All Articles Education What does leadership mean?

What does leadership mean?

7 min read


“Leadership arouses passion. The exercise and even the study of leadership stirs feeling because leadership engages our values.” — Ronald A. Heifetz

Most people in leadership positions often think about what leadership means, especially during our present circumstances. With continuing budget cuts, dwindling resources and the constant focus on accountability, the role of leader has changed greatly over the past few years. Four years ago seems like the good ole days but if leaders are eternal optimists, they are still looking at how they can be innovative at the same time they are in crisis mode. They still fight against things that harm the educational process at the same time they focus on what makes it better. It’s a delicate balance.

What about people who don’t know they’re a leader…yet? Leadership is not just a principal, superintendent or some other building-level or central office role. Leadership is found in our students, teachers and even our parents. At this time, however, feelings are hurt and teachers and administrators are afraid to take on a leadership role or try something new and many may prevent students from doing the same. Everyone feels as though they have been blamed for the “failure of the American Public School System.”

When it comes to the crisis in schools, most of us have been indicted. Parents, television, central office, the government, the unions, teachers, we are all blamed, and of course the blame is usually misguided and unfair. Instead of pinning the blame on someone, a more productive approach is to look for ways to make things better” — Jim Knight

Education needs good leaders who will look to make things better. They need people who will step up and not continue the status quo. Education needs individuals who will further a cause and take a position to change the surroundings, not just take it as a stepping stone to something better. There is not a better time for people to stand up and be a leader.

Building a collective voice on Twitter

Being a leader in any setting is difficult. It’s not easy to go against the grain or share an opinion that may upset the apple cart. It is times like those where leaders need to surround themselves with a good network, whether that network is their PLN through Twitter or the colleagues around them who they trust. We need good leaders. Leaders with great ideas and strong voices.

In the growing education movement that can be found on Twitter, there are many connected educators who are still trying to be creative and innovative with their students, and there are many who are trying to fight against high-stakes testing or lack of resources in schools. They are building a collective voice to fight against the things that they believe are wrong in education.

At the same time on Twitter during chats (i.e. #edchat, #satchat, #ptchat, etc.) there are thousands of educators who are sharing information and engaging in conversations about how to make their classrooms, schools or districts better. They are trying to get past the political debates and focus on instruction and ways to deliver curriculum. They are finding ways to lead during a time of chaos.

Leaders need those networks. They need to listen to the advice of others and need people who will listen to them. Without a good support system or PLN leadership is hard. Twitter has allowed educators from around the globe to find one another, and when used correctly it can help define a voice and make it better.

What will you change?

You don’t have to do everything. You just have to do something.” Rochester, N.Y. LGBT student

Leadership isn’t about changing everything. For full disclosure, as a new principal seven years ago I walked into an outstanding building, but things still needed to change. As a former runner I was taught by my coaches to never rest on my laurels. In my first year as a principal, I watched and listened to see where staff excelled and areas where they didn’t. I was luckier than most because I was surrounded by a K-12 leadership team that would always pick up the phone if I had a question.

Being new to the district, I didn’t always know the back story but I did the work. I went in as often as I could before I officially started. I knew the staff, many students and parents, and other stakeholders before my first official date. It sounds easy but it wasn’t. It took work after I left the school where I taught to go at night and meet with people.

Over the years I found things I needed to change, and the staff helped me with those areas. Together we delved into more social justice areas. We met as a Principals Advisory Council (PAC) and discussed areas that needed changing. We didn’t change for change sake. Ultimately, I became a better administrator because of my staff. As much as I was hired to be a leader, I found my leadership style through listening to my staff.

The following are a few areas I continue to work on. Some are simple, and some are not, because it’s about changing mindsets and culture.

  • Flipped faculty meetings — Our time is precious. I won’t waste it anymore with lists that could be sent through e-mail. We discuss areas like the Common Core, good evidence, APPR and media literacy.
  • Communication — Communication should always be an ongoing goal for schools. The way information is disseminated to staff, parents or students is an issue that always needs attention because some stakeholders always feel out of the loop. Schools have multiple ways of communicating, but just because they may have all of those outlets doesn’t mean they always do a great job using them. Is everyone getting the same message? That’s a goal that is not easy to achieve.
  • Circle the wagons — We, meaning the staff I lead, are on the same page, and when we are not we talk about it. It sounds like Utopia but it is not. I may be the leader of the building, but I am surrounded by teachers who will tell me when I’m off course. Administrators and teachers have a real opportunity to be on the same page these days. Don’t waste that opportunity.
  • Dignity for ALL students — I believe that all students, gay or straight, deserve a place in schools. Many LGBT students don’t hear positive remarks about gay people and that makes them not want to go to school. That should change. Everyone deserves a place at the table, regardless of their sexual orientation, race, religion or gender.

Leadership is hard, but it is so worth the work. Whether students, teachers or administrators, leaders can make positive changes in schools even during the most difficult educational time we have seen. There is no better time for people to find their inner leader. We are surrounded by a plethora of issues that need our attention. They need not be ignored.

Peter DeWitt is an elementary principal in Averill Park, N.Y. He blogs at Finding Common Ground for Education Week and is the author of “Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students,” published by Corwin. He can be found at Connect with DeWitt on Twitter @PeterMDeWitt.