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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

7 Ways We Judge Too Harshly in Education

By Peter DeWitt — September 29, 2019 6 min read
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Over the last 5 ½ years, I have been running workshops in a variety of settings. Those workshops have been as small as 10 people and as large as 500. I love running workshops because there is so much I learn from participants at the same time I teach. Keynotes are always seen as the end all to be all, and perhaps we should thank Ted Talks for that, but the reality is that keynotes can be very one-sided. Inspirational, but one-sided. Workshops are not one-sided at all.

One of the issues I began to notice early on is the level of judgment on the part of participants. Sometimes participants were judgmental of others, but many times participants were judgmental of themselves. Questions would be followed up with apologies. I began to notice that educators apologize a lot, especially when they are asking questions about things they don’t know...that they believe they should know.

Perhaps it’s due to how we were raised. Maybe we didn’t feel good enough in the eyes of our parents, or we hung out with friends who were judgmental of other peers. Perhaps we lacked confidence because we were not the captain of the x-country team, didn’t get chosen to be the homecoming queen, or didn’t place in the top 10 of our graduating class.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s because we watched “Mean Girls” and didn’t really think the mean girls were that mean at all. Somehow we missed out on all of the memes that tell us putting others down will not make us feel better about ourselves, so we start judging others around us, so no one sees that we feel inferior.

Whatever the reason, we seem to judge ourselves pretty harshly, and we continue to judge others pretty harshly as well. Not to be too judgy of the situation, but that’s a problem.

The Ways We Judge
Often when I am running a workshop and I begin talking about leadership practices, feedback, instructional strategies or how we implement initiatives, I will have a handful of participants who pull me to the side to say how guilty they feel that they do not seem to go to the depth that they need to. That’s often the time in the workshop that I begin talking about how we need to take a nonjudgmental approach to how we lead, learn, and teach.

Believe me, it’s not that I do not think that our profession has people in it that probably should be looking for a different career. Especially those educators who put children at risk. Those are outlier situations that definitely need to be addressed.

This is also not about me being a liberal who wants everyone to feel good about themselves, and if you make it to the end of this blog, I will send you a trophy in the mail. It’s really about the fact that we need to stop judging others and ourselves so harshly. It’s a waste of energy.

If this is all new to you, and you have never experienced judgment or handed it out to others, then I want to visit your school. However, I also want to provide a list of ways we judge ourselves and others too quickly. As with any list, I’m sure you can add to it, so please feel free to do that. This list focuses on the adults. A future list will focus on how we judge our students. Additionally, this is not a ranking; it’s just a list.

The 7 areas of judgment I see way too often are:

Walk-Through/Observation Bias - We often go into classrooms for walk-throughs and observations and look for classrooms to operate in much the same way our classrooms operated when we taught. When we do not see that same type of instruction happening, we easily judge those teachers for not being good enough. We really need to be looking for impact on student learning, and not a mirror of our own values.

Social-Media Judgment (Round One) - We get on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram and see what other educators are doing. We judge ourselves for not doing the same cool things in our school and sometimes even begin feeling like we are not good enough. Instead of judging yourself for not doing it, begin looking at all the great things you are doing ... or reach out to those people on social media and ask some questions to help you get started doing it.

Those Not in the Room - I have worked with my fair share of people over the years who would act like they were confiding in me that they had an issue with a colleague. At first I thought the person was looking for guidance, and then I realized they were just looking to vilify someone. What I began to notice is that those same people found issues with many different colleagues, even those colleagues who had just been with us in the room for a meeting. What I soon realized is that anyone who disagreed with their ideas was going to be vilified after leaving the room, and I learned a valuable lesson. If you hang out with someone who judges many other people, they are most likely judging you after you leave the room.

Social-Media Judgment (Round 2) - There are people who sit on social media just waiting to attack someone. Usually the people they attack have a lot of followers or share ideas. I learned many years ago when I began writing this blog that I was fair game, and I’m sure some of you reading this are thinking that I do not understand the different between challenging ideas and judgment. I do. Do you?

Instructional Strategies - Often I am asked the difference between school climate and school culture. Climate is when a new teacher comes to a school and begins trying out new ideas in the classroom that others haven’t heard of before. Perhaps those new strategies have an enormous impact, and the principal begins to notice, so they ask that particular teacher to share those strategies at a faculty meeting. That teacher’s colleagues begin to feel threatened rather than inspired. Culture is whether that innovative teacher is allowed or encouraged to keep trying out those strategies. Instructional strategies in the classroom get judged all the time.

Research - This is an area I have learned about a great deal over the last 5 ½ years. In working with John Hattie closely, there are people who judge his research. Although he has addressed it many times, those same people keep asking the same questions. It’s not just about Hattie. Researchers like Carol Dweck, Carol Ann Tomlinson and Howard Gardner have experienced the same issue. Is it because of the research? Or is it really because those researchers may be showing that some of what teachers and leaders feel work in their classroom or school, doesn’t work well at all? I guess only they can decide.

Instructional Leadership - Over the last few years, I have been researching instructional leadership for a new book I have coming out in January (2020). What I have realized because of the research of others and my own research is that those who are put in an instructional-leadership role are sometimes judged by those not in the role. For example, a teacher who is now considered a teacher leader is sometimes judged by peers because those peers didn’t get chosen for the teacher leader role.

In the End
We live in a society that loves to judge. It’s definitely an area I am trying to work on. I judge others whenever I turn on reality television. And I definitely judge my own actions and thoughts (It’s one of the reasons I began mindfulness meditation). However, it’s a waste of energy and doesn’t do a lot of good to judge too harshly. I would rather sit down, be open to sharing ideas, and learning from others. I like that not everyone thinks the same.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D., is the author of several books including Coach It Further: Using the Art of Coaching to Improve School Leadership (Corwin Press. 2018), and Instructional Leadership: Creating Practice Out Of Theory (Corwin Press. 2020). Connect with him on Twitter.

Image courtesy of Getty Images.

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.