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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: We’ve Got This!

By Peter DeWitt — July 02, 2015 4 min read
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It’s awesome when we can be inspired. Inspiration comes in many ways and sometimes happens when we least expect it. To be honest, I don’t always expect to be inspired at an annual conference. I know that sounds strange because that is typically the place where inspiration is supposed to happen. But let’s face it, many times we leave a conference feeling like we’ve heard the same old thing by the same old people.

For the last few days I have been at the National Association of Elementary School Principal’s (NAESP) Annual Conference in Long Beach, California. It was a small but mighty crowd of principals, superintendents and prospective principals from across the US and Canada, and I’m leaving inspired by a group of principals that I have had the pleasure of knowing through Twitter and finally meeting in person.

They want to make a difference, and in the schools they lead, they are having an impact.

Know Thy Impact, it’s a statement John Hattie, someone I work with as a Visible Learning trainer, makes all the time. Leadership has an effect size of .39, which is just under the Hinge Point of .40 which means a year’s growth for a year’s input. However, instructional leadership has an effect size of .42, which is right above it.

In our leadership training as principals, it used to be said that school leaders needed to be visible in hallways. I believe that is flawed thinking and lacks the true depth needed for a school principal. School leaders need to be much more than visible. They need to be actively engaged in the learning process, which means they need to find innovative ways to meet the needs of their diverse staff and student populations.

That innovation needs to involve being knowledgeable about research, sensitive to social-emotional needs of students and staff, using technological tools like tablets and social media, as well as having a mindset that stays focused on the aspirations of stakeholders that have been co-constructed together. We need great leaders who are more than just managers who patrol the hallways and main office, without going into classrooms to work in partnership with teachers. Leadership is too important to continue the status quo relationships.

Great Leadership is Happening

Leadership is one of those areas where we feel like we can’t always win. Much like the world of teaching, which many leaders came from, it’s filled with times when everything seems to go right and other times when it seems like every move is a bad one.

I was a school principal in an awesome school district for 8 years. We definitely saw our share of tough times, but it ultimately made us stronger in many ways. As I sit in a new role I read a lot of news about the principalship, and those media stories mostly focus on bad leadership. But it’s at conferences like NAESP that I see so many innovative ideas being put to use in schools around the country, and that is inspiring.

We know schools are not created equally, and as we all move forward working toward their improvement, it’s important to understand that there are many principals working really hard in tough situations that are not just being innovative, but they are establishing a school climate that encourages risk taking and not just rule following.

The National School Climate Center, under the direction of Jonathan Cohen, define school climate as,

The quality and character of school life. School climate is based on patterns of students,' parents,' and school personnel's experience of school life and reflects norms, goals, values , interpersonal relationships, teaching and learning practices, and organizational structures. A sustainable, positive school climate fosters youth development and learning necessary for the productive, contributing, and satisfying life in a democratic society. This climate includes: Norms, values, and expectations that support people feeling socially, emotionally, and physically safe. People are engaged and respected. Students, families, and educators work together to develop, live and contribute to a shared school vision. Educators model and nurture attitudes that emphasize the benefits and satisfaction gained form learning. Each person contributes to the operations of the school and care of the physical environment (2014, para. 3-4).

This week I have been fortunate enough to see principals who are using podcasts to engage families, flipping their leadership to make their faculty meetings and stakeholder meetings about learning, and trying to do those in ways that include every family by doing the videos and letters in multiple languages. There were many leaders who deeply care about school climate and try to find ways to support their teachers in every way possible.

I also noticed that many of the principals who surrounded me were much younger than I had noticed before (perhaps because I’m getting older!), and they were hungry to get a better understanding of the role so they could meet the day to day challenges. And there are challenges...

In a recent Churn report by the School Leaders Network,

Twenty five thousand (one quarter of the country's principals) leave their schools each year, leaving millions of children's lives adversely affected. Fifty percent of new principals quit during their third year in the role. Those that remain frequently do not stay at high poverty schools, trading difficult-to-lead schools for less demanding leadership roles that serve more affluent populations."

The principals who inspired me this week were not all from affluent school districts, and they want to remain in their challenging schools because they understand good leadership matters. However, some teachers in those schools are always waiting for the other shoe to drop, and as good as the leader is, the teachers believe that those leaders will leave for greener pastures at any time, much like their predecessors.

We need to find ways to continue supporting these young, energetic and innovative principals so they can continue to support the teachers, students and parents in their school communities. We must make sure that they tap into networks that will help support them, but also inspire them to keep being innovative and encouraging teachers to be innovative as well.

Leadership is not easy, and many of the principals who attended NAESP’s Annual Conference this week understand that. It would be awesome to see leaders like this in each and every school, because if they were than we’ve definitely got this.


Joining Twitter - There are hundreds if not thousands of principals who will support you.

Joining Voxer - This Walkie-Talkie app on your phone will help tap you into numerous leadership networks that will help you become a better leader.

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Selfie courtesy of Amy Fadeji and Todd Nesloney.

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.