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Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and independent consultant, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com.

Education Opinion

What’s the Opposite of Top-Down Leadership?

By Peter DeWitt — October 05, 2015 3 min read

The danger is to hear the analyst too much and the artist too little.” Robert Greenleaf

We are living during a time of increased accountability. We know that, and depending on where you live in the U.S. or anywhere else in the world, that accountability may go from simple to insane. After all, we have teacher observations that are tied to point scales when we should be moving student grading away from points to providing effective feedback to them instead.

With teachers tied to point scales, will we ever be able to really provide effective feedback to students?

Somewhere along the way during these times, I feel as though we stopped listening to teachers. As much as they want to be change agents (Hattie) and not victims, teachers get pushback from leaders who treat them like children. In most states across the country and in other countries around the world, teachers have advanced degrees, and yet that seems to be forgotten and ignored. It seems as though their expertise is only valued when it aligns with what the administrator wants.

What if we had more leaders like Patchogue-Medford Superintendent Dr. Michael Hynes Letter, who wrote this welcome back letter to parents and teachers:

August 28, 2015 Dear Ms. --, The purpose of this letter is to let you know that I DO NOT CARE what your state growth score is. Let me be clear... I DO NOT CARE. It does not define you. Please know that I understand that nobody likes to be reduced to a number. The fact is, you are much more than a number, not only to me, but most important to the children and parents you serve. Keep your head up and your eye on what is most important... your students and your teaching craft. The Patchogue-Medford School district fully supports you as an educator, regardless of what this meaningless, invalid and inhumane score states. Let me know what you need and it is my sincere hope you have a great year. With Warmest Regards, Michael J. Hynes, Ed.D.

Superintendent of Schools

We should be working in partnership with teachers, and not working in tyranny against them. Hynes clearly works in partnership with his school community.

Do You Work In Partnership?

If principals want to be instructional leaders, and plan to work toward aspirations they set for their schools (hopefully with stakeholders and not in absence of them), one beneficial way of moving forward is using the Partnership Approach developed by instructional coaching expert Jim Knight, someone I work with as an Instructional Coaching trainer.

I have written about the Partnership Principles before, but for a refresher the principles are:


  • Equality - Do leaders put ourselves above everyone else? Or do leaders treat teachers as equals?
  • Choice - Do teachers have a choice in the goals they should focus on? Do they have a choice in their professional development?
  • Voice - Do teachers have a voice in the school community? It doesn’t mean they always get what they want, but it does mean they should have a place at the table.
  • Dialogue - Do leaders talk at or with teachers?
  • Reflection - Do teachers and leaders reflect on their practice with evidence?
  • Praxis - Do teachers and leaders get to put into practice what they have learned?
  • Reciprocity - In our school community, do we all understand that we not only teach, but learn, from one another?

Instructional leaders find the balance between the art and science of teaching, learning, relationships and accountability. They also embody the Partnership Approach, which is perfectly conveyed in the letter to parents and teachers written by Hynes.

In the End

What’s the balance? We all need to show growth every year. If not, why are we in the profession? But this crazy focus on high stakes testing isn’t a way for us to show authentic growth? It’s unfortunate that superintendents and principals are in a position where they have to write a letter to parents, like the one that was written by Hynes. It’s too bad that more school leaders complain about these changes behind closed doors and don’t say anything publicly. Perhaps that’s because they believe in them, or are afraid to say anything about them for fear of losing funding or getting in trouble.

There are so many awesome school leaders working in partnership with their teachers, students and parents. How do we encourage that kind of partnership in other schools, because I’m not sure more accountability is the way to do it.

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.

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