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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

What Advice Would You Give Your Younger Self?

By Peter DeWitt — December 11, 2014 4 min read
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Ahh...if we could only do it all over again, what would we do differently?

I hate hearing people say they want to do it all over again. The reality is that we can’t, so we should have more of a “no regrets” attitude. After all, we only live once so we should do everything we can to make sure we don’t end wishing we did it differently.

However, the other day I did a Google Hangout/Podcast interview with Todd Nesloney and Chris Kesler from EduAllStars and they challenged my “No regrets” attitude.

At the end of the interview Todd and Chris asked, “If you could go back and offer your younger self any advice, what would it be?” It was a tough question and not one I was prepared for, so I stumbled a bit in my answer. I said that I would tell my younger self “not to worry about everything so much.”

The truth is that I am a worrier. Friends have told me I need to be more self-assured. As a teacher I constantly worried about my students when they went home, and whether I was making enough money as a teacher to cover the bills. I worried about family and friends, and it wasn’t always easy to move on from my worrying ways.

As a principal I worried about the students, staff and some of the parents. Waking up at 2 a.m. most nights, something was always weighing on my mind. Sometimes the thoughts were not worth waking up for...and other times I had a hard time falling asleep because I worried about what the next day would bring.

As a principal there is so much to worry about. The frequent flyers who come to your office, the parents with an axe to grind, the budget passing, or teachers who were having a tough time in their personal lives and needed help to make it through the day. I worried about decisions...decisions about faculty agendas or new rules...or getting rid of old ones. I worried about making everyone happy, forgetting that I needed to make myself happy from time to time.

But that’s not the only advice I would give my younger self. There are many words of wisdom I would have, and letting myself off the hook from worrying so much may be one of them. However, there are 10 other pieces of advice I would give...

1. Sometimes the best things that happen in life are the things we don’t see coming. Life can’t be planned out. It has to be allowed to happen.

2. Listen more and talk less. You don’t have to have the last word in every conversation, and more importantly...in every disagreement. Listen to colleagues and students (Do you talk too much in class?).

3. In that same breath, have more dialogue and less monologue. John Hattie has taught me a lot about this over the past year. We spend too much time having individual sessions of monologue and we don’t engage enough in dialogue. We can learn a lot from one another.

4. Balance the amount of praise you offer to students with a little more feedback. Slapping a grade...a smiley face...or a star on top of a paper may help a student feel good but it doesn’t feed learning forward. Offer honest feedback to students and colleagues.

5. If you’re doing group work with students, make sure you provide group work. John Hattie has taught me a lot here as well. We spend too much time putting students into groups and give them individual work to do.

6. Treat people as if they are doing the right thing until they prove otherwise. Trust a little more and be cynical a little less. Besides, in about 2010 you will be hit with many mandates and accountability measures that treat people as if they are always in the wrong.

7. Sarcasm isn’t funny to kids. It’s actually mean and as a young teacher you may think you’re being funny but that’s because the kids don’t understand it or they are too afraid to speak up and say something.

8.Focus on learning (Yes, Hattie again!). Don’t get caught up in the politics of school (because they’re going to get worse in 2010!). Focus on having deep discussions about learning with your colleagues. Make grade level meets more productive. Learn from the expertise around you.

9. Flip your classroom! Send home information with students so you can dive down deeper the next day. Who knows...you may even become a principal and flip your leadership!

10. Speaking of leadership...it isn’t as bad as you think. In 1998 you told your principal that you would never be a principal, but it may happen and you can lead the way you want...not the way you think others want you to. There is some real power in the principalship. You have the power to mediate during disagreements, empower staff to grow more than they ever thought they could, and connect people together. You have the power to learn from the teachers and students you are fortunate enough to work with.

In the End

Life doesn’t always work out the way you planned...sometimes it works out way better. Be kind to people and if something good happens in your life try to pay it forward to someone else who needs a little assistance.

I know you wake up in the middle of the night worrying about how it will all work out, but most times you cannot control it. Sometimes you have to fail miserably and get passed over for jobs that you wanted in order to really find the position and school community that is best for you.

When all is said and done, make sure you’re happy with who you turned out to be, and make sure it’s someone that your students would be proud to call their teacher or principal.

What would you tell your younger teacher self?

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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.