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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

Teacher-Principal Relationships: Are We Building Bridges or Burning Them?

By Peter DeWitt — October 12, 2016 5 min read
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They train separately.

One is located in the main office...and the other has their own classroom.

Some of them are told they went to the “dark side,” while others spend their days in the “trenches.”

Why do we use language like that? Sure, some leaders left the classroom to make more money and take on more responsibility, but most did it because they felt like they could help more students, work harder with a larger group of parents, and bring more teachers together to focus on learning.

Truth is, when one group isn’t in the room, the other group can be inspired to talk about them differently. They use pronouns instead of names. “Teachers aren’t open to that...” or “Well if administration did this differently...” A former colleague of mine used to say, “You know you’re in trouble when your name becomes a pronoun.”

Why do people talk about each other instead of with each other? Well, it all comes back to trust and school climate. With every conversation between both parties, comes the risk of chipping away at trust...or building it.

Teachers first...
Many teachers feel, and rightly so, that their voice is not valued. Leaders have a great impact on whether teachers feel valued or not valued at all. As Todd Whitaker says, “When the principal sneezes the whole school catches a cold.” If you don’t believe that, walk into a main office where the principal greets you with a warm smile and a friendly word, as a opposed to another main office where the principal doesn’t greet you at all when you walk in.

The latter creates disconnect, and helps to create sides.

When we ask teachers to compliantly hand in their lesson plans on a rotating basis as a way to control them...that creates sides. Even worse, if we don’t provide feedback after they hand those lesson plans in...that creates sides. When we talk at them in observation meetings or ask questions that devalue them...we create sides. When we use data to hammer them instead of using it to build dialogue...we create sides. When we only look at achievement and ignore them when we talk about growth...it creates sides.

Those situations don’t contribute to the self-efficacy of teachers (Bandura) and certainly don’t contribute to the collective efficacy (Eells) needed to help all teachers work together. Yes, leaders are responsible for evaluating the teachers they work with which can come with complications, and those same leaders may be responsible for carrying out district initiatives, but do they always have to be seen as working on opposite sides when they can clearly work together?

John Hattie, someone I work with as a Visible Learning trainers, talks a great deal about linking autonomy to growth when it comes to teachers and students. Those who show evidence of impact should have more autonomy than those who don’t show much growth at all. We should be moving away from a one-size -fits-all approach to teaching. If we want people to be on board, valued, and feel like they have a voice in the school community, we should be careful how we treat them, talk with them and talk about them.

And now for principals...
Principals have long been seen as those who left the classroom and went to the dark side. Yet, another side in the situation. It’s something I wrote about here. That’s unfortunate, but it’s compounded when principals use the actions I wrote about above. We need better leaders, and we need to appreciate the great leadership we have in many schools.

One thing that I have learned over the years is that many teachers don’t always understand the complexities of a leader’s job, and many don’t appreciate their leader until they go through a struggle with a student or parent. Those are the moments when principals show whether they’re supportive or not. I don’t mean standing up for a teacher who is in the wrong, but I do mean standing up for a teacher who is being unfairly treated.

Principals who knock down walls by creating supportive environments for teachers, and welcome parents into schools are those who understand how important their actions are to the school climate. They listen to all sides and find the best solutions. Principals who engage positively with students, and treat them with respect and like they are the growing human beings they are, are the ones who understand what positive relationships and engagement means to learning.

In the End
Schools will only be a better place for learning when the adults learn how to work better together. This is not a huge surprise...no big secret here. Yet, time and time again principals and teachers seem to be working from different sides and use language that helps create barriers instead of bridges.

Teachers and principals can both be leaders in schools. They can lead negativity and resentment, or they can lead a more inclusive environment where people feel safe to share when they agree or disagree with a process and how to move forward.

Some of the areas we need to focus on are:
Focus on learning -Hattie talks a lot about how too often we focus on adult issues in schools and neglect to talk enough about learning. Are the issues we are having really anything to do with our students?

Co-construct goals - Leaders and teachers need to work on goals together and keep a constant focus on those goals as they go throughout the year. The goals should fit into the larger district initiatives, which are fairly open enough that most goals can fit into them.

Stop Power Tripping - I feel as though power tripping is something insecure people do because they want to maintain control over others. The real power is among the group.

Provide feedback to one another - Feedback is something that leaders, teachers and students all need. We should be providing feedback to one another, and that feedback should be wrapped around the goal and success criteria we have already set.

Talk through issues - Difficult conversations happen, and my friend Jen Abrams is a master at these. We need to have the difficult conversations and learn how to work through them together. Too often when difficult conversations happen, people vent and then resentment builds. Venting is fine, but we need to work it all out before resentment builds.

Understand the other side - Covey has written about this issue. Seek first to understand! Listen more than we talk.

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