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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

Leadership: Is It My Way or the Highway?

By Peter DeWitt — October 28, 2014 3 min read
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Often, building principals are caught between district decisions and teacher opinions, and they have to help build the bridge between the two.

Some leaders are more concerned...or equipped...to manage a school rather than be an instructional leader. Perhaps they are good at creating schedules, working through discipline issues, or making sure everything runs smoothly. Unfortunately, they may not be good at understanding what learning looks like, and during observations they focus on how quiet the students are during class or how much work, student or professional, is hung up on the walls.

No matter whether leaders consider themselves managers or instructional leaders...or a combination of both, some would prefer to lead alone...meaning they don’t listen to their teachers. For some of these leaders they seem to not know any better. They learned from a leader that was the “Boss” and they took that leadership approach when they started their own career in administration. During administration internships there are new leaders who learn what not to do from their immediate supervisors and others who become so distained with teachers that they believe they need to have a “My way or the highway” attitude.

As a democratic, instructional leader, it almost seemed as though I was seen as weak...a pushover...someone who was just too nice, because I did not have the attitude that it was my way or the highway. I was fortunate, because my staff taught me as much as I may have taught them...if not more, and I took that with me when I left the position.

Leadership isn’t easy. Especially being a building principal. Often, building principals are caught between district decisions and teacher opinions, and they have to help build the bridge between the two.

Teacher Voice?

Lately, I have been thinking a great deal about teacher voice...or lack thereof. Mostly, because of the work of Jim Knight and Russ Quaglia, two experts I work with who challenge and support my thinking. In Unmistakable Impact, Knight writes,

Principals who see teachers as equals embrace the opportunity to hear what others think and feel. Indeed, I recommend principals make a point of having frequent one-to-one conversations with teachers so that (a) teachers have a chance to communicate their joys and frustrations they're experiencing with their work and (b) principals gather an understanding of what teachers think about what is happening in the school (p.52)."

Unfortunately, there are many principals who believe in monologue, and not dialogue, with teachers. I have been challenged by principals who are status quo with their leadership. They believe that dialogue only needs to happen between teachers and students, and monologue is the only communication tool between the principal and staff.

Leadership, the old style at least, needs to change. There is no more room for principals delivering monologue to staff at faculty meetings, and saying that teachers whine too much when they don’t like the decisions. There is no room for school leaders who smugly talk about the fact that it is their way or the highway as if they are drill sergeants.

Effective leaders ask for...and listen to input as they make decisions. They take feedback whether they want to hear it or not, and they certainly model the very kind of behavior that they tout teachers should model to students. They want compliance at their faculty meetings as they may exhibit anything but that at the meetings they attend. Everyone should have a voice in the school community.

Don’t Like It? Leave!

Recently, I had a principal tell me that if their teachers do not like the decisions they make, those teachers can leave to go to another building.

I am the coach and the owner of this ball team, and if they don't like my rules, they can go to another team," they said angrily. "I don't yell at my staff. I just tell them what they have to do, and if that makes me the big bad wolf, then I guess I am the big bad wolf," one principal said.

They were right. It is their way or the highway. Unfortunately, that shortsighted behavior, and need to control, puts their students at risk, because the behavior leaders exhibit on their staff is the very behavior many staff members will exhibit to their students. Modeling is everything.

Time to Move On

Clearly, there are many times that principals need to make decisions. Adults can get stuck on one issue that prevents them from moving forward, and good leaders know when it is time to leave the indifference behind and move on.

Other times leaders need to push the envelope to change the school climate. That is uncomfortable and not always easy. But shouldn’t teachers be allowed to push the envelope too? Shouldn’t they have a voice? Shouldn’t they be able to question authority, if we want students to do the same?

Or perhaps we don’t want students or adults to question authority at all. Perhaps we want everyone to fall inline. And until we encourage different behavior among our staff, our students will never question, and our system of education will continue to be built on compliance, and not on learning at all.

Until teachers have a voice, students won’t either.

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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.