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Front & Center: Jodi Phelan

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Jodi Phelan is the HR Project Manager in Acton-Boxborough Regional School District in Acton, Massachusetts. Her journey in education has taken her through almost every conceivable role in a school, including Assistant Director of Human Resources.
As part of the “Front & Center” series highlighting the amazing people who work in school districts across the country, we asked Jodi to reflect on what she’s learned in her time working in K-12 HR.

Can you share a few fun facts about yourself?

I started my career in sales operations with a software company. After 15 years, when my youngest was entering kindergarten, I moved to the education sector with Acton-Boxborough where I have worked for over 20 years. I’ve been married for 30+ years to my husband, Bill. We have two amazing sons, Brendan & Brian. I love to walk, be on the water (either lakes or the ocean), and spend time with family and friends. My latest obsession is pickleball!

What was your first job in education?

My first job in education was as a computer lab assistant at an elementary school where I also worked in a second-grade classroom as an assistant. I always like to tell people I think I’ve done everything in a school except drive the bus.
I moved into an EdTech Specialist role. The job combined teaching, building curriculum, handling break-fix issues, and providing professional development for our staff. Around 2015 I moved over to our central office and became the Benefits Administrator and Data Specialist in Human Resources, and then moved into the Assistant Director role a few years after that.
Currently I have moved on from that role and have gone part time. I am now the HR Project Manager for the district.

If you could go back in time and give any advice to yourself at the beginning of your career, what would it be?

There are so many things on so many levels, but the first thing I would say is, “Don’t assume anything. Always ask the questions.”
When I took my first education job as a computer lab assistant, I thought, “I can assist anybody, especially in a computer lab.” I came from 15-plus years in the software industry. And lo and behold, the job was not “assisting” anybody. It was being in charge of 4th, 5th, and 6th graders, trying to teach them computer skills. I learned over and over, don’t assume anything, and always ask the questions.

What is one skill that someone working in Human Resources for a school district should have?

Oh, there are so many, but the overarching one is communication. It’s really a key skill, the ability for a leader to simply and concisely communicate.
On a large scale, it was about our policies and how to interpret them. On a smaller scale, it was the one-on-one interactions where you’re building relationships and trying to build cohesive communities.

Looking over the past year, what was your biggest “win” and how did you achieve it?

In my role as project manager, I was engaged to help evaluate our information systems and provide options to automate and streamline many functions: a lot of our data warehousing, whether it be for HR, Finance, EdTech… anywhere.
Right now, I’m starting to see the first of these initiatives, position inventory, go live. The way I view it, these initiatives are really the foundation to give our administrators the tools they need to make informed decisions. We have so many silos of information right now. It’s really important to consolidate and allow people some flexibility and transparency into all this data we have.
Frontline is definitely part of it. We currently have Frontline’s Absence Management, Professional Growth, and Applicant Tracking. And we are looking at Central to help us streamline more of our processes.

What is the best creative idea you’ve had working in HR that has made a difference in your role?

Necessity is the mother of invention.
When COVID hit, our world changed drastically on every level. We were, and still are, a very paper-heavy district. In a matter of weeks, we had to figure out ways around that for onboarding, for contract management, for various processes. It was the ability to research and figure out how we can quickly change those processes to be online, and to have our staff be able to learn and adapt to that. And we were able to do it.

We live in a digital age — how are you using technology to tackle the challenges faced by HR, specifically recruiting, hiring, and retaining teachers and staff?

We know technology plays a huge part in how HR can recruit and engage staff. On the recruitment side, we can reach a larger number and more diverse applicants using the various job boards that are out there. But for our hiring managers and for our committees, Frontline’s Applicant Tracking software really helps us to provide a structured process as well as a platform where they can share information and ideas.
Our hiring managers are not the same as what we see in the business world. They are teachers and coordinators who are asked to hire. That is really not the focus of their job, and these tools can help us make it simpler for them. And by utilizing technology — and this is why we’re looking at Central — we’re going to be able to reduce the time it takes for us to onboard staff which in turn allows them to focus on teaching. So, it’s huge.

What do you think will change most in education over the next ten years?

AI is coming. It’s coming fast, and our approach to how children learn is going to change with it.

What are you most hopeful about for the future of education?

I’m hoping that no matter what, we can continue to nurture children to be lifelong learners. I think that’s such an important mindset, and I’m hoping that we can harness those creative energies to foster that feeling of always wanting to learn.