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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

Why You Should Meet Stakeholders Where They Are

By Peter DeWitt — February 17, 2016 5 min read
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“If we’re all on the same page, then no one is reading the whole book.” Andy Hargreaves

Reading books and watching TedTalks is a great way to learn. But what we know about literacy is that conversations are an important part of our growth as well. Think about how much we have all learned through the conversations we have with others. That is...if we didn’t go into the conversation with an agenda that we just wanted to get across. Conversation, as opposed to listening to a lecture, is an important aspect of collaboration.


It’s a word that we are starting to hear more and more. Whether it comes along with the 21st century skills targeted for our students...the collaborative inquiry we want our teachers to engage in...or the collaborative leadership leaders need to foster, it’s a word that shouldn’t go away.

During the month of February I am working in Australia with my friends and Visible Learning colleagues Jennifer Sesta and Helen Butler. For one of the weeks, while doing the Visible Learning Collaborative Impact Program, we worked in 10 schools over a 5 day period. The conversations with school leaders, teachers and students was very impactful. Schools are building some amazing learning experiences with students. And it’s actually all done around research on what works.

But it’s Helen and Jennifer who I learned the most from during the week.

Working with two colleagues, especially people like Jen and Helen, is a luxury because very the work I do brings me out on the road alone. The great aspect about partnering with colleagues is that they listen differently than I do, and they ask different questions. We each have strengths and pick up on different strengths and weaknesses as we ask questions to students or engage in classroom walkthroughs. We learn from one another.

But there are also negative aspects of collaboration.

To many leaders collaboration means that teachers have to engage in the work that the leader wants them to work in. Those are the leaders who walk into a faculty meeting with one idea and walk out with the same one. It’s like the old days of shared decision making...when leaders have the philosophy that “I love shared decision making, just as long as you share in the decision I’m making.”

The issue is that we never seem to meet people where they are, because we are too busy meeting them where we think they should already be. We get frustrated when they’re not on the same page as us. At a World Conference in London a few weeks ago, I heard Andy Hargreaves say that “If we’re all on the same page, then no one is reading the whole book.”

To be collaborative leaders means that we have to meet stakeholders, whether they are parents, teachers or students...where they are, and not get upset with them because they don’t hold our mindset.

Meet, Model & Motivate

From the collective efficacy mindset (Eells) we know that teachers who feel a low level of efficacy don’t feel like they, as teachers, can have a positive impact on students. What we also understand from the research is that the low level of efficacy that these teachers feel is not fixed. They can be inspired to think differently.

If we work together collaboratively, and understand their perspective, perhaps we can move forward in a positive direction. Don’t get me wrong, this will not always mean that we get to hold hands and sign songs together. But it does mean that we are listening to their perspective, and perhaps learning from it, to make the collaboration stronger. This is what I refer to as “meeting them where they are”...and not where we think they should be in the process.

After we meet them where they are, and listen to their input, the improvement in learning we are focusing on should become a part of our common language as a school community (i.e. Growth mindset, Learner dispositions, etc.). The process of developing our common language requires us to model best practices. Someone from the group has to model those best practices. Or even better, a few members of the group may model those practices. Our staff...the ones that we hired...all have strengths and leaders should support those strengths. This is what Michael Fullan and Andy Hargreaves have referred to in the past as Human Capital. It also comes from what Hargreaves refers to as leading from the middle.

Through meeting them where they are, listening to their input and modeling what we would like to see, we can then move into motivation. Motivation requires leaders to help motivate everyone on staff and not just the high flyers. Remember, people are authentically motivated when they feel as though they have a voice in the process, and after listening to concerns they will hopefully be motivated to move forward and adopt the change we all worked on together.

Keep in mind that some stakeholders fear change because they don’t understand why they’re changing in the first place. They also may have the fear that we thought they had been teaching the “wrong way” all of the years they’ve been in the classroom.

The school leader doesn’t have to be the end all to be all during all of this, because we hire teachers based on the contribution they can make to our team. Unfortunately, over a few years those teachers with the greatest contribution feel like their voice isn’t valued, and the teachers with the quietest voice feel as though they have nothing to contribute at all.

In the End
There are many days that I miss working with the staff that I used to lead. Don’t get me wrong, there are so many positive aspects that I love about bringing out the synergy of a group over a 1, 2 or 3 day period and going back to see how that synergy has been fostered. But being on the road is not always easy because you’re building collaborative experiences one day at a time as opposed to being in it every day.

Going through capability assessments with Helen and Jennifer is always a highlight. We pick up where we left off together the year before. I love the opportunity to work with a group and learn from their experiences. It would be nice that if we could do more of that in schools. We should be fostering true authentic collaboration as opposed to a high level of compliance.

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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.