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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

Being Visible Isn’t Enough

By Peter DeWitt — February 17, 2015 3 min read
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In leadership classes, prospective principals are told they need to be “visible.” Staff, students and parents need to see the administrators walking around the building. In order to be effective it’s important that principals don’t stay in their offices behind closed doors only available for when a problem presents itself.

Principals need to be more than visible. They actually have to authentically engage with students, staff and parents. One conversation at a time can help foster strong relationships that focus on student voice and learning. Perhaps it’s a case of splitting hairs but being visible isn’t good enough.

The life of a principal is really busy, especially if they have a large population of students or lack an assistant principal to help in the day to day activities. Unfortunately, even if they lack the perfect environment, principals still have to engage with stakeholders in school, and by engage I mean have conversations with parents as they drop their children off at school, or walk the halls to have dialogue with students and staff.

More importantly, they need to enter into classrooms to observe the focus on learning that takes place. According to the work of John Hattie, school leaders have an effect size of .39 which is right under the Hinge Point of .40. However, when looking at the moderators within Hattie’s vast research, instructional leaders have an effect of .42.

What does that mean?

It means that instructional leaders can have a positive effect on student learning, and in order to be an instructional leader, principals must step up to the plate and be more than visible.

Too often though we usually only focus on the adults in the school, and talk about students as though they are products that we churn out from year to year. We slap a grade on their paper or label them with some sort of learning issue and put them through a conveyor belt of learning. In a world of high stakes testing, we put a number next to their name which follows them up from year to year, and we create a self-fulfilling prophecy for them that some are “good at school” and others are not.

When entering into dialogue about learning, we have to make sure that students are at the center of our conversations, and actually include them in the process. We should make sure that we understand that just because a student struggles on a test doesn’t mean they aren’t good at school. And all of this begins with the relationships we create with them.

Student Voice

In an article in Principal Leadership, Quaglia and Corso write,

To develop relationships with students, principals must start with being visible and letting students know they matter. Being visible goes beyond walking the hallways like a cop on a beat. It is about being meaningfully engaged in the day-to-day life of students. The principal of a school in South Carolina started a program called "In Their Shoes." Teachers were invited to spend a day shadowing a young person to develop a new perspective on what it is like to be a student. Teachers were expected to ride the bus, eat in the cafeteria, and complete homework assignments. All administrators spent a day shadowing students to kick-start the program."

Quaglia and Corso, both of whom are experts in the field of student voice, go on to write,

Effective, student-centered principals know that students have something to teach them and must be part of any school solution. Those principals habitually seek feedback from students formally and informally. Such principals not only have student advisory councils and insist on student presence on committees and in team and department meetings, but they also regularly, informally poll students about their ideas for how to improve their schools."

In talking with Quaglia and Corso about their work, one of the most frustrating things that can happen is poling students and then not doing anything about it. Students aren’t ignorant to the fact that we poll them for their input and then often don’t change anything about their environment. They know when they’re being ignored.

But student voice is more than doing a survey. It’s actually about interacting with them. Quaglia and Corso go on to write,

One of the most creative ways we have seen a principal interact with students is by serving food in the cafeteria. Almost every student goes through the cafeteria line. Serving food gives principals an opportunity to be seen as a "real person" and not the one constantly admonishing everyone to get to class or slow down in the hallways. It also can be a daily occasion to ask students questions and, after serving, sit with students to hear what they have to say."

In the End

Visibility is great but we need principals who are more than visible. They don’t need to be content experts, but they do have to put learning at the center of what they do. They need to flip their faculty meetings and co-construct real opportunities for professional learning with their staff.

They need to create authentic relationships with students. What Quaglia and Corso write about are not unreachable. Serving food to different grade levels, welcoming students off the bus, having dialogue with them in the hallway instead of asking them “Where are you supposed to be” in an authoritarian way can be easily done.

Principals have a real opportunity every single day to create the same kind of relationships with students that teachers do. The fortunate thing about being a principal is that they can foster those relationships over a number of years as students grow up through grade to grade. Through those moments students will learn that they truly do have a voice.

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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.