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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

Lower Your Status. Raise Theirs.

By Peter DeWitt — November 06, 2016 5 min read
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Status. Some people have it more than they think, and others like to use that status to get what they want. Let’s face it, status is not always bad. Frequent flyers get status, which means they can board first, get their carry-on luggage on the plane before anyone else, and are treated to some nice amenities like getting bumped up to economy plus or first class even after they bought a coach seat (Don’t jump up like you won the lottery when they tell you you’ve been bumped up. I forgot my ear buds were in and they popped out. Play it cool).

When we think of status we think of celebrities who don’t have to wait in lines at the best restaurants and the hippest new clubs. They are given things for free even though they are the ones who can afford them the most, and are put on a pedestal by others around them, which feeds into their egos...if they’re not surrounded by the right people.

However, there are other ways to look at status that happen in our everyday lives and have nothing to do with being an A-lister. Sometimes we use status to get what we want in conversations with others. How?

In the field of education there are positions that have real or a perceived status. Superintendents, assistant superintendents, principals and assistant principals all have status. There are some districts where those working in leadership positions at the central office or building level have major status and teachers, students or parents get a bit intimidated when the person with status walks into the room.

Other times status happens between a teacher and instructional coach. Instructional coaching expert Jim Knight, someone I work with as an instructional coaching trainer says, “When two people come together to discuss professional practice, there is always the possibility that issues of status will arise.” Sometimes it may not even include a coach as much as it may include a new teacher talking with an experienced teacher.

Status Obstacles
The issue with status is that we may never get to the heart of an issue when it is involved. If we are the ones without the status we may only speak when spoken to and not share our real feelings. If we’re the ones with status we may be talking too much or our words may be remembered long after we long forgot them.

Status has a lot to do with self-efficacy. John Hattie, someone I work with as a Visible Learning trainer, says self-efficacy is,“The confidence or strength of belief that we have in ourselves that we can make our learning happen.” Unfortunately, not everyone in our school community has a high level of self-efficacy, which is why status can be an obstacle.

In Hattie’s research, he found that self-efficacy can have an effect size of .63 which is well over the hinge point of .40 that represents a year’s worth of growth for a year’s input (read more about Hattie’s research here). But, there is another side of the self-efficacy coin. Ashton and Webb found that,

Teachers with low teaching efficacy don’t feel that teachers, in general, can make much of a difference in the lives of students, while teachers with low personal teaching efficacy don’t feel that they, personally, affect the lives of the students.

How does this apply to status?

Imagine a principal or coach going into talk to a teacher with a low level of self-efficacy. If the leader or coach doesn’t recognize that they have status and enter into the conversation trying to resolve an issue, the issue will be difficult to resolve because the teacher on the receiving end may feel unable to answer the questions or be honest during the dialogue.

In other cases, the leader or coach may fully understand that they have status and use it over the teacher with a low level of self-efficacy, and the issues will never be resolved because a wall was built between the two adults before the conversation even happened.

Understanding status is important if we truly want to help those people around us. If we want to help an adult with a self-efficacy issue, than we have to do our best to lower our own status before we enter into the classroom to have a conversation. Self-efficacy doesn’t have to be a fixed mindset. Growth isn’t just for students, it’s for the adults in the school community as well.

In the End
If we truly want to help resolve issues with the different stakeholders (i.e. students, parents, teachers, staff, etc.) in our school community than we have to recognize that one of the parties in the partnership may have status over another based on position, experience or self-efficacy. And then we have to do our best to lower our status and raise theirs, because that will help us get to the heart of any issue.

The following are a few ways to lower your status and raise theirs:
Find the good - Everyone has good in them. Whether it be a teaching strategy, how they interact with students, the classroom they set up, or something in their personal lives. Knight refers to some of these as finding common ground. Raise their status by giving a little praise or positive feedback around that piece they’re good at.

Don’t be the expert - Even if we have expertise we don’t always have to tout it. If the person is struggling with something you struggled with in the past, be open and honest about it. Be real about the fact that you haven’t always been perfect.

Listen more than you talk - This is not new information. Stephen Covey told us about this years ago, but we’re not always good at it. Try to step back and let the person speak. Don’t interrupt.

Ask good questions - If you’re entering into the conversation with the answer you want in mind, then you are not fully present. Go into the conversation with the hopes of learning something.

Sit on the same side of the table as they do - I used to do this is a principal, but it became even more important to me after I watched Jim Knight in some Teaching Channel videos like this one. When we sit on the same side of the table with open body language we are conveying we want to work in partnership, and not that they are on the receiving end of the conversation we control.

Don’t confuse status with respect. We can respect each other, no matter our status. In your next conversation, if you really want to resolve an issue, or help someone grow as a professional, lower your status by raising theirs.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (September, 2016. Corwin Press). Connect with Peter on Twitter.

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.