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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

The Feedback That Made Me a Better Education Leader

It’s important to look inward first
By Darrell Sampson — June 16, 2023 7 min read
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About 25 years ago, after completing my bachelor’s degree in vocal performance, I began working on a master’s degree in choral conducting. As part of that experience, twice a week, I stood in front of a laboratory choir and conducted music, with the goal of improving my abilities. In the first month or so, I would get up in front of the choir, wave my hands in the air, and then stop the group when something was not working. At that point, I talked to them for a while about what I thought was wrong and what I wanted them to do, and then we would start again.

The problem was, often nothing changed from the choir, or it did not improve in the way that I had explained, and I would get frustrated with the group. Clearly, I thought, they were not talented enough to understand what it was that I heard in my head and then reproduce it.

Finally, after several sessions like this, my professor said to me, “Is it that the choir cannot do what you ask or is it that you are not showing them with your hands what you tell them to do?” For the next several months, if I stopped the choir during a rehearsal, I was only allowed to say three words and, after that, I had to use my gestures to communicate the sounds I wanted to hear.

Today, this moment in time is still very clearly present in my mind and impacts my work as a leader every day. What my professor knew and that I had yet to learn was that a leader needs to constantly reflect on how they are, or are not, contributing to the success and vision of their team.

The issue all those years ago was not the choir, all excellent musicians who were adept at adjusting to the different graduate students who stood in front of them upon the podium. Rather, the problem was with me, my own skill level at the time, and my unwillingness to see myself as part of the living and breathing system of the choir, just as accountable to them as they were to me.

Now, one of my responsibilities as a district leader is to oversee the implementation of social-emotional learning across a school division. One of the five SEL competencies as defined by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning is self-awareness, that ability to understand your own thoughts, emotions, biases, and impulses and how they interact with those with whom you engage.

As leaders, this social-emotional competency is critical to our success and longevity in the education profession. It is a constant reflective process to consider my words and actions and how they connect to my core values as a professional and a person. One of my core values is a strong belief that all students can achieve at high levels when given access, opportunity, and support. If I believe this, then I must consistently approach my work and ask myself, and others, how a particular policy, program, or guidance will impact all our students, both positively and negatively. Further, like my experience with the choir in graduate school, I must think about how I, and we as leaders and a system, contribute to continued inequities in educational outcomes.

Understanding Our Strengths

Part of self-awareness is understanding our strengths. This is not to give us delusions of superiority but rather allows us to know how we might best assist others in specific contexts. For example, for me, strategic thinking and connecting past with present and future as well as federal, state, and local contexts are innate to me.

I am an obsessive consumer of news, research, and policy and would be regardless of what role I held in education. I must write and communicate every day, which has helped me to build skills in distilling complex and sometimes contradictory ideas into language that can meet a specific audience’s needs. Moreover, I try to exhibit empathy and to understand and consider how the decisions that we make in schools impact all our students, particularly those that have been marginalized by society. I always have room to grow and learn from others in these areas, but this awareness helps me to know what my contributions are to those I am responsible for leading. In other words, I have a sense of what I bring to the table and how my skills can help.

As I learned all these many years ago, fewer words and greater clarity are sometimes critical for others to be able to act upon your vision. As a leader who oversees a lot of different areas with various projects, I tend to move immediately on to the next major project or initiative, without necessarily acknowledging or celebrating the accomplishment of finishing a significant piece of work. While that fits my individual needs, connecting through a celebration of a major success is critically important for many of the staff with whom I have worked. Knowing this, I remind myself to make sure that I take time to acknowledge the collective efforts and success of others throughout a project. Further, I strive to empower other leaders on my teams to initiate, plan, and execute small and larger celebrations and acknowledgments, knowing they will have my full support.

Self-Awareness Also Means Being Open to Feedback

As I have learned in various roles and systems, my idea may be a perfectly fine one, but it is rarely the only way to effectively embark upon an initiative. I have come to appreciate critical input on projects and initiatives as they can help me to better anticipate the responses of others, consider contingencies, and ensure that we are addressing as many needs as possible in a way that is more likely to create the desired outcome. It is important to be open to the fact that transformative critical input does not just come from other leaders or educators but often from families and students.

I acknowledge that it can be difficult to take in criticism at times, and there are strategies that have helped me to make the most of these opportunities. For one, I try to understand the perspectives and the lived experiences of the individual or group that is providing the feedback.

When I was a school counselor, I ran a group on grief and loss and, as a rule, I always communicated with the teachers of the students I worked with so that they understood the strategies on which we were working. This helped to justify students’ time away from class. One teacher sent me very terse emails wanting to be removed from those communications as they saw no value in them and did not understand why I was running the group during the school day. I was hesitant to comply as it was important to communicate with teachers so that they understood the value of small-group counseling in schools.

The staff member finally stopped by my office, and I prepared for a tense conversation, ready to dig my heels in if needed. What I learned, though, in that discussion, was that this individual’s child had died years ago, and these emails brought that back to them every time they hit their inbox. Understanding their experience helped me to put their criticism in perspective, and I removed them from the email distribution list for the group. However, it also taught me that even if I have a clear and solid rationale for a decision, I had to be self-aware enough to recognize that there could be equally valid and important rationales for making different choices.

Further, I do my best to listen to the critical feedback and think it through. Much of the time, we as leaders have a bit of time to reflect on comments and input prior to responding. So, often, we feel we must respond right in a moment. Often, though, we have an opportunity to let ideas percolate before a response. I try, when possible, to thank someone for feeling comfortable enough to share their perspective with me and let them know I would like time to consider their thoughts. I have started asking myself, “What could be valid here?” instead of “Why are they wrong?” This often changes my response, but more importantly, often helps to enhance, change, or course-correct initiatives so that I and the teams I lead are more agile and flexible and in tune with the needs of all of those that we support.

Self-Awareness Is Linked to Vulnerability

Self-awareness is linked to our willingness to be vulnerable as leaders. I try to admit when I make mistakes and I take ownership of my failures. I ensure that I do this transparently and publicly so that the teams I support see that leaders are not perfect and that part of leadership is taking responsibility for our actions and those of our teams. I also find that being vulnerable is inextricably linked with authentic styles of leadership.

Over the course of my career, as a gay man, I have felt at times I have had to hide parts of myself to be seen as effective. However, over time, I have discovered that I am stronger and can have greater impact when I am more open about who I am and my own journey. Connection with others is critical, and we form relationships more readily when we are most able to be ourselves at our core. I write this knowing that there can be real risks for some leaders, particularly from marginalized groups, to be what we think of as authentic. By whatever means possible, even in small ways, exemplifying our core values and backgrounds as leaders can make us more relatable and inspire teams to do their best work on behalf of our schools.

Overall, as I have continued to develop as a leader, I find that the lesson from my former professor continues to be one of the most salient. I look inward first, not last, when there are challenges to determine my own role and how I might have been able to be a more effective communicator, collaborator, or planner.

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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.

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