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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

Do You Listen, Learn, and Lead? Or Just Lead?

By Peter DeWitt — August 26, 2015 4 min read
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Leadership is important. I don’t think that is a surprising statement to anyone reading, but I do think that some leaders feel entitled to be in their position. Perhaps they taught at the school for many years while they went back to get their degree or certificate in administration or they were an assistant principal for many years and the principal left so they feel they should get the position.

Do those leaders listen, learn and lead...or just lead with blinders on?

Leadership is challenging. It is not easy to balance all of the stakeholders that are a part of the school community. It’s not easy to give everyone a voice without seeming as though you are giving one group too much of a voice over another group. If leaders listen too much to parents, some of their staff see them as weak when it comes to parents. If leaders give too much of a voice to their teachers, they are seen as too weak when it comes to their teachers.

Do those leaders make deposits in the emotional bank account (Covey) of all stakeholders, so that those stakeholders trust that the leader is always looking for win-win?

Leadership is exciting. Not every day is rosy when you are a school leader. I was a principal for close to 8 years in an incredible school but we had our issues. However, it was exciting to make connections with students and parents who may not have enjoyed the school experience before they entered our school community. It was exciting to try to be different than other principals they may have experienced.

Walking into classrooms to learn what teachers are doing to engage their students was a privilege. There were so many teachers who were so much better at engaging students than I was when I was in the role. I didn’t need to enter into their classrooms to tell them what they were doing wrong...because so much of what they were doing was right.

My job as a principal was to foster the voice of teachers, students and parents. However, sometimes what I found was that it was harder to find my own voice as a principal, because everyone thought that the position instantly comes with a voice.

That’s when my listening, learning and leading took place.

What is Voice?

Voice is something I think of a lot. The interesting part about voice is that it should include listening as much it includes speaking. When it comes to voice many already believe that principals have one that is too loud; especially those who enter into faculty meetings with one idea and walk out with the same one. Or worse...those leaders who seem as though they care about the voices of stakeholders and have meetings to listen, when they really want to build consensus to get what they ultimately wanted from the beginning.

Do you know a leader who does that? Are they listening...or just leading?

It’s important to distinguish what voice really means. Russ Quaglia, of the Quaglia Institute for Student Aspirations (QISA), a group that I work with, has been delving into the principal voice arena. QISA understands that in order for students to meet their aspirations and have a voice...teachers, principals and parents need to have a voice as well.

Quaglia’s definition is,

A principal with "Voice" is characterized as having the ability to speak openly and honestly in an environment that is driven by trust and responsibility. Using your voice is not only about sharing your own thoughts, but also utilizing your voice to elicit and support the voice of others in the organization. Principal voice is about taking action; listening to the people around you; learning from what is being said; and leading with the best interests of all concerned in mind. Without the strength of your voice, it is virtually impossible for you and your school to reach their fullest potential."

(Graphic courtesy of QISA)

Having a voice is really about providing voice to others. It’s also about listening to what other people believe, and putting your own beliefs to the side. Having a voice is about learning that your ideas aren’t made better by ignoring others, but by listening to others and collectively coming up with an aspiration for what you want for all students in the school community.

In the End

Fostering voice is important, buy there are things that leaders do that chip away at achieving it. When leaders sit in administration meetings with other principals from their district or neighboring districts and they speak negatively about their teachers, they are chipping away at voice. That’s not to say that principals can’t vent frustrations with others who understand the role, but when they do that more than they speak positively about their school, one must wonder whether it’s the teachers or them who are negative.

It’s poor leadership.

I have had principals attend professional development sessions where they talk about all the things they can’t do because of their teachers...which is a lot like teachers who talk about the things they cannot do because of their students or parents. Why attend the workshop if all you see are challenges and not possibilities?

Ultimately, these actions really chip away at leadership in general. Perhaps they come from a place of frustration. Frustration from having too many tasks and not enough time, or frustration from dealing with too many accountability measures. But it’s really important that we get leadership right, and sometimes our actions negatively affect our own leadership...and many people notice.

Leadership is about listening to their concerns, learning how to help them get through those challenges and leading to create a better school climate. And principal voice is about listening more than you talk, so that you can achieve that better school climate.

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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.