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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

12 Areas School Leaders Should Focus on in 2019

By Peter DeWitt — December 02, 2018 8 min read
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No, I’m not trying to rush the year away. I know we just finished Thanksgiving in the states, and the holiday season is upon us. It’s just that I’ve been watching Christmas movies on the Hallmark Channel since July, so I feel like it’s close enough to the end of the year to put this list out there.

Let’s think of it as me trying to be ahead of the curve.

In all seriousness, like many of you, every year around this time I begin to think about critical issues for those of us who work in education. I wanted to offer 12 critical issues I think we need to continue to care about, or put on our list if they have not been there before.

This is my personal list based on my experience in the field of education as a teacher, principal, author, and consultant. Some of it has been affected by the research of John Hattie, who I work with as a Visible Learning trainer, and other parts of the list have been influenced by my own research I do when preparing to work with school districts, regions, or school boards.

The List...
I have had the honor of working with so many great school leaders who work really hard. They find a balance between the politics of the position and focusing on what will have a true impact on students and teachers. Unfortunately, I have also noticed that there are principals who do not always know where to begin. Additionally, some leaders believe they are doing something impactful, when if they collected evidence, they will find those actions they take are not impactful at all. Sometimes we refer to this as confirmation bias.

Many of you will read the list and have opinions of your own, which is great. Please feel free to add your ideas into the comment section of the blog or write your own blog and highlight what you think would be some issues leaders should focus on.

Those issues I think school leaders should focus on beginning now, and heading into 2019 are:
1. Their Own Credibility: It’s very difficult to give effective feedback to teachers if they don’t think their leaders have the credibility to give it. Stone and Heen (2014) call this the relationship trigger. Leaders need to make sure they are offering strategies they have used themselves or at least researched for their teachers. They need to spend a great deal of time focusing on having dialogue around learning with their teachers.

2. Trauma/Mental Health: The American Psychiatric Association reports:

  • 1 in 4 people are diagnosed with mental illness over the course of a year in the U.S.
  • 1/2 of all chronic mental-health conditions begin by age 14.
  • 1/2 of all lifetime cases of anxiety disorders begin as early as age 8.
  • More than 60 percent of young adults with a mental illness were unable to complete high school.
  • Those with a psychiatric disability are 3 times more likely to be involved in criminal-justice activities.
  • Each year, 157,000 children and young adults, ages 10-24, are treated at emergency departments for self-inflicted injuries.
  • 1 in 12 high school students have attempted suicide.

Mental health is a topic that will be on our lists for many, many years.

3. Equity: We need to look at equity in multiple ways. Whether it’s equitable funding for schools or equity when it comes to access for our students; this is a deeply important topic that needs as much attention as possible. Ever since reading Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities in the ‘90s, and issue after issue published by Rethinking Schools, I fear that we will never tackle equity to the degree that we should.

4. Mindfulness: In this blog on Mindfulness a few months ago, I wrote, McLean et al. (2017),

Examined the trajectories of depressive and anxious symptoms among early-career teachers as they transitioned from their training programs into their first year of teaching. In addition, perceived school climate was explored as a moderator of these trajectories. Multilevel linear growth modeling revealed that depressive and anxious symptoms increased across the transition, and negative perceived school climate was related to more drastically increasing symptoms."

Mindfulness is on the rise, and it begins with 10 minutes of breathing in solitude in the morning and 10 minutes of breathing in solitude at night. It also means that we begin to explore those voices in our heads that tell us we are not good enough, and it’s about finding patience in chaos. It doesn’t matter whether we are leaders, teachers, or students, mindfulness is no joke.

5. Media Literacy: The other day I posted this blog about not reading what we share. It’s only the tip of the iceberg. We constantly get on our soapboxes on social media and scream about students needing media literacy, but the reality is that the adults need it just as badly. We live in a time of “fake news,” polarizing dialogue, and swayed news from both the left and the right. Media literacy is something we have to focus on during 2019 because it will help us with issue #11 on this list, and may save us from those Russian hackers we hear so much about.

6. Collective Teacher Efficacy (CTE): Tschannen-Moran & Barr, 2004, define this as, “the collective self-perception that teachers in a given school make an educational difference to their students over and above the educational impact of their homes and communities.” If you have read this blog before, you are not entirely surprised that it appears here. The reality is that CTE is more important now than ever, and it has an impact on how our professional learning communities (PLC’s), stakeholder groups, and faculties function. We need not look any further than the educational issues on this very list to understand that leaders cannot solve them alone. CTE helps to elevate teacher voice and works to empower teachers and not enable them. For further information on CTE, read an excellent article written by Donohoo, Hattie, and Eells.

7. Active-Shooter Drills: I’d rather not spend too much time on this one because it saddens me to no end that this is our reality. Active-shooter drills are the norm for every teacher, leader, and student. How do we find a balance between preparing for these events and getting to the bottom of why it happens so frequently in the United States?

8. Learning: John Hattie often says we talk about adult issues much more than we talk about learning. So, let’s spend 2019 changing that. Let’s focus on student learning, personalized learning, as well as teaching and learning strategies that will have an impact on students. Let’s flip our faculty meetings and dive more into authentic professional learning and development. Let’s look more at authentic engagement and focus less on compliant engagement.

9. Family Engagement: Too often, we talk at families instead of with them and we often use acronyms or educational language they do not always understand. We need to explore multiple ways to engage families through our communication and find ways to work with them because they can offer us so much. In the research that I did for the leadership-coaching book, I found that there are three ways we need to communicate with families. Those are:

  • Informational - Important information such as medical paperwork that must be handed in, dates of field trips and sporting events.
  • Dialogue - Parent-teacher conferences, open house, PTA/O meetings.
  • Learning - Math night, science fairs, etc.

Let’s find a balance among all three in 2019.

10. Coaching: This may seem self-serving, but it’s not. Instructional coaching and leadership coaching can be so beneficial. The reality is that the research around self-efficacy (Bandura) shows that we have confidence in ourselves in certain situations and a lack of confidence in others. We build that confidence through personal performance accomplishments, like working with a coach on a goal. Leaders often feel they are supposed to know everything, because they went to school to get a degree in leadership, but what we learned while getting that degree doesn’t always fit with the reality of our current realities. Coaching can help build the bridge between theory and practice.

11. Educational Research: This is a complicated one, because it goes along with coaching and can also add to our credibility as leaders. Where is this all coming from? Recently, I have found that researchers like Dweck, Gardner, and Tomlinson had to clarify their research in publications of Education Week and the Washington Post because there was a misunderstanding between what they said in the research and how practioners approached it.

Leaders often try to cite specific research, but they do not always cite it correctly. I have seen this time and time again with Hattie’s research. Why? Well, leaders are busy managing so many different facets of leadership that it’s hard to go deep with each piece of research that gets Tweeted or thrown at them in a book or blog.

How do we deal with this? As Michael Fullan has always said, start small and build momentum. Pick one piece of research of interest and figure out how it helps you as a leader in your current reality. If it doesn’t fit in with your current reality, maybe you don’t need to do it? Make sure that you do additional reading about the research in peer-reviewed journals. Third-party narratives are not enough!

12. Positive News: Lets’ make 2019 the year that we hear more positives than negatives. I love critical feedback. ... OK, I don’t always react well to it. However, we need to focus on more positive news about our schools. There is way too much negative rhetoric about how education is failing, and that certainly doesn’t help get the best and brightest to enter into teaching or school leadership. What does get them in? Knowing that they are entering into the best profession in the world and that they can count on people like you to help them!

In the End
Well, that is my list of 12 critical issues that leaders need to know about for 2019. How do they fit in with your list?

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D., is the author of several books including his newest release Coach It Further: Using the Art of Coaching to Improve School Leadership (Corwin Press. 2018). Connect with him on Twitter. He will be taking a break from blogging until January 2019.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.