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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: It’s Much More Than Doing Discipline and Blanket E-mails

By Peter DeWitt — September 06, 2016 6 min read
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What’s the silver bullet that will solve all of our problems? What are the new shiny toys we should chase after in our districts? Is there a box we can buy and open that will give us all we need.

We know the answer is no to all of those questions but we go after them any way. Why? It’s the easy thing to do. But, what we forget is that we tell students that learning can be hard work, and then we look for the easy answers as adults. Sometimes we just wish it wasn’t so hard...

No initiative will work effectively, or change will take place without issue, if we haven’t fostered positive relationships in school. That, of course, includes fostering positive relationships with students, parents, teachers and staff. No one should feel left out.

All of which takes leadership.

Leadership is much, much more than doing discipline and sending out blanker e-mails. Our leadership focus should be authentic engagement among stakeholders where they can question the process before they have to trust it. This requires authentic engagement and not compliant engagement.

Unfortunately, over the last few years it seems that we have focused, and wanted, compliant engagement out of everyone. Instead of using faculty meetings, teacher observations, classrooms and our gatherings with parents as a place to authentically engage, many leaders want people to fall into compliant engagement...and then they wonder why those stakeholders aren’t happier when they stay there.

Don’t get me wrong, there is always a level of compliance necessary for learning. We have to show up on time for class, bring the required materials, and know how to behave. However, there has been an increase in the amount of compliance expected of teachers and leaders, and therefore...students.

All of this has an effect on our school climate. Our school climates are at the heart of the teaching and learning that happens in our schools, and that school climate should focus on those influences that matter most. We don’t need a box, shiny toy or initiative for that. We need to know what influences have the biggest impact on learning.

And to do that we have to understand our current reality (Knight), which takes the collective thinking of all stakeholders.

Influences On Learning
If you read this blog regularly, it comes as no surprise that I work with John Hattie, who has collected the largest database on what works in the classroom. He constantly speaks and writes about our need to focus on learning and not all of the adult issues that we often focus on in schools. Unfortunately, at the same time we tell students to focus on learning, we do the opposite when we get together as adults.

I have written about Hattie’s work numerous times in this blog, and every time I am required to let you know that I work with him. Besides having an enormous amount of respect for Hattie as a person, his research has had an enormous impact on my thinking, which is why I live and breathe it most every day. I study it, dissect it, and see where it fits in with the context of teachers and leaders I work with.

When it comes to leadership, I think constantly about what I would have changed when I was a principal for nearly 8 years, and what I’m proud of most about what we, as a small school community, did together. Many leaders, new or veteran, want to make leadership less about being on the dark side (read that blog here), and want to learn more about the influences that matter most when it comes to improving the learning opportunities for students and adults. And so, I wrote a book called Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (Corwin Press/Learning Forward) using 6 of Hattie’s influences, while exploring some others as well. In the book, which is officially released today, the influences that are vitally important in schools are:

Instructional Leadership (.42) - Overall, in Hattie’s research he has found that leadership has a .39 effect size (mixing together instructional and transformational), which just falls short of the .40 hinge point that has been found to represent a year’s worth of growth for a year’s input. However, when we look at just instructional leadership the effect size goes up to .42. Instructional leadership seems to mean everything that goes on within the school building, and there are plenty leaders can do to take the structures they already have in place, and use it as a format to focus on learning and teaching. Instructional leadership is important, but collaborative leadership addresses bringing all the stakeholders in the school community together.

Collective Teacher Efficacy (1.57) - We have learned a lot over the years about low levels of teacher self-efficacy, which means that we have adults in the school who do not believe they can make a positive impact on students. What we know about teacher-student relationships is that they have a .72 effect size which is well over the hinge point, so having teachers work through their low level of efficacy (which can be a result of their personal or professional experiences) is important. Collective teacher efficacy, which has an effect size of 1.57 is when we bring teachers together to focus on learning so they can all maximize that teacher-student relationship influence that matters so much.

Professional Development (.51) - We know that a lot of professional development has been compliance based, which has been a direct result of the accountability and mandates I mentioned earlier. We seem to have gone from a time when teachers could attend the PD they wanted without it having much of an impact on learning (Knight found we lose about 90% of what we learn in sit and get PD), to going to a time when every hour of PD was about a new initiative. We have plenty of opportunities to co-construct PD with staff and use some of our structures like faculty meetings to focus on a co-established goal to help make PD more effective, but we don’t always take those opportunities.

Feedback (.75) - There has been a lot of research done around the power of effective feedback, and although some leaders are getting better at it, most don’t give it all, and we have teacher observation results to prove that. Hattie has 3 levels of feedback teachers can use with students, and we can certainly take the lessons learned from the feedback research and use those levels with teachers. We need teacher observations and walkthroughs to be more powerful than they are, and it takes effective feedback to get us there.

Assessment Capable Learners (1.44) - Hattie has changed the language around assessment capable learners a few times. It started out as student expectations and then evolved into assessment capable learners. Some schools call these students self-directed learners. The bottom line is that, no matter the ability level of our students, we need to help them understand where they are, how they got there and where they’re going to next (Hattie) so that they know what to do when they don’t know what to do.

Family Engagement (.49) - What makes collaborative leadership a bit more effective is that parents are included in the dialogue around school, and feel as though they can work in partnership with the leader and school community. Too often we give parents the message we want them to have after the decision is made. Instead we have to do a better job of bringing them in and giving them opportunities to share their voices.

In the End
Collaborative leadership is about working in partnership with those groups that are a part of the school community. The book focuses on research and practical steps that I have taken as a leader, and those leaders I have learned from on the road. I hope that this form of leadership grows, so we aren’t seen as being on the dark side, and we can throw out the us vs. them philosophy that is a strong part of the school culture.

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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.