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Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and independent consultant, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com.

Education Opinion

District Leaders Should Get Out of Their Office!

By Peter DeWitt — March 17, 2017 5 min read

Today’s guest blog is written by Adam Welcome. Welcome is the Director of Innovation & Technology in Mt. Diablo Unified School District in California, and the co-author of Kids Deserve It: Pushing the Boundaries and Challenging Conventional Thinking.

A few questions for district leaders...

1. How many hours per week do you spend at school sites?

2. How many of those hours do you spend in classrooms when you visit school sites?

3. How many teachers do you know by name?

4. How many teachers know your name?

5. How many kids know your name?

Even at the district office, our students should know our names...

In July 2016, I’ve moved to the district office level and no longer work at a school as a principal. To make matters more complicated I work in a completely new district - most adults didn’t know who I was, and certainly none of the students knew me. I’ve always believed that relationships come first, before solid relationships the work with curriculum, classroom design, thoughtful integration of technology and anything else really can’t happen with fidelity.

Our students are our business...our bottom line...our revenue stream - they’re the reason we work in education and just because we work in the central office doesn’t mean we shouldn’t know any of them, or any of them know us. We should break the myth that the central office is the ivory tower.

A couple of months into the job I was walking around one of our schools with another director who is a colleague. Classes were coming back from recess and headed to class. Out of nowhere a bunch of students start calling my name - “Adam - Adam - Adam!” Running towards me they all start talking super fast asking how I was, telling me about the robots they’ve been coding in class and it’s been so much fun!

We leave with high-fives as they head back to class.

The question from my colleague was “Uh, how do those kids know you?”

In a district of more than 50 schools and over 30,000 kids, it was a surprise to my colleague that a group of students would know my name. However, the answer to me was so obvious. I don’t build relationships out of my office, I do it by going into schools. Actually, I spend on average about three hours each week in my office.

How?

We have a team that includes two Teachers on Special Assignment and our awesome secretary. Even though I see them very little, we talk every day, throughout the day on numerous different communication channels which really enables us to work as a really strong team!

Those students who stopped to talk with me?

A few weeks ago I connected with their teacher and showed the class how to create accounts on Code.org and let them borrow my Sphero after we did a demo lesson with the entire class. A week later I went back and worked with small groups on the Sphero. They were so engaged with Sphero we worked together and wrote a Donors Choose grant so they could get their own.

In a large district the only way to scale the work we’re trying to achieve is to build capacity and forge strong relationships. That capacity and those relationships cannot be forged from a district or central office. Boots on the ground, in the trenches and with the people is in my opinion the only way to scale in a deep and meaningful way.

Even if you work in a district of just a few schools, you’re probably stretched more than most, wearing numerous hats across multiple departments - you still must build capacity and forge strong relationships. As district leaders, we should reinvent or at least re-define the district office level position so we can more thoughtfully integrate ourselves into the schools that we support.

The following is how we can do it:


  • Empower the people on my team to make decisions without including me first - have trust and you’ll build capacity.
  • We use Voxer all day long to stay updated on what the entire team is working on a learning. I can hear a message from them about a new project at a different school and then keep that information in my memory bank for potential use later on.
  • Set up a Google Voice number. Any call to my office phone, automatically goes to my mobile phone and I also get an email and text transcription of the message simultaneously. I don’t need to be at my desk to get my phone calls, they come to me wherever I am. And it’s free.
  • We share all information on Google Documents with my team.
  • Talk out loud. I’ve found the more that I talk out loud about what’s on my mind, what I’m planning, or just ideas that are percolating - the entire organization benefits. People around you hear what’s being said, they process and often times can offer a better idea and solution that wouldn’t have come to fruition if I kept things to myself. Talk about the project you’re working on, who knows what piece of information will benefit the organization. Blast what’s on your mind, don’t hoard that information for yourself.
  • Make your office as boring as possible and put nothing there that you need to do your job. My office is virtual, I’m busy connecting with teachers and students and can access nearly everything I need from my iPhone. Set up your systems so anything can be accessed from the cloud.
  • I don’t get many emails because I don’t send many emails. Email can takeover so much valuable productivity time. Don’t initiate an email correspondence and you won’t have to answer many. Call people, text, Voxer or show up in person.
  • Don’t just teach people - show them how to learn. It’s very hard to build capacity with people if you make them wait for you to teach them something new.

Your Challenge
Think about the schools you support. How often do you visit them? How many teachers do you know by name and how many know yours. And most importantly how many kids have you impacted in a thoughtful way so the next time they see you - they know your name!

If you’re spending more time putting out fires, responding to emails, being tied to your desk with operational issues - it’s time for a reboot. Reverse engineer your day and spend 95% of it at schools sites. Start this immediately, if you force yourself to make this change with a strong commitment, all you can do is improve. From there, figure out ways to stay connected to your office, your team and everything else that you need access to in order to do your job.

Please make a commitment - our schools will be stronger, relationships will be more developed, you’ll build more capacity and I guarantee more students will know your name! Go be awesome for kids, they deserve it!

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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