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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

Why Won’t Our Principal Collaborate With Us?

By Peter DeWitt — April 13, 2017 5 min read
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So often we think teachers are the ones who don’t want to collaborate, when the principal may be the one who believes that they should dictate the need for collaboration but not be a part of it.

A few weeks ago, I was meeting with a group of teachers who were deeply interested in collaboration. Going into the meeting I assumed they wanted to hear more about how they could collaborate together. And I was ready...with research! Kuhn (2015) found that, “More productive collaborations have been identified as those in which participants directly engage one another’s thinking. They listen and respond to what their peers say.” If teachers don’t engage each other’s thinking, the collaboration will be no more productive than if individuals did the work on their own.

What was interesting was that they didn’t want to know how to collaborate more productively together. Six of the teachers I met with sat and waited for my answer when one asked, “We want to know how to get our principal to want to collaborate with us.” High quality collaboration means understanding our current reality and then choosing a problem of practice (POP) that will help answer that POP. It involves talking about high impact strategies that may be tied to the work of John Hattie or Jim Knight, and it always involves equality...meaning everyone brings something of equal value to the table (Knight).

That collaboration may be a lot stronger if the leader gets involved.

I have thought a great deal about the fact that many leaders want their teachers to collaborate but it doesn’t necessarily mean the leader will collaborate along with them. However, this is the first time that teachers have flat out asked, how to get their leader to collaborate with them in their school.

The Power of the Principal
The principal has a lot of power. They have the power to control the teachers who work for them, and make sure they compliantly do what the leader wants. I refer to those leaders as regulators because they regulate everything their teachers do. They demand that teachers hand in lesson plan books even though that doesn’t mean teachers are actually doing any of the lessons they write in the book. Regulators do walkthroughs that include a checklist that the teacher never sees because feedback is not involved (Read here about the myth of walkthroughs). And regulators spend a lot of time putting “See me” notes in the mailboxes of teachers or barging into the classroom to say they need to speak with the teacher immediately.

There are many principals who use their power for good as well. They understand the need to increase the self-efficacy of teachers (.63), which means teachers will feel they can have a positive impact on student learning in their classroom. They didn’t go to the dark side when they went into administration; they did it because they wanted to bring people together. Those leaders also understand collective efficacy (1.57), which means that when teachers work collectively around a problem of practice they can have more positive impact on students and the school climate.

Principals who understand collaboration, know that they work collectively with teachers and do not believe that teachers work for them. In order for teachers to engage principals in this way, perhaps the teachers need to teach the principal the power of collaboration. Teachers who want their principal to collaborate with them may need to model what it looks like to the principal.

Teaching the Principal
Teachers who want to collaborate with their principal may need to consistently talk to their principal about how collaboration with others is benefitting them in the classroom. For example, they keep the principal updated on their grade level meetings, and how by working with colleagues their strategies have improved student engagement in the classroom. Teachers with a high level of self-efficacy may even ask principals if they can devote one faculty meeting to sharing best practices around student engagement or building relationships with hard to reach students.

Even though the principal may be the one with the fancy office, it doesn’t mean they understand that the teachers they work with may want their voice to be a part of the collaborative process. Teachers will never know if their principal is interested until they ask. Instead of waiting for the principal to send out articles about the collaborative process, send an article to the principal.

It doesn’t seem fair that a principal wouldn’t want to collaborate with their teachers, but some principals may not even understand that is an option. What is the collaboration focusing on? Does the principal feel they have the expertise needed? What of equal value do they bring to the process besides decision-making power? Do they know that their teachers don’t expect them to have all the answers?

In the End
So often we think teachers are the ones who don’t want to collaborate, when the principal may be the one who believes that they should dictate the need for collaboration but not be a part of it. This happens with new principals who are still getting a feel for the school community, and veteran principals who are used to establishing the group but not being a deep part of the process. Unfortunately, some principals are in the position because they did their time and have no need to work with teachers. They believe teachers work for them.

That is flawed thinking.

Some of the best learning I had as a principal came from the teachers I worked with every day. This is not remembering the past fondly. The eight years I spent with the teachers of Poestenkill (and a few from around the district) offered me some of the most enormous growth of my life. They contributed to my self-efficacy.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (2016. Corwin Press/Learning Forward), and the forthcoming School Climate: Leading With Collective Efficacy (Corwin Press/Ontario Principals Council. August 2017). Connect with Peter on Twitter.

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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.