James Butler, Tucson USD: The Show Must Go On

James Butler

James Butler, Senior Director of Instructional Technology and Online Education, Tucson Unified School District


As we grapple with the reality of school in the midst of a pandemic, educators are striving to show up every day, bringing the best they can offer in order to serve the needs of their students and their school community. The most valuable resource they bring to this work is often not crisp, concise answers, but rather the mindset necessary to respond to constantly changing circumstances and the willingness to lean into a future that is uncertain for the sake of the children they serve.

Meet James Butler. He serves the Tucson Unified School District as the Senior Director of  Instructional Technology and Online Education. In a district with more than 42,000 K-12 students across this southern Arizona community, Butler has an unwavering commitment to serve the needs of the Tucson school community in a manner they both expect and deserve. For Butler, it’s simple: “The show must go on.”

Butler began his career in business, not education. "I was in Sales. I sold phone systems and fax machines back in the day and then was an account executive at a radio station. My work was all customer-focused. When I went back to school to get my education degree, I did not see any difference. These are our customers.”  

While Butler is the first to acknowledge that we can’t always control our situation, he embraces the truth that we can choose how we respond our circumstances. He explains, “Educators across the country are all in the same boat. However, we do not get a pass due to a pandemic. Period. And most teachers know that. We just have different approaches.” Butler is passionate when he says, “We only have one chance at this. That seven-year-old will only be in first grade once. And that child’s parent is sending their best to us. We are responsible for teaching that child, whether they come to school in person or virtually.” 

In the Tucson community, parent engagement is a priority. “We want our community to know that we are honored by your child’s presence,” Butler explains, “And, this mindset is  evident throughout the district.” Under the leadership of Tucson’s superintendent, Dr. Gabriel Trujillo, Butler affirms that the Tucson Unified School District is in tune with the needs and concerns of families in the community. “This is Dr. Trujillo’s real expectation. He sets it from the top and models it every day.”

At the core of the relationship between the families and the school district is an attitude of service. Butler states, “We are a public entity and therefore we are public servants. We want to make sure that parents have as much access to information as we can possibly give them, anytime, totally transparent, whenever they would like it.” And Butler believes, the Tucson Unified School District does a superb job of communicating and over communicating items and issues that the public needs to know. “We have so many channels of communication and we take great care to ensure information is accessible to our diverse population. You can’t say you don’t know what is going on in Tucson.”

The pandemic has surfaced a need to train parents on how to access systems, how to find information in the systems, and how get information about their students. “Here in Tucson, we are beginning to explore ways to train parents to use Office 365 and to gain comfort with the student information system. Using the Parent View app, parents can look up student grades and monitor student progress, which is another way we make information transparent.”

There is no doubt the pandemic has created disruptive change in education. Butler says it this way, “The big giant reset button has been pressed on education. We need to take this opportunity to embrace change, to redefine what school is and what a classroom will look like because we know, learning can take place anywhere.” Butler offers this advice:

  • Build on Success

We should celebrate what we did well. “Teachers have done a phenomenal job of doing the very best they could under extreme circumstances. But we recognize that we now have an opportunity to do so much more. We must identify and build on our best practices moving forward.”

  • Recognize What All Students Need

We have to understand our local culture and what our constituency wants.

“Tucson is a richly diverse, yet similar community. By that I mean that amongst the diversity, kids are kids.  They still need to learn how to read. They still need to learn how to write. They still need to know how to use a computer for something other than playing World of Warcraft. When we talk about diverse communities, it’s important to keep in mind that there are certain skills and tools that all students need in order to be successful.” Butler believes that everyone needs to be know what it means to be a good digital citizen and to practice good digital citizenship, “You have to be able to be comfortable in a digital world and use critical thinking skills .”

  • Prepare Future-Ready Students

“We recognize that none of us really know what the future will look like and one-fifth of the  21st century is already behind us. If we want students to be future-ready we have to prepare them for jobs that don’t currently exist, for an American dream that is different than ours, and for a world that is constantly changing.  We want parents to view our schools as the first choice for preparing their children for that future.”

For Butler, “It’s a very exciting time to be in education. Education has evidence to indicate that we can do much better than we did before the pandemic. There is no reason in the world that we can’t reimagine schools.” And, that’s why the show must go on!


This article emerged from a conversation with Jean Sharp, who serves as the Chief Academic Officer at Apex Learning.  On a personal note, I want to thank James Butler for being a living example of how mindset impacts action. Like so many educators, he is embracing change and looking for opportunities to lead the way.