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Finding Common Ground

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

New Leaders Don’t Have to ‘Fly Solo’

By Peter DeWitt — May 14, 2013 4 min read
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“It’s hard for principals to win over teachers if they haven’t been one.” Michael Winerip

It’s a stressful time to be a new leader. With so many new mandates, accountability and budget cuts, leaders definitely have their challenges. At least new superintendents have administrative experience under their belts so, from an administrative level, they have seen these changes coming. New school leaders may not have that luxury.

School leaders have to learn a new set of skills when they move from one level to the next. At the same time they are trying to acquire that new skill set, they are working through the emotional side of accountability that everyone is experiencing. In teaching and learning, comes a great deal of emotion. Most teachers are very passionate individuals who care a great deal about their students, or at least, passionate about their subject.

It’s easy to get bogged down in negative feelings for testing and accountability. High stakes testing always has the potential to put me over the edge but I try to not let it show. We don’t need more chaos. We need calmness. It’s important for those in leadership positions to rally the troops and get staff to laugh...every single day. We still need to find the fun in each day, even in testing time.

Relationships, Relationships, Relationships
There are many factors that go into creating a successful leadership experience and it begins with the relationships they create with students, staff and parents. Our positions are special because of the people we lead. It’s not the building that is awesome, it’s the people and children within in it.

In addition to staff that leaders work with every day, relationships with administrative colleagues is another “must.” This doesn’t happen as often as it should. Most leaders attend administrative meetings and then go back to their own islands. When leaders ignore to foster a relationship with their administrative colleagues, they are missing out on opportunities to learn and grow.
Whether it’s the other elementary principals, the director of elementary special education or the principals and leaders in the other buildings and the central office, I have never felt alone in my position. That kind of teamwork takes a great deal of work.

Another “must” is that you must have teaching experience before you enter into a leadership role. Winerip says, “It’s hard for principals to win over teachers if they haven’t been one.” Can you really lead what you’ve never done? That’s a question that will bring out arguments on both sides. There are leaders who have probably been successful without teaching experience but I bought it happens very often. How do you lead conversations about student engagement if you’ve never engaged students in a classroom setting?

Don’t Go It Alone
Most new leader worry that they have to know everything when they enter into the position. That is flawed thinking, and if the district you work in believes that, their thinking is flawed as well. New leaders bring knowledge and skills but they also have enormous potential that needs to be fostered. New leaders can bring excitement to an administrative team because they may have a new way of thinking or great past experiences that help the group.

New leaders need to understand that they do not have to go it alone. Everyone, whether they are a teacher, student or leader needs to have someone to lean on. It is why collaborative learning, and collegial relationships, are so important. We always learn from the people who surround us.
For full disclosure, I have never, ever felt like I could not call one of my administrative colleagues for help. It also helps that I can lean on my teachers as much as they can lean on me. Some of my administrative colleagues had prior experience in the district, while others had prior experience in the role I took over. They all held valuable information that they wanted to share with me, and they were willing to share.

New leaders should do the following:
Understand Your Colleagues - You will not always get along with your administrative colleagues, especially during admin meetings. When you work so closely together and there is so much at stake (i.e. students and teachers), you are bound to have disagreements. Don’t let the disagreements define you. Take some time to breathe and talk it out. Perhaps you end up working it out or agree to disagree but in order to make the district stronger, leaders need to work together. It’s worth it in the end.
Get a Mentor - There are two types of mentors; the first may be the one the district assigns to you if they have a mentoring program. If they don’t have a program, leaders may find a mentor naturally. The other type of mentor is the one a leader has before they enter into the position or find outside of the district when they are in the position. Many leaders go to Twitter and create their own PLN. A mentor outside of the district offers a confidential ear and they have an outside perspective that may be helpful.
Engage in Professional Growth - That sounds like common sense but some leaders feel like achieving an administrative position is where their learning ends. It’s actually where a whole new set of learning begins. If leaders get to the point where they think they know it all, they should consider leaving the position. It doesn’t matter how long leaders lead, the world is constantly changing and there is always something new to learn.

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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.