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Peter DeWitt's

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

Accountability Partners: Finding Your Professional Soulmates

By Peter DeWitt — April 11, 2017 7 min read
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(Miller, Leroy. How to get an accountability partner. Digital image. N.p., 2017. Web. 6 Apr. 2017).

We hear a lot about accountability in the public education realm and there are negative connotations for the term. Accountability isn’t all stress and pressure, though. If you allow it, accountability can become a force of positive influence in your career. Educators often feel pushed around by accountability. And pushed around by parents, by state mandates, even by standards. Being pushed around can be exhausting for educators, no doubt, but there’s a different type of pushing around we’d like to propose to you. A voluntary pushing around. Who are you letting push you around? Who’s holding you personally and professionally accountable? Today we are talking about constructing accountability partnerships in order to encourage you to bring your best work on behalf of students each day.

A lot of us are surrounded with coworkers, colleagues, and friends who make us feel good about the work we do. They may empathize with the challenges, provide an ear to vent to, and give you the affirmation that you are looking for. This purely supportive and cheerleader type of relationship, however, doesn’t maximize the work you could do for students. We hope to tell you a bit about our relationship to encourage you to seek out a relationship that has more accountability, more willingness to go deep into uncomfortable conversations, and more opportunity for increasing your human capital.

Simon Sinek (see “How Accountability Partners Keep You Committed”) mentions how humans are social animals who feel a stronger responsibility to others than to ourselves. It is true that we can always come up with an excuse for not doing something because we only let ourselves down when we make that choice. For example, we write a blog together and there have been stretches when one of us just doesn’t feel up to blogging. Since we co-blog and are in this together, we don’t want to let the other down. Our work and reflection on education becomes stronger by virtue of knowing our partner is waiting on a Google doc to be updated. Though our blog is our only joint professional project, our accountability to each other goes much further even though we are separated by distance.

Partner with people who are strong where you are weak
The qualities I value in Shawn and circumstances I seek support in are areas where I find weaknesses in myself. My back door entry into education and relative inexperience in the field leads me to often feel ill-informed about expectations and processes at a district level. I recently heard David Rendall speak at ASCD Empower17 and one of his messages stuck out to me and reminded me of my accountability partner: partner with people who are strong where you are weak. Of course there are some non-negotiables in our relationship that stem from our similarities (passion for oft-forgotten student populations, strong desires for accountability in teacher and leadership positions, insistence that some disruption will do the status quo some good), we are quite different in our roles, backgrounds, and approaches to challenges.

The qualities I value in Brady lie in her ability to question my every move, not because she thinks I am wrong but because she wants to make sure I have fully fleshed out an idea and have thought about a topic deliberately and with intentions that benefit students first. I admit that I got to a point in my career where a lot people just told me what I wanted to hear and there was minimal pushback for my ideas (which now come at about lightspeed from Brady and never show signs of easing up).

Finding this professional soulmate who forces me to think more deeply than my brain can handle at times, has caused me to grow more than I thought imaginable. Brady poses such thought provoking questions that by virtue of experiencing it I become more skilled at questioning every day. Her strengths, as a result, have been passed on to me. I truly know now that the questions far outweigh the answers. It’s not all accolades and atta-girls in our working relationship but that’s what makes it most powerful. We absolutely take heed from @kimballscott who preaches caring personally but challenging directly. There are no feedback sandwiches served in our partnership - we don’t layer on positive feedback to compensate for the radical candor we are known to provide for each other. And if it was all about praising each other, we wouldn’t achieve at the level that we do.

Finding your accountability partner requires you to know yourself first and identify your own strengths and weaknesses. Allowing yourself to own your growth areas allows you to begin the journey to find a partner who complements your practice and who can help fine tune competency in your role. I admit there are times when I am scared to pick up the phone or text Brady because I really don’t want to face what she has to say to me. Her incessant questioning sometimes hurts my head and my heart but I absolutely come out the other side a better and brighter and more thoughtful person who is never allowed to not put students first.

Partner with people who will tell you when you’re being lame
We consider ourselves each other’s coach. This means that even though we work across the state from one another we feel a unique obligation to support each other’s work and dreams. Having an outside perspective helps strengthen your decisions. You either learn to defend your platform more strongly or you realize that your stance may be worth abandoning. Your accountability partner has the unique position to be able to speak to you with radical candor. It is honestly so refreshing to share an idea with a colleague and be told that it’s lame and needs a major facelift. Cutting to the chase is essential - the kids don’t have time for leaders to beat around the bush so feelings aren’t hurt. When you and your partner know that you prioritize student learning, feelings are not hurt when ideas are critiqued. It’s not about us, it is about the work.

There are times when we need to be told we’re being too pushy or intimidating. Sometimes people close to you and who work with you may neglect to give you this critical feedback you need when working in teams. Just because we don’t work together doesn’t mean our achievement at work is neglected in our conversations. Our individual work is better because of our partnership - our work is never minimized.

Partner with people who know your heart & let your partner know your heart
We both dive deep into our work headfirst, but heartfirst is where we most often find ourselves in education. This means that our to-do lists are long and if we aren’t careful we can find ourselves straying from our core values. It is not uncommon for us to chat briefly at the end of the day and review the positives and challenges. While one of us reviews the work, the other provides feedback regarding a situation or provides a push to approach a challenge from another direction. It can be quite easy to be caught in the weeds or begin to take on burdens that don’t belong to you. Having a sounding board external to the situation creates more opportunity for you to strengthen the work you do.

So, now what?

What will you go out and do after reading this blog? What do we expect you to do with this information?

This blog is not just about the relationship between the two of us. There are steps you can take to achieve a level of accountability with a colleague that will grow your skills faster than any PD session you’ve attended.

  • Whose work do you admire?

  • Who do you follow on Twitter? Whose blogs do you read? Whose PLN interests you?

  • What are your strengths and weaknesses?

  • Who can complement your skillset to help you achieve at a higher level?

Not everyone believes in the concept of having a soulmate - that one special person intended just for you. That’s not the case, though, so just believe that there are indeed many professional soulmates out there, just waiting to be chosen by you.

Shawn Berry Clark, Ph.D., is the author of Using Quality Feedback to Guide Professional Learning: A Framework for Instructional Leaders and works for a state department of education as a transformation coach. Brady Venables supports technology and learning coaches in South Carolina. For more information about Shawn’s and Brady’s ventures into education, see their blog, Classroom Confessional, or reach out via Twitter @shawnblove and @BradyVenables.

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.