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Peter DeWitt's

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

If Schools Had a Relationship Status, It Would Be ‘It’s Complicated’

By Peter DeWitt — July 01, 2016 6 min read
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In an episode of House Hunter’s International the other day, the husband and wife looking for a new house said they wanted to be in a good school district. Not sure what constitutes a good school district, and they certainly didn’t go into it because they were too busy finding the house of their dreams at a bargain price.

Of course we should shoot for good because we should be aspiring for great. But let’s cover good right now...

Sometimes the school district is considered good because it has a good reputation and there is a positive word of mouth in the community about the experience for kids and parents. Other times a school district may be considered good because of the extracurricular activities and quality of sports fields and gymnasiums it offers.

And then we know, other times a school district is considered good because of it’s test scores. Those test scores appear on the news stations (in smaller towns and cities), and in the newspapers regardless of the size of the town or city.

However, there is a great deal more to whether a school is good or not, because however good a school may seem to one person, it may be anything but good to another. As much as we talk about the next best initiative or read about new or recycled ideas in educational books, schools are very complex organizations. This is not new...news...because many thought leaders and researchers have been focusing on that issue for a very long time.

Schools are so complicated in fact that if they had a relationship status on Facebook, it would have to be the one that says, “It’s Complicated.”

Why Is It Complicated?
When I was a new teacher I used to think that teaching would not be complicated. We enter a classroom, kids come in with us, and we teach. After we teach it, they understand it, and then we all go home happier than when we entered in the first place.

Then we begin to realize that teaching and learning is a bit more complicated due to the student’s academic level, parental involvement, and the politics that happen in school between the adults.

As a school principal I realized that not everyone taught the way that I did...nor should they...and suddenly that myopic view of teaching and learning begins to become more complicated because people approach the same topic in different ways. And to make it even more complicated, we are forced to work with others, which means we have to find the balance between who’s right and which way is better. It would be nice if we could just accept the differences.

Now, as someone who runs workshops and works with teachers and leaders, my perspective has been opened up even greater. There are many great leaders and teachers out there in the world, and I have been fortunate to work with many of them (Just recently some awesome teachers and coaches from Nevada Learning Forward!).

However, don’t get too upset, but I have come across teachers and leaders who said things in the open that I never would have thought out loud before, and I think a lot of it comes from frustration or a lack of understanding how to solve it.

The reason why schools are complicated is because of the following list. As with any list, please know that this is my opinion based on research and personal experience, but I’m sure you could add to it, which you are welcomed to do in the comment section. That list includes:

Schools are filled with adults - Yes, they are filled with students as well, but sometimes schools get sidetracked by the adults who enter the building. Those adults include teachers, staff, leaders and parents. As much as I am a fan of collaborative leadership, which I worked hard to do as a principal (sometimes successfully and other times not so much), we spend our days being more reactive than we do being proactive.

Not everyone has high expectations of students or themselves - I was once running a workshop where I had an 8th grade teacher tell me she didn’t have high expectations of her students because none of her colleagues did and why should she. I happen to mention it’s our job and maybe we can be the beacon of hope in a fog of low expectations, but I’m not sure if that hit the mark or not.

Read this little doctoral dissertation by Rachel Eells and look into John Hattie’s work around collective teacher efficacy. Not all teachers, leaders or staff have high expectations of themselves, which is why instructional coaching, collaborative leadership and teacher leadership is so vitally important. How can we have high expectations of kids if we don’t have high expectations of ourselves?

The need for shiny new toys - School leaders and teachers always feel the pressure to look outside of their schools for the answer. They chase after shiny new toys every year when the answer we need may be right inside their schools all along. This can be referred to as leading from the middle. Read Andy Hargreaves and Mel Ainscow’s article on that concept here. Maybe the shiny new toy is just a shiny new toy and not as good as something we are already doing that can be fostered and improved under the right conditions?

Communication or lack thereof - Speaking of right conditions. I am sometimes shocked when I enter a school to run a workshop and a percentage of the participants have no idea why they are there and were “voluntold” to go because it will look bad for their individual school if they don’t have a body there to represent them. I’m fortunate because the work I get to do fits with what schools are already doing, but many teachers don’t know that when I enter. Communication, whether it’s about a new initiative or something that happened during the day that everyone needs to know is very important. Unfortunately, communication among adults is intended, or may lead to, compliance rather than authentic dialogue. Basically, I’m telling you because you need to know and I want you to agree with me...not...I want your insight or opinion.

Students have home lives - I used to try to get my students to leave their home lives at the door. That’s what I would tell them. However, when you have your share of kids who are homeless, hungry and their parents got busted for selling crack the night before, you soon realize that not everyone can leave their home life at the door. Doesn’t mean we should have low expectations and can’t work hard to engage them, but we do have to be empathetic to what they are going through. It’s hard to cover curriculum with students who lost their parent to cancer the week before.

In the End
So many teachers and leaders are walking into school trying their best, and when these complications arise, they create situations where teachers would rather go into their classrooms with their students and shut the door behind them. Too often when leaders say they want teachers to work in partnership, it means they want teachers to comply. All of that can lead to resentment and therefore, low levels of self-efficacy.

It would be nice if we could negotiate our way through it all and get rid of the parts we don’t need. Schools are sometimes like hoarders. They keep collecting stuff and don’t get rid of the things they don’t need.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students (2012. Corwin Press), Flipping Leadership Doesn’t Mean Reinventing the Wheel (2014. Corwin Press), School Climate Change (2014. ASCD) and the forthcoming Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (2016. Corwin Press).

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Geralt.

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.