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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

A Great School Community Is Worth Its Weight in Gold

By Peter DeWitt — May 16, 2014 4 min read
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On Tuesday night the Averill Park Board of Education accepted my resignation as the Principal of Poestenkill School. Poestenkill is a little slice of Heaven a few minutes east of Albany, NY. I have been on a leave of absence since December to work with John Hattie (Visible Learning), write a book for ASCD with Sean Slade, put a book series on connected learning together for Corwin Press, and write one of the books for the series (Flipped Leadership).

It wasn’t an easy decision to resign from the position.

After nineteen years in education, eleven as a teacher and eight as a principal, I am going to continue writing, working with schools on flipped leadership, creating inclusive school climates, and helping schools make learning Visible. It was going to take a lot for me to leave the Poestenkill School community, and working nationally and internationally will bring me new challenges, and was too good to pass up.

But no matter where I go I always take my school community with me.

The Role of School Communities

The other day, I sat on a virtual panel for ASCD. Sean Slade, the Director of their Whole Child initiative, asked some really great questions that focused on whether schools are the center of their community. It was the day after the board accepted my resignation, and a good time to reflect on my time at Poestenkill and focus on what role schools play in their communities.

Sean asked us our thoughts on three different schools of thought. They are:


  • Status Quo - schools that are filled with bureaucracies, where nothing can get done and rules are commonplace. There is a focus on a Market model.
  • De-schooling - a model where we see Teacher exodus and Mass outsourcing. We know that is a model that is taking place across the country. Schools cannot sustain their present course because they do not have the budgetary infrastructure to support it, so they outsource. Teachers are being laid off, or leaving the profession because of too many changes.
  • Re-schooling - Centers for learning, where there are Social hubs that focus on student-centered learning. There are many schools that are moving in this direction, despite a flurry of mandates and accountability measures.

When I heard the words Status quo, I became defensive. Status quo gives the impression that teachers don’t want to change. I’m sure there are teachers and principals who do not want to change, but many more are changing in numerous ways, we just may not be paying attention because we are only looking at those who change in the ways we want them to.

On the panel, we dissected the role schools play in their communities. I must admit that I never would have been able to lead as well as people thought I lead if it were not for the teachers and students in the school, and the parents in the community.

Poestenkill

Some of my critics will point out that I worked in a school with little diversity in a suburban neighborhood. All of this is true, although we are rural and suburban. We often had 98% of the parents attend Open House and special events. A band/orchestra concert brought in sold out crowds. Standing room only was commonplace. Driving down School Road on the night of those events made people feel as if the traffic was equal to a Taylor Swift concert. Of course, I’m over exaggerating a bit, but parking was an issue.

What the critics may not understand is that, although Poestenkill rivals Garrison Keiller’s Lake Wobegon, where, “All the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average,” we had our share of hard times. Whether it was consolidating buildings, cutting budgets, laying off staff or cutting beloved programs, the community saw a lot.

Although there were hard times, and it took time, we came through it together. The school community is one that shaped who I am as a leader, but became a family that I looked forward to seeing at bus arrival, bus dismissal, PTA meetings, and special events such as Grandparents and Special Person’s Day. From the bus drivers, Maggie our custodian, Donna Nikles my secretary, and all of the people who spent time at PES, school communities like mine can have a profound impact on the way our schools come together if we let them.

I know mine did.

Don’t Ignore Your Community

I have heard horror stories from parents, teachers and members of other communities when it comes to their schools. There are school leaders who look within their schools but do not look out to their communities. They hold up one hand welcoming parents in for events, and the other hand up preventing them from entering the school unless they are invited.

For many of us who called, or continue to call, public education our profession, we tried working with state education departments that didn’t want to hear our feedback, so we shouldn’t do it to parents simply because they may tell us what we don’t want to hear. Working together means that we have to listen more than talk, and engage in dialogue more than monologue. It’s not always easy, but it is worth it.

In my time as a principal I have had arguments with parents, was sometimes wrong in how I disciplined students and staff, and didn’t always walk the talk. Thankfully, I led a school and was part of a community that knew I could do better, and they felt like they could tell me when I was going in the wrong direction.

Whether we talk about de-schooling, re-schooling or the harmful status quo, we need to make sure we are listening to what the students are saying, and pay attention to how the parents are feeling. And where Poestenkill and Averill Park are concerned, thank you for the many kind words, the eight awesome years, and know that you had a profound impact in all that I am doing as I move forward on this new adventure.

And although I can’t be there on Saturday (PES), I will be wearing a bit of purple as I travel.

Thank you PES.

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.


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