“The beauty of the world where we live is that we can learn anytime, anywhere, and from anyone we want.” This was the message that Eric Sheninger (@NMHS_Principal) brought with him to The 2014 Northwest Council for Computer Education Conference (#NCCE2014) as this year’s keynote speaker. The principal of New Milford High School in New Milford, New Jersey, Sheninger has become a key figure in 21st century digital leadership. Known widely as “The Twitter Principal,” Sheninger took the stage in front of an assembly hall of educators to tell them that if he could do it, anyone can do it, as long as they understand that “it’s about not following the playbook.”
“Education is good for one thing. It’s good for making excuses to not move forward,” Sheninger said. Rather than being a pithy soundbite, Sheninger told of his own transformation from being a phone-confiscating luddite to someone who welcomes and encourages students to bring their own devices to class. He says, “Our learners are fundamentally different. They are wired differently. We can’t fault them for growing up in a digital age.” Gone should be the days where students are chastised for forgetting to bring a pencil to class and being caught with an Internet-enabled device instead. Sheninger believes that “Our challenge is to create schools that work for kids [rather than] schools that simply work for us.”
Contrary to what some might expect, “The Twitter Principal” didn’t come to this realization himself. Rather, it was a student at New Milford High School who, in an act of defiance to a then younger Mr. Sheninger, reprimanded his principal for taking his phone, saying, “Congratulations, Mr. Sheninger, for making a jail out of a school.”
It was around this time that Eric began experiencing a paradigm shift in the way that he wanted to lead an educational institution. “I started having these visions of a little blue bird” he joked, alluding to his eventual introduction to Twitter. Sheninger continued, “As my emphasis shifted from teacher to learner, my professional development really took off . . . I lurked, I watched, and I learned.”
Not only did Sheninger’s vision for how he wanted to grow as a professional learner change, the vision he had for how he wanted to enable his students to learn experienced a fundamental change as well. Sheninger elaborated on the ideas he writes about in his new book, Digital Leadership: Changing Paradigms for Changing Times, outlining the Pillars of Digital Leadership that he has identified for supporting sustainable change. Fundamental to them is the example that educators set for their students. Sheninger asks, “What example are you setting in your classrooms, your schools, your districts to be an agent of change?”
At New Milford High School, administrators and staff are modelling expectations when it comes to effectively integrating technology. As an example, the high school’s journalism students are required to have their own Twitter accounts because, according to Sheninger, “Twitter is real-world journalism.” Similarly, NMHS students blog every day. “We still have desks,” Sheninger reminded. “We still have desks in rows. We’re not perfect. But we are trying to find a better way.”
In addition to integrating technology into the classroom to support student learning and achievement, the better way that Sheninger referred to includes the way that a school brands itself to its stakeholders. “Digital leadership is about becoming Storyteller-in-Chief,” he said. “Your stakeholders want to see your students doing significant and impactful work . . . If you don’t tell the story you want, you know what story will end up being told.”
To effectively tell the story of New Milford High School, Sheninger utilizes Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram among other social media and networking platforms. In his administrative walkthroughs, he is taking pictures with his smartphone as often as he is using a district-required assessment rubric to evaluate his teachers. According to Sheninger, “teachers need to hype the good work that is happening in the classroom”, which he encourages them to do through social networks and blogs.
Nevertheless, New Milford High School isn’t special. The story that Sheninger is telling isn’t about a wonder school with special privileges or access to resources different than most others. In fact, NMHS is housed in a building constructed in 1928. It has a student population where 20% of the student body qualify for free and reduced lunch. Even more surprising is that New Milford High School is one of only four schools in its district.
So, what makes the story that Eric Sheninger has to tell so meaningful and relevant to a conference of educators? It’s that he is “really proud of the work that [his] students and teachers are doing.” And he’s willing to go against the playbook to share it.
New Milford High School is on the Getting Smart List of 35 High Schools Worth visiting.