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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

Have School Leaders Become Too Enabled?

By Peter DeWitt — March 24, 2017 5 min read
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During a workshop in a state far, far away I asked groups of teachers and leaders to discuss a topic relevant to the learning we were diving into for the day. It’s a fairly routine activity to do during a workshop because it helps get the audience talking, and also provides formative assessment to the presenter. When presenters stop talking and listen to the thoughts of the audience it helps make the experience deeper.

We meet them where they are as opposed to where we think they are.

In large audiences we have to walk around with a microphone for audience participation (It just looks odd to ask people to speak into our lapel mic). After asking the audience to discuss which strategies they use to help engage students, and how they know they work, I walked up to one leader and asked her to share her answer. Before she would talk into the microphone, she said she would only give her answer if I would tell her that she was right.

And we tell students to take risks?

It’s not the only time that happened, and there must be one of three reasons why she said it. One, I didn’t provide a climate in the workshop where she could trust I wasn’t setting her up (which I would never do by the way). Two, she didn’t want to look bad in front of her colleagues. Three, she simply wanted to know she was right before she would provide the answer.

Fast forward a year and I was working with a regional network that brings in dozens of school districts from around the state. When working through Visible Learning (Hattie) they were able to ask questions on a half sheet feedback form I provided between day 1 and day 2 of a two day event. It’s a good metacognitive activity for the participants, and provides the facilitator with good questions to think about. It also acts as a formative assessment tool to help see where to go next or where to go back and dive down deeper into.

Are we doing this right,” was a common theme.

Are We Doing This Right?
This is not meant to be judgmental. Its just that we tell students to take risks and that they don’t have to know all the answers when they start, but we as adults want to know all the answers before we start. We could say the stakes are higher for the adults, but students get graded too. We want students to be self-directed learners, but we as adults ask questions that make it seem as though we want someone to give us the answers.

Are we asking students to do things we as adults don’t do?

Many of the questions revolved around where to start; how they would know they were progressing, and whether they were understanding some of the material correctly, and what data to collect. Some were good questions, and I definitely needed to answer a few, but others are really dependent on where the district is, and where they are going. I think that might be part of the learning process they decide together. It made me think, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any route will take you there.

Instead of looking at the process of implementation as a learning experience, they looked at it solely from the lens of wanting to do it right, and needing someone to give them the answers. I understand that we only get one chance to make a first impression, but it made me wonder if some of the participants wanted to be spoon fed the material, and told how to do it.

We should never jump into new learning or new initiatives expecting to get an easy answer. Part of the learning is to work with groups back at school and work through the challenges. Part of the learning is to understand why we want to do it in the first place.

The Right Drivers Empower NOT Enable
For a moment I wondered if accountability and mandates have enabled districts into always worrying if they have the right answer and not allowed them to be innovative to find the best answer for them. And we know it’s a trickle down effect. If leaders want to find the right answer, they have two options from there. One option is to assemble a group of people who will become a think tank and find creative solutions. Or they will assemble a group that will find the most compliant answer possible to make sure they’re right.

According to international systems expert Michael Fullan, we need to ask ourselves if we have chosen the right drivers before we jump into any of these initiatives, and those drivers take work and don’t always happen through easy answers.

The right drivers are:
Capacity building over accountability - There is a lot of deep research that surrounds self-efficacy (Bandura) and collective teacher efficacy (Tschannen-Moran & Barr). When we find ways to increase the self-efficacy of teachers by fostering risk-taking (i.e. school climate, leader-teacher relationships) we can engage them in a way that will help them build capacity, which brings us to collective teacher efficacy. We build collective teacher efficacy through stakeholder groups, professional development, cognitive conflict that we work out together, and collaborative inquiry (Donohoo). Providing teachers with the problem and the opportunity to come up with innovative solutions is a great way to build capacity.

Teamwork over individuality - Clearly, this coincides with the above about collective teacher efficacy. We create more positive teamwork opportunities when we share best practices at faculty meetings (i.e. around an initiative, etc.), and when we foster a positive school climate where people can challenge each other without threatening them.

Pedagogy over technology - Make it about learning. Technology is often seen as an add-on because people add it on to look good during an observation. If used correctly, technology should be a natural fit into instruction. It’s the learning we need to be most concerned about.

Systemic over piecemeal - Stop throwing things against the wall to see what will stick. Improvement (let’s stop worrying about changing), will happen when we understand how the initiative will fit into what we are already doing, and how we can fit into the initiative.

In the End
We should focus on our highest priorities as much as possible. If the initiative is not providing support to those priorities, then we shouldn’t always dive into them. Questioning is good, but finding the answers on our own can be just as gratifying. Self directed learning isn’t just for students.

Instead of asking:


  • How do we fit into this program? Ask: Why is this program for us?
  • Where do we begin? Ask: What is our current reality (Knight)?
  • How can we get this accomplished? Ask: Do we have the capacity to do it (Robinson)?
  • What data should we collect? Ask: What are we trying to measure?
  • How do we roll this out to teachers? Ask: Have we involved teachers in the process first?

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (2016. Corwin Press/Learning Forward), and the forthcoming School Climate: Leading With Collective Efficacy (Corwin Press/Ontario Principals Council. August 2017). Connect with Peter on Twitter.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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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