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Sunday / August 25

Enough of the Gimmicks: Leaders Need Research and Practice 

I have had a deep interest in educational research for a long time. It started in my undergraduate years when I was studying to be a teacher. The topics of equity and access were areas of interest that grew into ways to rethink school classrooms and leadership. I remember teaching first grade in the 90s, long before we started talking about flexible classrooms, and replacing all my classroom desks with tables and flexible areas for students to get engaged in learning — and I was far from the only one doing it.  

All of that desire to improve my own classroom as a teacher and, later as a principal, to build a better and more inclusive environment for staff and students led to me to working with John Hattie. In the first year I began working with Hattie, I kept thinking about how to better help school leaders, and 6 of Hattie’s influences really began to stick out. Why? Every time I ran a workshop leaders would ask where they should start, and many would mistakenly begin with the top 10. That was flawed thinking because, not only were the top 10 fairly impossible to take on all at once, but they were not usually the most effective place for leaders to begin.   


The Top 10 Visible Learning Influences are not the most effective place for leaders to begin. This is what led me to write Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most.


What further complicated the issue is that leaders would get on social media and begin grabbing what they were sold as the shiny new toy. “Do this and you will be more successful than ever,” – and it usually involved technology. There was just one problem: a shiny new technology tool alone will not change practice. We need to go deeper than tools and new shiny toys. We need to look at our past practices, as well as our present ones, and we need to focus on the relationships we have fostered and the dysfunction we may have created.  

In Collaborative Leadership6 Influences That Matter Most I focused on these six Visible Learning influences: Instructional Leadership, Collective Efficacy, Professional Development, Feedback, Assessment Capable Learners, and Family Engagement. All 6 are interrelated. For example, it’s hard to give feedback to a teacher if a leader doesn’t have the credibility of an instructional leader because they don’t step foot into classrooms other than the two or three times a year they have to do observations. I still believe those six influences are the best place to begin for any building leader, instructional coach or teacher leader.  

After writing Collaborative Leadership, creating a competency-based course from it that has been adopted at the state and university level, and using the model in districts nationally and internationally, I learned that in order to put the 6 influences into place, leaders need to establish a school climate that is inclusive and safe. A healthy school climate supports teachers and leaders challenging each other to go deeper with their learning. I also began to see after being on the road that leaders say things like “All Means All” when they are talking about students, but too often that motto on the school walls does not include minoritized/marginalized populations like our indigenous students or LGBTQ students. Noticing these issues led me to write my next book, School Climate: Leading With Collective Efficacy. I felt then, and still feel now, that our conversations about student learning have to include conversations around access and equity. We need to ensure that leaders are a part of the collaboration they so loudly speak about on Twitter, and that teachers actually feel as though they have a voice in that collaboration. 


A healthy school climate supports teachers and leaders challenging each other to go deeper with their learning. I had this need in mind when I wrote School Climate: Leading With Collective Efficacy.  


After addressing how to implement all of these practices in School Climate, I felt I needed to address how much we ask of principals, instructional coaches, and district leaders. The research around self-efficacy has taught me that not everyone feels confident in the situations that require confidence. This is one of the reasons that I wrote my latest book, Coach It Further: Using the Art of Coaching to Improve School Leadership. What I have found, after training many instructional coaches for Jim Knight, is that leaders deserve to have a coach as well. They sometimes need someone to help them figure out where to start, and they need that person to keep them focused on a goal and help build their confidence, like my running coaches did with me in high school and college.  


Coach It Further addresses how much we ask of principals, instructional coaches, and district leaders. Leaders deserve to have a coach as well. 


Coach It Further was a different type of book for me because it is a narrative story with characters. I did not shy away from the drama that can happen among the adults in a school. I focused on how to build collective efficacy when the team might not like each other at first. So many researchers tell leaders where they should spend their time and that they should be instructional leaders. But the interesting issue that came out of my research for the book was that leaders actually want help focusing on communication, community engagement, collective efficacy, and negotiating their way through the political side of the position, so that is all part of the plot in the story.  

Recently, though, I have been given more and more evidence that we ask a lot of school leaders — sometimes even too much. And, yes, I’m responsible for that as well from time to time. And then it happened: the moment I realized that things are going a little too far. I was speaking at a conference in Norway and, after I presented on Collaborative Leadership, a person from an educational ministry asked me why I did not talk more about leaders being content experts in every subject that they are responsible for leading. I replied, “Because I don’t think that is possible.” I asked if she had been a principal before, and she answered no. And that is part of the problem that I am hoping to help with next. Too many people who have never been in the role of a school leader talk about what needs to happen in the role. There are many leaders in crisis mode and they need practical and impactful suggestions, not to be bogged down with tasks that may not be the best use of their time.  


Leaders need research-based practices from someone who understands their role. 


If you have ever read my Finding Common Ground blog for Education Week or any of my books that I have written for Corwin, I think you know that I always try to find a balance between research and practice, and I always focus on meeting you where you are presently, and bringing you to a deeper level. Leaders in crisis don’t need too much philosophy and they certainly don’t need gimmicks; what they need are research-based practices from someone who understands their role.

Written by

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D is a former school principal and now consultant/author. He is the author of several books including Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (Corwin Press. 2016), School Climate: Leading with Collective Efficacy (Corwin Press. 2017), and Coach It Further: Using the Art of Coaching to Improve School Leadership (Corwin Press. 2018). Connect with him on Twitter or Schedule an on-site or virtual consultation, seminar, or workshop with Peter today!

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