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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

Principals: Do They Really Have a Voice?

By Peter DeWitt — June 09, 2015 4 min read
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What is voice?

What are aspirations?

Is it just a liberal, touchy-feely way of trying to get everyone to belong? Do we always have to come to consensus and sing Kumbaya? No, but people are much more likely to be invested in aspiration that will bring about positive school change if they have a voice in the process.

The Quaglia Institute for Student Aspirations (QISA), a group I work with, focus a great deal of research and practice on the importance of student aspirations. Usually, when people think of QISA, they think of student voice. Perhaps it’s due to their student voice work, but it is about much more than just whether students have a voice in school, which we know is important. It means that students have aspirations for the future and teachers, parents and leaders are helping them achieve those aspirations. According to QISA, Aspirations are the ability to dream about the future, while being inspired in the present to reach those dreams

Voice is complicated because it usually makes people (who don’t believe they have one) think that they can walk into a meeting or stakeholder group and get what they want. That’s not voice. That’s getting your way.

Voice means that students and teachers, as well as parents, have a place at the table and work together to come up with a unified aspiration that is a win-win for everyone. Walking into a stakeholder meeting with an idea and walking out with the same one is a failure, because it means that the stakeholders didn’t have a voice at all.

What complicates voice even more is when people believe that those who talk the loudest...or complain the most...are examples of voice. That may be an example of voice but it certainly isn’t a positive one. Voice is supposed to include all of those quiet people who talk with only their most confidential friends or school leaders behind closed doors. They should have a say in the process as well.

Clearly, especially during a time of high accountability, voice goes beyond students, which is why the Teacher Voice and Aspirations International Center (TVAIC) has recently been established through the generous contributions of QISA, Corwin Press and Southern New Hampshire University, which will be run by executive director Lisa Lande. For full disclosure I am on the board because I believe teachers need to have more of a voice in the school community and policy decisions, as should students.

A collaborative school, or one that exemplifies school voice, is one where all stakeholders feel they have a voice...or are at least encouraged to use one.

Do Principals Have a Voice?

One group that is usually blamed for having too loud of a voice are principals. Sometimes I wonder if principals have the ability to use their voice like people think? They may seem as though they have a voice because they are the leader of the building, but many principals don’t always feel like they have a voice due to central office direction or policy decisions.

Other times, principals may not have found their voice. QISA has 4 quadrants, which revolve around hibernation, perspiration, imagination and aspiration. Hibernation means that the student, teacher or principal isn’t completely engaged in their own learning. Perspiration means they are working hard but have no end goal, and imagination means they are constantly talking about goals but do very little to attain them.

People in the aspirations stage know what their goal is and they have a plan to get there. How many principals are in the aspiration stage? Do too many feel that mandates and accountability prevent them from attaining their own goals? Or do they spend most of their time imagining the kind of school they want to lead (usually in solitary) and yet do nothing to get there?

Ray McNulty, the Dean of Education at Southern New Hampshire University often says, “In order to put one thing in, we must take one thing out.” Unfortunately, on the way to defining an aspiration too many leaders feel as though the list keeps getting longer, and nothing is being taken off. Is it possible to:

  • Create an aspiration for a school district, so everyone is working toward a common goal?
  • See if the aspirations teachers have for their classrooms have a common theme with the aspirations for the building or district?
  • Have a real conversation at a faculty meeting (or several) about what one aspiration would look like and brainstorm how to work toward it?

In the End

We talk a lot about trust, understanding, empathy, and team work, but some leaders may feel like they are not doing their job if they encourage everyone to have a voice. There is a lot of pressure on principals to get things done, and they don’t always feel comfortable telling their staff about the pressure.

Principals may not have the voice that their teachers think they do. They may actually just be speaking for someone else and feel as though they have no voice at all.

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Image courtesy of the creative Sylvia Duckworth.

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.