At the 14th Annual Champs Celebration, presented by Kalsec, the Kalamazoo Public Schools Information and Technology Department was honored with a 2021 Champ Award which was sponsored by Chase. [Here’s a post about that: KPS IT Team: Hard-wired for Student Success. If you missed Champs or want to experience it again, the full live-streamed video is available here throughout May. For the rest of this month, you also have an opportunity to honor one or more champions in your life with a gift made in their name. Click here to honor a champion you know!]
We met up with two members of the team over Zoom. Like the rest of their technology team members, Nathan McLaughlin and Craig Campbell haven’t been getting much sleep these days.
Nathan McLaughlin is Director of Technology. He grew up “in a bunch of little towns,” the majority of that time spent in Union, Michigan. A graduate of Kalamazoo College, Nathan has been with the district for over 15 years.
Helpdesk Support Specialist Craig Campbell is from Royal Oak, Michigan, and came to the area to attend Western Michigan University. He has been working for the district for the past 22 years, first as a Special Education Paraprofessional.
Alright, you two: pencils out, eyes on your own paper. Good luck.
Congratulations to you and the entire KPS Technology team on your Champ award! How many team members do you have on staff?
Craig: We have 11 full-time staff in our department.
Nathan: I’m going to speak for Craig as well as myself and say that we are happy we don’t have to give an acceptance speech!
Craig: Emotions would overcome us.
You are a small but mighty team! What’s been the most surprising thing for you and your team since learning has been on a virtual platform?
Craig: Everything we wanted to learn, everything we wanted to do, we’re doing it now because we’ve had to figure it out and do it.
Nathan: Yes. Back burner projects became front burner ones as we started planning with principals and other administrators.
What has been most challenging for your team?
Nathan: I think the biggest change for us has been staff to total number of customers we serve. In just a matter of days, the number of customers we served—which had predominately been district staff—went from 1,500 to around 30,000.
Craig: We were suddenly directly supporting about 13,000 students. It’s been a hard, stressful, and a full-of-tears year.
Nathan: We’re looking forward to an in-person summer readiness program. So we are looking forward to June 15th and catching our breath so we can move forward with summer projects to prepare for the fall.
There have been lots of changes in terms of what we’re doing. We’ve made those changes because this is what we need to do. We’ve had to do a lot of improvising. We don’t have a lot of staff and when the pandemic hit and we went virtual, we needed to do a lot, and do it quickly. For instance, we had to get Chromebooks out to our students. We were only able to do that because of all the help we received from other people.
Craig: Suddenly we were working closely together with so many to get the job done. Staff from across the district, CIS, and many other community members and organizations, like the Kalamazoo Public Library who helped to provide Hotspots to our families with unreliable internet access. A lot of people came together to help us. To see the community collaboration … I was impressed. [KPS has loaned out over 11,000 Chromebooks and donated over 1,200 to students.]
Nathan: Me too. We thought, Okay, two weeks and then students will be physically back to school. And here we are. Still dealing with this virus. Still virtual.
What are you both currently reading?
Nathan: Spreadsheets, unfortunately. There have been a lot more technology demands this year, so we are working way longer days and weekends without vacations and breaks. Especially early on. I just remember sleeping. I have a book I want to read. It’s somewhere …
Craig: I’m mostly reading up on the struggles others have had with remote learning and support and trying to apply it to what we’re doing. Every day I need to figure something out.
When I moved to Technology Services my connection to our students was severed. Ironically, when KPS went fully virtual, I became more connected to our students than I have in years.
What is a question you recently asked or perhaps have been asking a lot lately?
Nathan: Will it ever end? I’ve been thinking about this constantly. Will it end? On the other hand, this situation has allowed us to update information and get to projects we have had on the back burner because we’ve had to get to them.
Craig: Yes! And I’ve been asking myself how the past year will change the ways we teach our kids, and work in general, going forward. Many large companies have decided they are staying virtual. It’s what works for them, and that will work well for a slice of our students too. KPS is offering both in-person and a virtual option in the fall. From a tech support point of view, it makes me anxious. We’ll be supporting two arms of learning and while that’s exciting, change and adapting is hard.
What would you say is one of the biggest changes you’ve experienced since the pandemic?
Craig: For the first time, we’re directly supporting students and families. Because of the circumstances and the isolation we’re all dealing with, conversations that students and their parents would normally have, that would go on between principals and teachers, well, we’re having those conversations with principals, parents, and students too.
Nathan: In the past, the help desk fielded questions and troubleshooted for teachers and staff. With the pandemic and many working from home we’re now fielding questions from so many more customers, including students, parents, guardians, and grandparents.
How do KPS families ask for help?
Craig: To get help, KPS families can email “firstname.lastname@example.org.”
And we see the loneliness. We’re behind a screen and yet we find ourselves at the Helpdesk connecting with students who are lonely or in crisis. I think, sometimes, people see a “Help” button and they’re clicking it because they need some kind of help. When it’s an issue that isn’t technology-related, maybe a personal crisis, we refer them on to others. [Craig briefly excuses himself to help somebody who has come to the virtual help desk.]
Nathan: We are definitely collaborating more. I’ve been pulled into decision-making discussions. I always knew what we were doing was part of educating our students and keeping them safe and healthy, but to see it up close and how decisions are made, well, I like being a part of that.
What is something you’ve learned about yourself?
Nathan: I’ve learned that the pattern of working in the office in the morning, to be physically there and do things and then go home and do meetings remotely in the afternoon really works for my brain. The disruption in settings is good for me, and it has allowed me to work longer in the day. I’m doing more units of labor but it doesn’t feel like it. It’s different than sitting in one spot over time and then you are still in that same spot, and hours later still there. So the disruption to the day, that change has been nice. I think other people may feel that as well.
What’s your favorite word or phrase right now?
Nathan: “Enjoy today because tomorrow is going to be worse.” [All three Zoom boxes light up with laughter.] Early on, I was saying the whole thing, but when I say the phrase now, I just say a part of it. “Enjoy today,” I’ll say, and then silently think the rest of it. It’s a coping thing, but also somehow positive.
Craig: “If you’re not failing, you’re not trying.” You’re supposed to fail, and that’s okay.
What’s something you have been doing during this pandemic that, when it’s over, you want to keep doing?
Craig: I want to keep meeting our students. We just received a hand-written letter from an elementary student. In it, she says she’s sorry for breaking her Chromebook, explains how it broke, and enclosed three dollars. Direct contact with our students really reminds me why we do what we do.
Nathan: Yes, I think we’re on the cusp with education, of doing things differently and even better. And tailoring learning even more so for students. To do this, we need to be open to doing things differently.
Behind every successful person is a caring adult. Who has been your caring adult?
Craig: Of course, many come to mind, but I’d say my stepdad, Ed Schaus. He came into my life when I was twelve. I gave him the business.
Gave him the business?
I was not easy on him. I gave him the business and he gave it right back to me. He’d take me fishing. I still don’t enjoy fishing, but I enjoyed fishing with him. He didn’t have kids prior to me, but he knew exactly what I needed, somehow. I didn’t realize until I was much older the importance of a positive male role model.
Nathan: I have a similar experience to Craig’s. I never knew that we had that in common! My stepdad, Raul Ochoa, showed up in my life when I was twelve. I was a nervous kid. Just who he was, was so good for me. He was so calm and talked things through. He was patient and filled with joy.
Before Craig mentioned his stepdad, I was also thinking about my elementary teachers and their impact on me, especially Miss Mapes. She was a special education teacher whose room was near my 4/5/6 split classroom.
Craig: That’s my grandmother’s maiden name! What school?
Nathan: Edwardsburg Elementary.
Craig: My family is from that area!
Nathan: No way!
That would be something if Craig’s grandmother or one of his relatives was your former teacher! If you find out, let us know!
Nathan: Wow. That would be something … I was a smart kid, but sensitive and nervous. Miss Mapes was a special education teacher and I’d go to her room a lot. They called it the “resource room” back then. I just loved her. To have an adult other than my classroom teacher paying that kind of attention to me was really good. I hung out in that room and became good friends with two of her students.
Thank you, Nathan and Craig, for hanging out with us at Ask Me About My 12,000 Kids.