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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

School Leadership: Stop Saying It’s ‘Going to the Dark Side’

By Peter DeWitt — August 07, 2016 4 min read
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Let’s be different and begin with the negative because I want to be ahead of the comments that will come at the end of the blog. There are a lot of leaders who should never have entered into the world of leadership. They micro-manage, lack an understanding of pedagogy, and treat their teachers like they work for them...not work with them.

When I was getting my master’s degree my principal at the time suggested I enter into school leadership. Having had three years of teaching experience of the time, I did not think that was the best course of action for me so I chose to explore educational psychology because I wanted to understand my students.

I actually responded to my principal by saying, “I would never be a principal.”

Not long after, I had a conversation with two older retired educators I would see at the gym, and one of them said, “But what if you could be the kind of principal you want to be, instead of the stereotypical principal you think of?” I still said “no,” but their words never left me. A few years later I went for a degree in school administration, and after 11 years in the classroom I left to become a principal, and have never regretted the decision.

How We Talk About Leadership
A few months ago I came across a blog where the teacher/writer focused on staying in the classroom even after feeling the pressure to go into administration, and not feeling badly about it. It was well-written and brought up many good points. I really dislike when I hear someone (and yes it happens) say, “I’m just a teacher.” We should be proud of our teachers because most of them help students grow academically, socially and emotionally, and do it in situations that others would never be able to handle.

However, I don’t think we should feel badly for leaving the classroom for school leadership either. School leaders hear that they are, “No longer in the trenches,” or “Have Gone to the dark side.” Neither of those is true. School leaders, whether building or district, are still very much in the trenches...the trenches just look a bit different. And school leadership does not have to be the dark side, just because leaders have taken on an administrative role which means that they have to address issues and evaluate teachers.

School leadership can be much more than the image that we conjure up in our heads. We are surrounded by great leaders who work hard to bring people together. For example, last week I presented on Collaborative Leadership at the School Administrators of Iowa (SAI) Conference in Des Moines. I was awe struck by the level of leadership, and how much they cared about creating better relationships among staff, students and parents. They wanted to learn about stronger ways to collaborate around learning.

I’m guilty of neglecting the importance of leadership at times in this blog. A week ago I wrote about how we may never be like Finland because of the way we talk about students, teachers and education as a whole. One of the pieces I forgot to mention is how we define leadership...and talk about it as well. Many leaders don’t want to be seen as going to the dark side, because their hope is that they can bring people together to come up with innovative ideas that engage more students, teachers and parents. Yes, there are those leaders who want the position for the perceived power, but many enter into leadership because they understand their power is to bring people together, even if it involves tough conversations.

Leadership is about getting the best out of people...even young people like our students. Leadership is about synergizing a group and not taking over the group. Leadership is about heading into a faculty meeting with one idea and walking out with a better one because of the collective thoughts of the staff. That certainly happened to me when I was a principal, because the staff I worked with often had more powerful ideas than any I may have had at the time.

Leadership is about setting up a school climate where people feel valued. We know we have too many teachers with a low level of self-efficacy because they have experienced leadership that has beaten them down more than built them up. We need high quality, impactful leaders.

In the End
Leadership is not about going to the dark side unless we make it that way, which means we have to stop using that phrase. It sets up an unfair dynamic. Perhaps not everyone is as fortunate as I was to work with a great staff for almost 8 years. We saw our issues. We had our budget cuts, teacher/administrator lay-offs, and school consolidations. However, we came together and also had fun with our students.

We need good leaders. Leaders who know that the position is about “Power with” rather than “Power over (Knight),” who are prepared to do the hard work, and understand that they don’t have to have all the answers because that is what collaboration is all about. We need to value good leadership and good teaching so we can focus on learning in the school community.

I think it’s time we leave the dark side behind.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including the forthcoming Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (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.