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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

4 Lessons Principals Can Learn From Their Staff

By Peter DeWitt — October 30, 2016 5 min read
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The title of this blog is based on a premise. The premise is that principals want to learn from their staff. That may sound silly considering that there are a lot of great leaders out there who learn from their staff every day. However, I have worked with a lot of leaders over the last few years and not all of them want to learn from their staff. I have flat out had some leaders say that they don’t even want to partner with their staff.

No worries...they’re probably not reading this blog.

Many times leaders believe they should be the one teaching lessons, and not necessarily the ones learning them. It’s interesting working with leaders because some of them have been a coach or assistant principal for a few years and think being the head honcho is a rite of passage after spending time in those other roles. The reality is that leaders should be chosen based on experience, insight or potential...not because they did the time.

Notice how I wrote “or?” I went from being a teacher in a city school district to being a principal in a rural/suburban district. Perhaps that’s why I learned quickly to find a balance between having confidence, being transparent about my insecurities, and understanding that the staff I was fortunate enough to work with would teach me as much as I taught them...maybe even more.

I was the Principal of Poestenkill Elementary School for close to 8 years, and I was very fortunate. The staff I worked with came together during the hard times, had fun during the good times (and stressful ones), and questioned me at the times I needed to be questioned the most. Those 8 years offered me a great deal of growth, and I learned a lot about myself, but it was greatly due to the teachers, staff, parents and students I worked with day in and day out. Don’t get me wrong. We were not perfect.

Marginality in the Role
If you’ve never been a building leader, it’s hard to understand the role. There is a great deal of marginality, which means building leaders don’t feel like they belong with everyone who surrounds them. Meaning, they’re no longer a full-fledged teacher, and they don’t fit in with central office administrators either. And in my case, I did not have an assistant principal.

Building principals often feel in the middle of a struggle between teachers and the central office. Those struggles can happen because of new initiatives such as the Common Core or accountability measures that no one in a district feels any control over. Luckily I had a couple of amazing secretaries who kept me on the straight and narrow...most times (did I tell you about that time the commissioners office called my office...).

There are times when a building leader has to follow through on district level initiatives even if that means they don’t necessarily agree with them. And on the other side of that very complicated spectrum, there are times when building leaders have to question those district level initiatives even if that means you may start to get a reputation.

On the opposite side of the top-down initiatives, are the building level issues that happen with teachers. Some days building leaders show an enormous amount of support for their staff (stop the evaluation insanity!) and other times those building leaders are the lone voice against a whole staff (you’re changing what!).

Given my experience at Poestenkill, I wouldn’t change a thing (ok, maybe a few things...) because all of the non-tragic experiences that we went through offered us many lessons to learn from, and I couldn’t imagine a better staff to do it with. I know that sounds hokey, but I really loved working with the staff (even after they planted a manikin on the men’s room floor to scare me!).

They told me when I was taking a wrong turn, and gave me feedback to become a better leader. And it wasn’t just the staff, it was a lot of parents and students as well. Somehow in some way they were not intimidated to talk to me during the good and bad times. I’m thankful for that.

So, you’ll have to excuse me if this is a small departure from my usual tone in blogs, but I’ve been thinking about the present and past staff, students and parents in Poestenkill, and I wanted to write a blog about what I learned from them, and I hope if you’re a leader reading this, you are open to learning from your staff as well.

The Big 4!
Although there are more than 4, I wanted to begin with these. I learned how to...

Collaborate - There was a time early on in my career as a principal that I thought I had to walk into a faculty meeting with one idea and walk out with the same one. And then I listened to the great ideas the teachers and staff had and it changed my perspective. I realized the real power in the principalship was to walk into a faculty meeting with one idea and walk out with a better one.

Make mistakes - It’s a funny thing...mistakes. We often feel like we should hide them when in reality we need to be more transparent about them. I felt less nervous about making mistakes because I knew, due to the school climate we built together, staff would be there even after I made the mistake. Usually I was able to apologize and move on.

Find my voice - I’ve been writing this blog for over 5 years now. Many of you probably think I was always a writer but I wasn’t. It was scary to put myself out there for Education Week. Almost as scary as it was to put myself out there as a building leader. However, my staff helped me find and hone my voice. They taught me how to stand up for myself.

Keep learning - Teachers and staff came to me with articles and research. When I visited their classrooms every day I learned new teaching strategies that I could use with other staff members. The introduced me to new researchers and innovative ideas. They inspired me to continue my lifelong learning.

In the End
Many people who write blogs, books and give keynotes often want to give the perception that their idea is a new one. It often isn’t. We all stand on the shoulders of giants. My giants just happen to be the staff that I had the opportunity to work with for almost 8 years. If you’re a principal, you’ll do your best to foster a climate where your staff feels just as fortunate to work with you.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (Now available. Corwin Press). Connect with Peter on Twitter.

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.