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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

What Do You Want to Be to the Field of Education?

By Peter DeWitt — July 27, 2015 4 min read
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Hundreds of thousands of students enter college hoping to be teachers. Some are inspired by their own teachers who made it look easy and flawless, so they want to give back to the field that gave them so much. Others didn’t have a series of great experiences, so they want to be a beacon of hope for those students who do not feel engaged in school.

And yes, some do it because they don’t know what else they want to do with their life.

The same reasons for entering into the field can be said for school leaders. Some who recently finished their advanced degrees want to emulate their former leader, because that leader provided great insight and became a mentor as well as a supervisor. Others believe leadership should look differently from what they experienced as a teacher.

They believe leadership should have a bigger impact on student learning.

Perhaps the aspiring leader worked for someone as a teacher, and not with them. Perhaps, faculty meetings and teacher observations were a waste of time because they were more about checking them off a list than about learning from one another. Maybe the leader was more authoritative and cared more about sending out mass e-mails about being on time to pick students up from lunch or specials, which could have been addressed in person with the few who were guilty instead of the majority who were not.

It’s All Becoming Real

Now it’s summertime and educators are finding themselves in their first position as a teacher or school leader. It’s an exciting time. All that hard work and sacrifice has paid off, and you finally get to see what it’s like when you have the responsibility of a classroom or school building. Not only has all the worked paid off, but it’s the only time you can consider yourself new, and get away with some of the mistakes that come with being new.

As the first day of school quickly approaches, and all of this become more and more real every day, it’s important to enjoy the excitement but also understand the role you will play in school. Will you practice what you preached as a student? Will your classroom or leadership style really look different? How will you make the impact you said you would make?

It’s time to walk the talk...

Reluctant Leader

I loved being a teacher. There were school years that ended and I was sad to see the students go. It felt like a family breaking apart every June, and after 11 years as a teacher I went into leadership...a career move that was never supposed to happen.

Truth be told, I never wanted to be a school principal, which ultimately became the best job of my life. When I was pursuing a master’s degree, my former school principal who had been in the school district for nearly 50 years (yes, 5..0) talked to me about getting my advanced degree in school administration. I stood in the hallway of that city school and politely said, “No way. I never want to be a principal.”

What can I say, I was naïve.

I received a Master’s Degree in Educational Psychology. After finishing the degree I was talking with a couple of retired teachers I knew and told them about that fateful day when my principal tried to talk me into school administration. I laughed when telling the story, as if to say, “Can you believe that one? Me? Administration?

That’s when they asked, “What if you could be the principal you want to be, and not the one you think others want you to be.”

Although it took me 4 years and a new teaching position to rethink my stance on school administration, I never forgot their words. I’m happy they said it. It changed my mindset, and for 8 years I was fortunate to work in a school that helped shape who I became and appreciated who I was, and I do miss the role from time to time.

Just like other professions and jobs, however, I struggle with my identity. I used to identify as a teacher, although I still do teach...it’s not the same. I identified as a principal, and although I still do a lot of things in leadership...it’s different. Now I have consultant tied to my name, and I wasn’t always kind to consultants when I was in a building, so I often try to figure out, what Michael Fullan would call...my moral purpose.

This is where you come in...

I was corresponding with my friend Jill Berkowicz who co-authors the Leadership 360 blog (Education Week) with our friend Ann Myers. We often reflect with one another, and I was telling her about shaping my identity. Just like Jill usually does, she took the e-mail seriously and sent back the following questions:

  • Who are you?
  • Who do you want to be to the educational field?
  • What do you know and can teach that is different from the masses?
  • How will your voice speak to a need in the field?
  • What will you do if you have hesitations about standing out as yourself?
  • How will you know you are ready?

Since sending me those questions many months ago, I felt like they had strong implications for anyone who calls education their profession. Especially, new teachers and leaders. Our profession is often referred to as a “calling” and I think Jill’s questions play to that calling very well.

In the End

Although I worked in a series of school systems as a teacher and a leader for 19 years, and now as a writer and professional development specialist for over a year, I still find myself reflecting on who I am to the field of education. It’s never been just a job. I have to know that I’m making an impact.

As teachers and leaders begin their new role, the questions are important for them as well. And although they don’t have to answer the questions in the comment section below, it would be interesting to hear from a few. As John Hattie, someone I work with as a Visible Learning trainer, often says, “Know Thy Impact.”

Connect with Peter on Twitter.

Sketchnote courtesy of Sylvia Duckworth.

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.