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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 You Checked Your Shadow Recently?

By Jon Harper — July 14, 2014 4 min read
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Today’s guest blog is written by Jon Harper, who is currently the vice principal of Choptank Elementary School located in Cambridge, Maryland.

When you have two kids it is not always easy to get quality time with just one. Your time is usually divided simply because that is part of the deal. So this morning when my daughter asked if she could join me for what I thought would be a solo run, I quickly said yes.

We ended up walking most of the way, but that was okay because it gave us a chance to catch our breath and simply chat. About halfway into our run my daughter ran ahead which gave a chance to snap a few quick photos with my phone. The first photo was of my daughter running like a gazelle. She is wonderful and watching her run is a site to behold.

The second photo I took inspired me to write this piece. I did not plan or stage this next photo, but when I looked into my phone to take the next picture I couldn’t believe what I saw. The photo below is my shadow! I could not believe how large it was!

Then it hit me. If my own shadow appeared gigantic to me, how must it appear to others? What would my daughter have said if she had seen it? Maybe she would’ve been impressed that her 5'10 inch father could cast such an enormous image. One thing I am certain of is that it would not have scared her because she knows me. And she knows that I am there to lift her up and protect her, no matter what.

But does everyone else know this? Does our sometimes larger-than-life presence cause others to feel safe or does it cause them to feel scared? We need to know and we need to get it right!


Whether we realize it or not we are powerful figures in the eyes of our students. Our shadows loom large in their eyes and we must always be aware of their effects. In many cases we can literally pick our students up and carry them. This may not seem like a big deal, but that is because we are often the ones with the size advantage, not them.

Imagine going to work each day knowing that your boss could literally pick you up over their head if they wanted to. Now imagine that you have no idea if that person was there to protect you or to intimidate you. How would you feel when, or if, that person raised their voice at you?

On the other hand, imagine going to work each day knowing that that same person always had your back. They were there to protect you no matter what. What an amazing feeling of security! As Simon Sinek has so eloquently spoken and written about on numerous occasions, one of the most important things leaders can do is provide a “circle of safety” for those that they work for and with.


I am a vice principal and whether I like it or not, I have the power to make the adults in the building feel safe in my presence or I have the power to make the adults in the building feel nervous in my presence.

When teachers see me walking down the hallway are they happier when I am coming or going? Do they walk towards me or away from me? I make every effort possible to have conversations and interactions with staff on equal terms. In other words, I want staff to feel as if they are having a conversation with me, and not a conversation with their vice principal. Now, as the vice principal I realize that there are certain conversations that must be had in which I am the vice principal and they are they are the teacher. Hopefully though, by the time these types of conversations need to happen the relationships have already been built such that we both feel comfortable discussing the matters at hand.

I do not want teachers to feel nervous when I walk in their room! I want them to be excited for me to see all the wonderful things that are taking place. I want them to feel comfortable enough in my presence that they don’t mind making mistakes. Maybe I need to move away from the light because this is their time to shine and my shadow is their way. This usually only involves a single step one way or the other.

Or quite possibly it could be that they are not yet ready to shine and they need the protection that my shadow may provide. That is fine too. Either way it is my job to know the effect my shadow has on them.


Finally, what effect does my gigantic shadow have on my own behavior? Looking down and seeing myself larger than life can be dangerous. Like Narcissus, do I become so in love with my own image (shadow) that I am blind to all else that is around me?

Do I stop trying to learn and grow and improve simply because I can cast a large shadow? Students and teachers are going to laugh at more of my jokes and go along with more of my ideas simply because I may cast a larger shadow than they do. Is that really what I want?


I want to know when my jokes aren’t funny!

I need to know when my ideas are wrong!

Wait a minute!

What if I can teach students how to cast their shadows so that they are larger than mine? What if I am able to empower teachers to do the same?

This morning the site of my shadow gave me reason for pause. I had never actually realized just how large it was and what that meant for students, staff and for me. Hopefully we as leaders, from time to time, are able to step back and really think about the effect that our shadows have on those we serve.

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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.