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Peter DeWitt's

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

Speak Up, Be a Leader

By Peter DeWitt — August 22, 2011 5 min read
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Speak up, be a leader, set the direction - but be participative, listen well, cooperate” (Bennis, 2003).

Sometimes I wake up feeling brave and when I find myself in social circles I out myself as a school administrator. The reactions are often mixed. Some people are scared. Some are impressed. Others don’t know what to say. Some of the more friendly people will talk about their memories of their school administrators and I often wonder how my students will describe me in the future. There are always a few who say, “I wouldn’t want your job.” The latter statement is the most unfortunate because I actually love my job.

As administrators, we have to find some common ground among all of the stakeholders who enter the school system and that is not always easy. Parents, students and teachers come to us with different needs, as well as the same needs that bond us. We also have to deal with the “politics” of being an administrator whether that is at the board level, the state level or the federal level.

It’s true that education is seeing some tough times. We hear news stories that we’re failing and get inundated with “data” and “research” that shows we are not doing our jobs and we need to make a bigger impact. I have also heard that we want to maintain the status quo and we “cherry pick” the research that works for us and show we are not failing.

Although this is all fascinating, I have a school year beginning soon (In New York, we begin after Labor Day). As I read the press about how we are failing, I have a job to do and it certainly doesn’t include accepting the status quo. What it does have to deal with is greeting children, supporting my teachers, and meeting with great parents who value what we do, and other parents who may not be fond of the job we do, which is ok because that makes my job exciting.

The first day of school for me is like Christmas Day used to be for me when I was a kid, and I know my teachers and staff feel the same. After dinner the night before school begins I can hardly sit still and I certainly cannot sleep. If I get three or four hours of good rest I consider myself lucky. The morning of the first day of school brings a whole host of feelings. I’m nervous things won’t go well, excited that the students are coming, worried that I didn’t do everything on my list, and happy to get back to a normal routine.

As the buses pull in, I jump on one bus after another welcoming the kids back to school. If the bus drivers are new to the school I always introduce myself because we will be working closely together for the whole school year. After that moment, the school year is kicked off and we start running.

During the school year I meet many new students who have moved into the district and as I give them a tour I excitedly tell them about the great programs we have going on in school. When we get back to my office and I ask the parents and their children if they have any questions, I often hear parents say to their children, “I never want you to have to come here to Dr. DeWitt’s office.” I always chime in to say that children don’t have to be in trouble to visit me. Everyone is welcome to stop by my office.

The truth is that many kids need a “tune up” where we can talk through feelings and behavior. I don’t want my students to fear me, I want them to respect me, and it begins with me respecting them first. Elementary school offers much more to students than just high stakes testing, we offer them a base that can help shape them for the rest of their lives.

Tips for the Trade

I wanted to provide you with some tips on how administrators can make an impact on students and staff. These are not new to many of you, but not enough of us practice these tips. They will hopefully help create a better culture for students, staff and teachers. It will help create an inclusive school where all students feel they belong. And yes, I realize many school administrators do these all the time.

• Greet your teachers in the morning to say hello. Everyone wants to see a friendly face when they enter the workplace. Why not have that friendly face be their administrator!

• Welcome your students off the bus every day with the help of your teacher’s aides.

• Walk from room to room to say good morning every morning because we want the students to know us and see us in many different capacities.

• If they think we care enough to say good morning, they may think we care enough when they have a serious problem and need someone to talk to.

• Stop students in the hallway to ask how their day is going.

• Walk through every classroom every day possible so you get to see what the students are learning (6-12 principals may need to break it into sections)

• Let the teachers know that what they do is important. If we do it for our teachers than they will do it for our students.

• Send teacher’s articles that are both research-based and others that are just plain fun. Articles can provoke thought and debate. They can also make people laugh.

• Educate yourself on great instructional practices.

• Educate yourself on what is going on in the area of politics and education. Although changes may seem out of your control, they are not.

• Be in the lunch room to talk with students. Things get busy but this is worth our time. We may not be able to do it every day but we need to do it often.

• Don’t ignore your lunch ladies and custodians. They are an integral part to the success of a school.

• Go outside for recess. Sometimes it’s as much for us as it is for them.

• Be outside to welcome the bus drivers back when they arrive for dismissal.

• Say goodbye to the kids when they get on the bus and wave as the buses pull out.

Clearly, there are thousands of other things that administrators do throughout the day, but nothing is as important as being visible. However, being visible is not enough. Being a positive role model for students and teachers is what we, as administrators, need to do every day. There are many students, both struggling and successful, who look up to us, and they deserve for us to give them someone to look up to.

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Bennis, W. (2003 Second Edition). On Becoming a Leader. New York, NY: Basic Books.

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.