Power. Why do we only feel comfortable using this word when we are in the gym? Or when listening to that catchy toon by Snap! that plays at every sporting event to hype up the crowd, “I’ve got the power”?
For many of us, it is because this word has a negative connotation. Unfortunately, this stems from our relationship with it in the workplace. Our boss, the person who supervises our work, has the power to determine whether we are gainfully employed. This kind of positional power, “power over,” conjures up feelings of fear and helplessness. It can leave us constantly wondering whether we are measuring up. A veteran teacher expressed it this way, “When the principal enters my room, I am being graded, and there are serious consequences for not meeting expectations.”
As a principal, failing to recognize and own that you have power can perpetuate its negative use. Power in and of itself is not a bad thing; it’s how it is used that makes it dangerous (Brene Brown, 2020).
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. defined power as “the ability to achieve purpose and effect change.” Embracing this definition requires us to shift our thinking away from power over to power with, power to, and power within. Moving in this direction requires us to differentiate between these types of power.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to motivate teachers by exerting “power over.” Principals must create the conditions in schools where power is used to achieve purpose and create change. The fundamental purpose of schooling is student learning, so those who work most closely with students—teachers—must have power with/to and within to achieve this mission. Supporting teachers in developing this power requires an examination of beliefs and practices around supervision.
Supervision and it’s powerful potential
Supervision is an experience that should be engaged in with the teacher with the sole intent of helping them help their students. Rather than a way to grade job performance (power over), supervision allows the leader to work alongside (power with) teachers helping them access and build upon techniques that impact student learning. Observations are opportunities to have another set of eyes in the classroom so that afterward rich conversations can ensue that help bring clarity to the classroom issues at hand.
Power within is instilled when the focus shifts to creating a culture where teachers examine practice, work together to solve problems, and constantly refine their work. Power within is nurtured when feedback allows teachers to self-reflect and self-analyze what is working and what isn’t. Very little of this can happen when supervision is treated as an isolated event that is driven by compliance and lengthy forms. Instead, a model for supervision is needed that differentiates support based on teacher needs and supervision practices (Mausbach & Morrison, 2022).
Differentiated supervision embraces a philosophy that is designed to instill power to/with and within teachers. It does this by matching the level of supervision with the needs of both individuals and teams while moving the entire school forward. Ongoing meaningful feedback serves as the centerpiece for this approach so teachers and leaders can work together to develop a mutual understanding about what students need to succeed.
Differentiation by teacher means knowing, understanding, and responding to the unique needs of individual teachers. No two teachers’ needs are exactly the same, so supervision practices that treat them as such miss the mark. Feedback tools in the differentiated-supervision model help pinpoint areas of support so individual teachers and the principal can engage in meaningful dialogue about how to help students, nurturing and supporting their power within.
Differentiated supervision also means using a variety of methods to provide support to teachers. Multiple methods are used to help the leader develop an in-depth understanding of students’ and teachers’ needs. A mixture of supervisory practices (i.e., general walk-throughs, implementation studies, etc.) help the leader take a diagnostic stance about what is working and what isn’t throughout the school. This information is useful when teams are working together to address teaching and learning issues. An all-hands-on deck approach is the tenor of team meetings, which develops “power with,” a necessary ingredient in collective teacher efficacy.
Rather than eliciting feelings of dread or ambivalence, supervision can be an empowering experience that increases teachers’ agency and self-efficacy. Differentiating supervision makes this happen and helps leaders abandon the “power over” mentality, replacing it with power with/to/within. Embracing power, our ability to achieve purpose and create change is worth the hype as culture and achievement will improve. And just like a stadium of rowdy basketball fans, it will have your teachers enthusiastically agreeing with the anthem “I’ve got the power!”
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.