Opinion Blog

Peter DeWitt's

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

School Leaders: Are You the Role Model for Professional Learning?

By Peter DeWitt — July 03, 2014 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Sometimes adults have a “Do as I say, not as I do,” philosophy, especially when it comes to meetings and professional development sessions. Of course, if the session isn’t engaging or it’s a horribly run workshop focusing on compliance instead of good practices, adults are more likely to act out.

What would they do if their students did this?

One of the reasons why edcamps are becoming so popular is that they engage the audience in a number of ways. First and foremost, edcamps are not required so therefore the people who show up want to be there. Secondly, as school leader George Couros has often said, “No one in the room is smarter than the room.” The collective thoughts of the attendees is what makes an edcamp so powerful. Lastly, the topics presented at an edcamp are usually engaging, and if not, then the feet do the walking and attendees leave the room.

Our professional development sessions could learn a lesson or two from edcamps...

However, even in the best professional development sessions there are still people who may not want to be there, and they don’t always make it a secret. Whether they sit in the back on their laptops e-mailing colleagues and friends, or use their Smartphones texting, they aren’t subtle in their non-participatory expression even with the best attempts by the presenter and discussion.

And I’m not necessarily referring to teachers.

Sometimes school leaders are the worst offenders. They run out with their phone in hand or sit whispering with a colleague, all under the excuse that their lives are busier than everyone else.

It’s true that school leaders have many distractions, and some of those can be emergency situations where they have to leave the room. But I’m not referring to those situations. I’m referring to the leaders, who no matter the situation, are not engaged in the process. They seem to always find a distraction, but expect everyone else to pay attention.

If their teachers displayed the same behavior in a faculty meeting they would...

A Partnership Approach to Learning

In Unmistakable Impact, Jim Knight focuses on the Partnership Approach to learning. Presenters and attendees make some grave mistakes before the sessions even begin. The presenters show up believing the workshop is all about them. The attendees show up strongly believing that the workshop is going to be worthless and they know it all, before the session ever happens.

Those behaviors together can create a perfect storm of some bad professional development. And let’s face it, we have all experienced some bad professional development. For full disclosure, there were times when I began presenting that I made the session all about me. Why? Because I didn’t believe I had the skills and experience to be there, so I went out of my way to prove to the audience (and really myself) that I did belong there.

After some feedback, I realized the power was in the room and the subject.

The Partnership approach is not just for presentations and workshops. It is for faculty meetings, as well as everyday practices. It has elements of Servant Leadership. When it comes to professional learning, there is no better place to share than the faculty meeting. Instead of focusing on a list of tasks to complete, a faculty meeting can provide the principal and staff with some great professional learning.

According to Jim Knight, in order for us to maximize our time together, we must have the following elements:

  • Equality - Principals and teachers may have different responsibilities, and one may lead the school, but Knight says that is “structural.” When it comes to professional learning, everyone is equally valuable.
  • Choice - There is not one way of doing things, and never should be. We should not expect one way out of our students or teachers, because we certainly don’t expect that out of ourselves. Choice in learning and teaching matters.
  • Voice - Knight says it best...”To honor voice, principals need to listen to teachers.” Sometimes those teachers may be the ones who have the loudest voice. Quiet teachers as well as rabble rousers have something to say. Knight says that principals should make it a point to have frequent one-on-one conversations with teachers and staff. Hear what they are saying, even if you disagree.
  • Reflection - Everyone deserves to reflect because it can help us improve our instructional practices. If principals take away the thinking of teachers by telling them what to do all the time, Knight says they are “Taking away the joy of the job.”
  • Dialogue - This is something that John Hattie focuses on a lot as well. Too often education is about monologue when it needs to be about dialogue. As Stephen Covey said for decades, “Seek first to understand then to be understood.”
  • Praxis - this involves “reflecting on reality so that you can act, and reflection isn’t possible unless people feel free to choose how to make sense of what they are learning.”
  • Reciprocity - Principals need to approach teachers humbly, and see themselves as learners in the school as well. Just because they are leaders, doesn’t mean they aren’t learners. Same holds true for teachers in the classroom.

In the End

When it comes to professional learning and building relationships in schools, we should not have the “Do as I say, not as I do” philosophy. Clearly, the opportunities have to be meaningful and the presenter and participants need to be engaged. The same holds true for school leaders. Leaders are the role models in professional learning sessions, and they should act accordingly.

Connect with Peter or Jim Knight 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.