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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Improving School Leadership Through ‘Confident Vulnerability’

By Paul Freeman — September 01, 2019 6 min read
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Learning requires students to acknowledge that they don’t know everything while believing that they are capable of learning anything. Principals can be exemplars by positioning themselves as leading learners.

Today’s guest blog is written by Paul Freeman, superintendent at Guilford Public Schools and a governing board member of AASA, The School Superintendents Association.

As superintendent, I see the hiring of principals—and then the growth of those principals—as the most important element of my job. They affect the climate and the culture in their buildings, first by choosing what teachers to hire and then by supporting the growth of those teachers. Directly and indirectly, they set the tone for the students who enter those schools every day. While I am the supervisor and evaluator of the principals in our district, as often as possible, I attempt to assume a stance as a coach and partner to the principals, because their growth is too important to leave solely to a supervision and evaluation process. In our district, the commitment to coaching is reflected in the idea of “confident vulnerability,” which is supported by a focus on self-reflection and leading by example.

Defining ‘Confident Vulnerability’

An attitude of confident vulnerability is necessary for effective learning. We want students to be confident so they can learn, but they can’t be effective learners if they believe that they know everything all the time. We expect teachers to give sophisticated feedback to students, and we know that students are in a vulnerable position as we ask them to accept and act upon that feedback, but we sometimes fail to translate those expectations to teachers and principals.

A disposition of confident vulnerability is essential in our school leaders, partly because modeling the behavior they want to see from students helps to create it, but also because we demand both confidence and vulnerability from leaders today. Our leaders are not permitted to assume a weak position, but, like our students, they must be vulnerable enough to acknowledge that they have room to improve as educators and leaders.

One tool we’ve recently adopted to help ease that translation is video. Originally, instructional coaches captured video of their coaching sessions with teachers. Principals would occasionally capture snippets of their practice with whatever technology was available, and we at times projected it on a screen during a leadership meeting to offer feedback. We saw a benefit from it while our coaches also demonstrated to their teachers that they were looking for opportunities to grow themselves. But it was also inefficient, since it wasn’t tied to our teaching framework and was inconsistent in implementation, stitched together with whatever we had on hand.

Recently we switched to video platform (ours happens to be Insight Advance’s classroom observation, feedback, and coaching tool), which allows our principals and coaches to record from their phone and annotate the video, among other things. Now I ask each of our principals to capture and share a minimum of three videos with me each year, but only after they’ve viewed and reflected upon them on their own or after they have shared them and received feedback from a colleague.

If a principal is confident enough to capture themselves on video, watch that video, share that video with a peer, and ultimately share that video with me so that I can look at it and we can then talk about the performance, that almost guarantees the kind of confident vulnerability and growth mindset that we’re looking to support in every learner in the district, from the students in the classroom to every member of the leadership team..

Inspiring Self-Reflection

A necessary component of the vulnerability we try to encourage is open and public self-reflection. As leaders, we need to be able to examine our own behavior and choices to figure out what’s working and what we can improve. Video helps here, as well.

Seeing ourselves from the outside is very different from what we see of ourselves from inside our own heads or what we might remember having happened. One of our principals looked at himself on video and was able to say, “I don’t think I was really listening to that teacher’s answers. I was worried about getting through my script, and I was worried about getting on to the next question.”

In the moment, he thought he was actively listening to every answer she gave, and he thought he was processing that conversation well. When he saw himself from the outside, though, he was able to see shortcomings in his own performance. Confident vulnerability plays a key role in moments like this. You’ve got to be confident in your performance to be willing to give yourself that kind of critical feedback.

Having him see the conversation for himself is much more effective than me saying to him, “I’m not sure that you were really listening,” which is more likely to put him on the defensive so that he would reflexively say something along the lines of, “Of course I was. I was there. I know I was listening.

We also encourage self-reflection by leaning on Edgar Schein’s work with “humble inquiry” and the idea of being able to ask sincere questions. A principal who walks into a classroom doesn’t need to give that teacher a list of everything that was good and everything that needs to be better. Asking thoughtful and curious questions is a truly beneficial form of feedback.

Saying to a teacher, “I saw what you did with the groupings in the classroom and I’m not sure I understood why. Can you tell me how you chose to make those groups?” allows the principal and the teacher to become inquirers and learners together. It also requires the principal to be vulnerable enough to acknowledge that he or she is not an expert in every subject area, while at the same time confident enough to know he or she can still be an effective leader. Of course, it also pushes the teacher to ask themselves critical questions about the choices they make and to be open and publicly self-reflective.

Leading by Example

Leading by example is layered throughout our approach to principal professional development. Part of it is positioning ourselves as learners. When the teachers in the building know that the principals are capturing video and working on their own practice, that the principals always consider themselves to be works in progress, that they’re reading research and looking for ways to be better learners themselves, that’s leading by example.

We ask our principals to position themselves and their work with their teachers in the same way that we expect teachers to position themselves with the learners in their classrooms. One of the classroom instructional practices that we’ve been working with is conferring. We want our teachers to be more proficient at the skill of sitting next to an individual student to look at their writing, for example, and helping that student become a better writer in the moment with specific, focused feedback.

We expect teachers to differentiate and personalize their instruction with every single child in the classroom, so the principal has to model that behavior. They’re not going to lead professional learning by giving stand-and-deliver faculty meetings where they tell the teachers what they need to be doing better. Instead, they tell their teachers, “I’m going to sit down with you, and we’re going to talk about a lesson that you just taught. I’m going to ask you probing questions and I’m going to help you to develop your practice based on that individual experience that we both shared.” When principals model those behaviors with individual teachers, those teachers are better able to enact those behaviors in the classroom with the most important learners in our system—our students.

We ask each of our students to be vulnerable enough to recognize that they are works in progress and to be confident enough to believe that they can achieve and perform at truly high levels. They deserve educators who are committed to doing the same.

Paul Freeman can be reached at freemanp@guilfordschools.org.

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.