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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.

School & District Management Opinion

Management vs. Instructional Leadership: Don’t Get Caught Up in Dualistic Thinking

By Peter DeWitt — March 06, 2022 5 min read
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Dualistic thinking is when we see our world as either/or, good/evil, or negative/positive. What we know is that this type of thinking can cloud our judgments and, many times, make us feel like we are not good enough. Dualistic thinking on the part of school leaders who believe that management is bad and instructional leadership is good typically resides in those who are having a hard time during COVID letting themselves off the hook. And it’s creating stress for them both professionally and personally. It doesn’t help if district leaders have that same type of dualistic thinking as well, because it creates undue pressure for building leaders.

Let me provide an example of the pressure that leaders feel.

The other day I was in a coaching session with a principal I admire. I have been coaching him for the last couple of years but not in the same way you probably assume coaching works. Too often, people perceive coaching through a dualistic lens, where the coach asks a lot of questions, get the coachee to think differently, and inspires that person being coached to change a habit.

That’s not the way good coaching works. When I go into each session, I develop success criteria with those I coach and I go in as a learner, not just the person who is expected to espouse new and creative ideas. To be perfectly honest, there are many times that I go into a coaching session without creative ideas, and the success criteria for the session that we build together is when I find inspiration and creativity.

For full disclosure, success criteria involves developing our learning focus for the session. I often ask, “What learning do we want out of this meeting?” Or I ask, “When we are done with the session, what are we hoping we learned during it?” I did a 3-Minute Collaborative Leadership video on the topic of success criteria, which you can find uploaded here on YouTube.

In the discussion with this principal, we were going back and forth with a conversation focusing on assessment-capable learners. Hattie often refers to assessment-capable learners as, “When students know how to learn, they are able to become their own teachers.” They are students who can gauge their own learning and understand where to go next.

The conversation was like a respectful, but engaging tennis match, where we highlighted some recent research we each read and how it relates to students within his school community. He has his favorite researchers, and I certainly have mine. We talked about the similarities and differences, and through the conversation, he mentioned something surprising.

He confided that he doesn’t always feel like an instructional leader during COVID. That’s because he doesn’t have the time to practice instructional leadership with all the challenges of contact tracing, updates on safety protocols, covering teachers who are out due to the pandemic, and the countless other management issues that he faces on a daily basis.

And then I realized he needed an intervention. Dualistic thinking leads us to believe that management is bad and instructional leadership is good. What matters is the balance, and sometimes that balance is impacted by our situations.

You Are Here

I know the above subtitle doesn’t sound “groundbreaking,” to quote Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada,” but it is important. Too often, leaders feel the pressure of being an instructional leader, which I’m not debating because I understand the importance of how instructional leadership contributes to more impactful walk-throughs, learning walks, and formal observations. Leaders need to spend quality time in that space.

However, what’s important here is to focus on the here and now. Sometimes the reality is that management is the most important action leaders can take at a give moment. Without management, there will be uncovered classrooms and schedules that increase chaos and anxiety instead of alleviating it. Management is about checking in on people and making sure they are OK.

In You Are Here, Thich Nhat Hanh speaks to the power of being present in our given situations. Strangely, this relates to the constant struggle leaders feel when they are engaged in management, because they typically believe that they should be engaged in instructional leadership.

We need to get a handle on this as a profession, because in order to really focus on well-being and mental health during the pandemic, one of the actions leaders need to take is to understand that the actions they are taking are those that are probably most necessary at that time. They need to be present in the situation they find themselves in because those situations most likely require their best thinking at that time, even if that thinking is the manager as opposed to the instructional leader.

Ultimately, both hats, along with the countless others that leaders wear, impact student learning in one way shape or form.

3 Beliefs

Try this activity when you have a minute to breathe. In the image below, I have “3 Beliefs” written in the middle column. On the left side, I have “Instructional Leadership” written and, on the right side, I have “Management.” Write down three beliefs you have about learning, students, school, or education. What are your three beliefs? Perhaps they even coincide with the three reasons why you got into education in the first place. On the left, begin writing down the instructional-leadership actions you take that help you stay connected to those three beliefs. On the right side, write down the management actions you take that help you connect with those three beliefs. Edit if needed, and when you have the right wording, hang it up next to you on the wall for the next time you feel badly about engaging in management.

Screen Shot 2022 01 19 at 3.23.53 PM

In the End

Too often, we make assumptions that it’s either or. We have dualistic thinking when it comes to instructional leadership versus management. The reality is that leaders need to understand that it’s not the leadership style that is the most important, it’s how present you are in your tasks that is important.

Obviously, leaders want to try to practice instructional leadership as often as they can, but they should also take time to understand that those management tasks may be closer to instructional leadership than they first thought.

If you feel comfortable, Tweet your beliefs using the hashtag #3Reasons.

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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