That has been extremely beneficial to our parents and students, and I don’t know anybody else who could have pulled it off,” Baker said.
In addition to overseeing big technology projects, Breen is the go-to trouble-shooter for the district’s 30-odd site technology coordinators, who provide in-house IT services for individual schools.
Breen is also working on integrating computer science education into courses across the district. He meets monthly with the “computational thinking team” to spread that type of analysis to other academic areas. The group focuses on computer science, robotics, makerspaces, and technology with an eye towards ensuring that teachers are incorporating those concepts in their classrooms and getting the professional development to do so.
The idea is to get more students to try out computer science courses, not just the “sixteen boys” who already knew they were good at math, he said.
If you’re not bringing people in throughout the process, there’s no buy-in for them.
He’s involved in CSforAZ, a nonprofit group dedicated to bolstering computer science education in the state, and he serves on the executive board of the Arizona Technology in Education Association, the state affiliate of the International Society for Technology in Education, a nonprofit that serves technology educators around the globe.
Breen keeps a foot in the music world. He helps with the Vail Youth Symphony, a nonprofit, after-school program for students who want to showcase their musical talent. He and his wife, Jessica, a music teacher in the district, started the symphony in 2014. Breen, who plays the drums, and loves to go hiking, camping, and hunting, isn’t your stereotypical techie, his colleagues say.
“The fact is that he is, at his core, a teacher. That teacher perspective is priceless because he knows what it’s like to be in the classroom,” Baker said. He knows how to present material in a way that teachers can easily grasp. “He [can] talk to them as a teacher, not as the tech guy.”