When I received a last-minute invitation from our achool superintendent to attend a round table discussion with a local tech company, I had no idea what it was going to be about. As I approached the beautiful stone and glass office space with its lush and meticulously landscaped grounds, I wondered how our students would feel entering this beautiful, important feeling space or if they even knew of its existence. The meeting attendees included college and university leaders, department heads from the tech sector as well K-12 school district officials in attendance.

I discovered the company was reaching out to educators so they could better understand how they could tap into our talent pipleline. A talent pipeline? This was something I could get behind. Typically, educators and support staff get fairly bogged down in the daily slog of test scores, grading, and because the majority of our student population lived in or below the poverty level, we kind of thought of our work as overcoming challenges. But a talent pipleine, yes, this was a much better perspective.

As I listened to the story of the company’s prospects to grow exponentially but lacking talent to do so, I could imagine inspiring our students to connect to this organization in meaningful ways that could lead to future opportunities. They provided good paying jobs, much higher than the median income in our community, and yet openings were difficult to fill. When they found talent locally it proved to be some of their best. They just couldn’t find enough and wondered where was it.

Unfortunately for them, while higher education offered the courses to enter their jobs, those of us in K-12 weren’t building the interest to get students in those courses. Don’t get me wrong, we (local K-12 schools) produce amazing academic minds, but we are really struggling to figure out how to provide the curriculum offerings and the excitement for tech. I see this happening for a few reasons:

  • It is difficult to find tech teachers. Most tech graduates have a wide range of employment opportunities and can get paycheck that outshines a teacher’s salary any day.
  • Our students lack access to technology.  In our district (at the time of this writing) , there is not a device for every student in the classroom or at home. Schools like ours have high rates of poverty and tight budgets.  There can be a tendency to plug funds into basic education survival mode not realizing that perhaps access to technology is survival.
  • Our kids aren’t excited and engaged about technology because we (educators) don’t really know how to get them excited and engaged. Some of us are more scared than excited. Walk into any school and the 20 something year old teacher, who grew up with a silver ipad in her mouth is rare. The tech culture is new, and a lot of teachers (like me) are old. Teaching us old dogs new tricks is tough business.

Thus our obstacles became clear – K-12 didn’t offer the courses, the equipment, and were unlikely to find the people who could teach. This is the point where we (the adults) have to become those 21st century creative and critical thinkers we keep saying our students have to be. We have to hack our way through this seemingly impossible problem.

  1. We have to start thinking about virtual learning, collaborating with other school districts in unique ways, and sending our juniors and seniors to college early for courses. Yes, it may also mean we have to scrap the old schedule (finally) of learning in 50 minute increments.
  2. As scary as it seems in high poverty schools, we need to get serious about getting devices into the hands of every student. We don’t deny them books just because they get lost and damaged, so let’s think about devices in the same way.
  3. And industry, if you want the kids to love you later, you have to develop relationships early. Strong ties and loyalty come from nurturing relationships. Start sending in mentors to grow your talent. Who knows you just may find the next leader of your organization for 2035. Some of this nurturing can even come from a virtual presence. Look at Google. I have never met a worker there nor visited one of their campuses, but I know I want to work there because they make me smile each day when they share their love of creativity in their search bar or I see an article about their nap pods or 20% personal research time.

This first conversation only scratched the surface of what was a much bigger and more complex problem. It was at this point that I realized design strategy would serve this group of problem solvers best. We would need a playbook approach so each organization could come together with an aligned plan for tackling the issues. We also needed to get more information from the front lines about the true nature of our lack of talent. After the meeting I assembled a small team of strategists and approached the company about designing a plan. They agreed, and we began a summer long project that involved almost 50 interviews with teachers, students, industry professionals, and college professors and administrators.