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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

The Five Dimensions of Student-Centered Leadership

By Peter DeWitt — February 05, 2014 4 min read
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When school leaders reflect on what keeps them in a highly challenging job, they typically describe the difference they make to the lives of children and the difference children make to their own lives. They describe how, on the "horrible days," they get an emotional lift by stopping by the classrooms to see children and celebrate their achievements."

And so begins Student-Centered Leadership by Viviane Robinson. Robinson is so correct in her portrayal of thoughtful educational leaders, and she includes teachers, principal and central office administrators when she refers to leaders.

In my own experience, the great days were the ones that allowed me to be in the classroom interacting with teachers and students. When it comes to great teachers and leaders, Robinson goes on to write,

But they are just as aware of the children they have not reached-the children for whom school was a place of failure and humiliation or the children for whom school did make a difference but not enough to overcome the challenges of their family circumstances."

As heartbreaking as this quotation is, we know that there are students like the ones Robinson describes, which is why we question (positively & negatively) the Common Core along the way in our educational practices. Will scripted resources help meet their needs? Or will social-emotional learning with learning intentions that meet them where they are and bring them to a new level of learning? What is our success criteria (Hattie, 2009) as we enter into learning?

Many leaders and teachers work hard to meet the needs of their students. We know that. It’s one of the reasons why we get upset when we hear we are failing. In addition, no matter our role in the school system, we know that the goal of meeting the needs of students is both challenging and never-ending. Robinson writes,

The expectations for today's school leaders have never been more ambitious. Leaders work in systems that expect schools to enable all students to succeed with intellectually challenging curricula. Although no education system in the western world has achieved this goal, and it is not clear how it can be achieved at scale, school leaders are held responsible for making progress toward it."

Taking Steps to Go Deeper

In high school, I wasn’t much of an academic, but I was a long distance runner. There was never anything better than going out alone to run 10 miles. X-country and track were sports that I joined junior year, and in many ways, the sport, my teammates and coaches saved my life. One particular teammate, Jeff Thompson was a year behind me, and as he approached graduation he was looking at many Division 1 schools.

Jeff had talent, but he improved as a runner because of sheer hard work, which led him to James Madison University. Jeff could run 5 miles in well-under 25 minutes and broke 9:00 for 2 miles. From time to time when Jeff would come home on break we would go on a training run together. After a 10 mile run I would stop when we got to one of our cars (our invisible finish line) but Jeff would run to the end of the parking lot just to add a little more distance and time. He would always go a little further every time we ran together, and he pushed me to do the same.

After college, injuries caught up with me and I became more of a jogger or an elliptical-athlete (if there is such a thing!) but came upon another person who pushed me to go a little further in my studies, and also with how I led a school. His name was Jim Butterworth, and he was a professor in the leadership program at the College of Saint Rose where I attended, and then my doctoral professor at Sage College of Albany. Jim always did, and still does, ask me if I go deep enough. And sometimes that is really hard work...

Where Do School Leaders Need to Go Deeper?

It’s a question that never escapes my mind. When I was in my building role as a school principal before I took my leave of absence, I constantly questioned whether I spent enough time in classrooms, or knew enough of our students’ names. I wanted to have one more conversation with a student at lunch or in the classroom, or take a little more time to look at the student work that was hung on our school walls...with the right tape that would stick of course (classroom teachers will hopefully get that reference).

As Robinson noted in her book, although it was published in 2011 before accountability and mandates really exploded, one of the issues that school leaders and teachers have is that it’s harder to get enough time to really go deeper in everything that their job encompasses. There are so many demands that they have to find a balance between what is worth their time and what is more about compliance.

In her book, Robinson dives into five dimensions of leadership that we should always make sure we are going into deep enough. It’s a quick read, and definitely worthwhile, so I suggest you pick up a copy. Robinson’s Five Dimensions are:

D1: Establishing Goals and Expectations - This is no easy task but it’s vitally important, especially given the accountability and mandates that school leaders and teachers are dealing with every year. One important goal is to create a positive and inclusive school climate, which is a challenge every year. Robinson believes that goals should effect student outcomes and creating an inclusive school climate certainly does that.

D2: Resourcing Strategically - This is not about gaining more resources but about how leaders use their resources in strategic ways. Robinson provides the goal of “getting boys to read more” and how schools should use resources for materials and professional development.

D3: Ensuring Quality Teaching - Going deep enough with instruction so that we can maximize student-learning. Everyone in a school, including teachers, are instructional leaders.

D4: Leading Teacher Learning and Development - What kind of professional learning opportunities are school leaders and districts offering? Are those opportunities about learning....or compliance? Perhaps I read too much Tom Whitby, but I love edcamps and seeing teachers and school leaders diving into Twitter to foster their own development.

D5: Ensuring an Orderly and Safe Environment - To some more cynical readers, this probably sounds boring. However, Robinson says it best when she says, “If students and staff do not feel physically and psychologically safe, if discipline codes are perceived as unfair and inconsistently enforced, then little progress is likely in the improvement of teaching and learning.”

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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.