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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

9 Ways Leaders Model Engagement or Misbehavior

By Peter DeWitt — November 02, 2015 5 min read
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If leaders want teachers to engage every student, perhaps they should try engaging every teacher.

Last week I was running a Jim Knight Instructional Coaching Training in Spokane Valley, Washington. In the room, along with district and building coaches, were school principals. The principals in the room were engaged for 2 straight days, despite the fact that it was right before Halloween. If you don’t understand the Halloween reference, you must not be a teacher or principal.


  • Engaged in conversations with different partners or groups.
  • Offered important insight based on their experience.
  • Learned along with everyone else in the room.

Walt, one of their K-8 principals, told me during a break that he was surprised that I was surprised that they were there. He said, “If we want coaching to work, then we need to be here making sure we understand the model and how we can support them.”

One of the reasons I was so thankful for their engagement was due to the fact that there are many times that leaders are nowhere to be found during workshops. Yes, I understand that leaders will say that many workshops that their district offers don’t have anything to do with them...which is equally as concerning.

Other times principals will say that they are way too busy to be a part of district professional development (PD). Clearly, they can’t attend every PD session, especially if it has nothing to do with them. Additionally, it’s tough to attend something when the district may not have let you know you were invited in the first place.

It’s not that principals have to be at every PD session, but if they never attend or are completely distracted the whole time they do, they are sending a direct message.

The Power of the Principal

I have always felt that there is real power in the principalship. I learned so much when I was a principal for 8 years. Teachers, students, parents and colleagues taught me many lessons, and there are times when I wish I could go back and take all of the learning I’ve done over the last year, and do the principalship all over again.

However, I get the feeling that some principals either abuse their power...their status...or they don’t understand how much they model misbehavior. There are at least 9 ways that leaders model leadership. They are:

Do as I say, not as I do - If leaders talk a lot about the way to act, teach, deal with misbehaviors and everything else that comes with being in education, and yet their actions don’t match up with their words, they are merely sending the message of do as I say and not as I do...which should have seen it’s end a long time ago. This is first on the list because it is at the hear of the rest of the items that follow.

How they talk about parents - In those one-on-one conversations with teachers and staff, if leaders are negative toward parents instead of being empathetic, they are sending a message that parents are an annoyance to get passed rather than a partner in the school community.

How they talk with parents - If leaders talk more than they listen, they are sending a message that dialogue with parents doesn’t matter as much as winning the conversation and getting the upper hand.

How they treat students - I have seen a few principals in my time yell, “Why are you in the hallway!” as students are walking somewhere...which most teachers have allowed or they wouldn’t be there. Additionally, they yell at students for acting out in the classroom before they ever really get an understanding of both sides of the issue. If leaders treat students as if they are always supposed to be compliant and polite, they will most likely have teachers who will do the same.

How they treat teachers - If leaders treat teachers as if they are children in adult bodies, they will have a building that focuses on rule following more than risk taking...but hey, maybe that’s what they want.

How they talk about their boss -If behind closed doors the principal talks negatively about their boss, the teacher can never be too sure whether the principal also happens to talk negatively about them. Talking negatively about your boss is more of a reflection of you than them. Everyone gets frustrated with their boss, but talk to a close confidant and not everyone who enters into the office.

How they talk about learning - Do the leaders actually talk about learning? Or do they focus solely on behavior. If a leader doesn’t make learning the heart of the school conversation, they shouldn’t be surprised if teachers talk more about behavior than academics.

How they conduct faculty meetings - I always remember sitting in my undergraduate classes where professors lectured about cooperative and center-based learning, but never had us work in cooperative groups or practice centers. This definitely goes back to “Do as I say and not as I do.”

Sadly, this is what happens in most faculty meetings. Principals may talk about engaging every student...every day, but their faculty meetings are more about sit and get, and certainly aren’t engaging. If leaders want teachers to engage every student, perhaps they should try engaging every teacher.

How they engage in professional development - This goes back to my new friends in Spokane Valley. Those principals sent a message...a strong message, and many of them didn’t even realize it. They engaged, offered insight, and listened. They were engaged every part of the day, and the coaches around them were watching.

When leaders are on their phones, despite how engaging the PD may be, because they’re more worried about being present somewhere they aren’t rather than somewhere they are, they are sending a message to teachers that they don’t have to be present either.

In the End

Leaders model engagement or misbehavior every day. If they walk in late to meetings, have sidebars in every meeting they have, they shouldn’t be surprised when their teachers do the same thing. If leaders want their teachers to be engaged in conversations about learning, perhaps they should model the behavior they want to see.

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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.