I am counting down to our annual conference, Teaching, Learning, and Coaching, and over the next few days, to build excitement, I’ll be posting interviews with the experts who will be presenting at the conference. The interviews will surface many different ways of looking at coaching, and like the conference itself, I hope they inspire, educate and provoke new thinking. I don’t agree with everything I hear in the interviews, but I am grateful for others’ thinking. We move forward by challenging our beliefs, and I hope you feel challenged too. You can keep up with the interviews by subscribing to this blog.

This week’s interview: Peter DeWitt

I’ve known Peter for several years now.  He has frequently presented at TLC, presented as a consultant sharing the coaching and communication material we’ve developed at ICG, and he has been a creative partner for us, helping us to see how respectful and humane ways of interacting can be fostered in schools. Through his work, Peter has become a strong voice for humanity and respect in schools, and he is leading a movement toward a different kind of leadership, collaborative leadership.

A former award-winner principal, Peter is the author of several books. They include: Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students, School Climate Change, Flipping Leadership Doesn’t Mean Reinventing the Wheel, Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most, and School Climate: Leading with Collective Teacher Efficacy.

How did you come to write about coaching and leadership?

I started writing about coaching because when I was writing the Finding the Common Ground blog for Education Week I came across your work. I loved the idea of instructional coaching because I always had great coaches when I was a long-distance runner. I liked the idea of taking that philosophy and using it in teaching.

I think the part of coaching that attracted me most was the potential for growth. At the time, I felt that teachers were dealing with a lot of accountability, mandates, and a lot of negative rhetoric, and that they rarely had a voice. What I loved about your writings about coaching was that teachers could choose a goal and work on it in partnership with a coach. I felt it put the voice back to the teacher with a focus on learning, teaching strategies that would benefit students.

Tell me a little bit about your publications on coaching and leadership

My writings on coaching are all blogs for Education Week. When I was starting to do instructional coaching training, I worked with an outstanding group of people, and I ended up writing a blog called Five Reasons Why School Districts Should Have Instructional Coaches. From then on, I started to read more, because every time I would do your work [Jim Knight], I wanted to grow in that area; for example, the coaching cycle or the partnership principle.

As far as leadership goes, the first book I wrote called Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students, which  was on the topic of my doctoral dissertation. Later, I wrote Flipping Leadership Doesn’t Mean Reinventing the Wheel for the Corwin Connected Educator Series. It was supposed to be a practical book about how leaders could move their faculty meetings from being task-driven to becoming more about learning. Last year I released Collaborative Leadership – Six Influences That Matter Most, which was influenced both by what I did as a school principal and instructional coach, and also the visible learning trainings for John Hattie. Finally, my latest book, School Climate, Leading With Collective Efficacy, is also about leadership, particularly how we all can collaborate – school leaders, teachers, parents, and students.

What are some of your core ideas in your approach to coaching and leadership?

Part of my core ideas is a reaction to hearing people say that when you go into administration you go to “the dark side.” I hated that statement because I didn’t feel I had gone to the dark side. On the contrary, I felt that being a principal gave me an opportunity to work with kids over a longer period of time than just one year and also to work one-on-one with teachers in hopes that teachers would learn from me, and I learn from them – what you refer to as reciprocal learning.

I think the talk of the dark side is a status issue. I remember giving new students and their parents a tour around the building when I was a principal, and when we ended in my office, a parent said to her child, “I never want you to come back here.” My response was, “Don’t say that. I see kids more for good reason more than I see them for bad reasons.”

Some of my core ideas really are about the study of servant leadership, where you lower your own status and raise the status of the people you are working with. You look at everything as offering an opportunity to learn. Whether you are a teacher or a school principal, I don’t think you know it all. You learn from the people you work with.

What would you say distinguishes your work from other people’s work on coaching and leadership?

One of the issues that has come to life for me as I have been involved in collaborative leadership is that many leaders seem to want their teachers to collaborate, but they don’t necessarily understand that they need to be a part of the collaboration. This is actually borne out in research on school leadership efficacy. That is, we cannot feel a sense of efficacy as leaders unless we work collectively with others. So I emphasize that is not about expecting everybody else to collaborate. It’s about leaders being a part of the process.

To that end, I have come up with six influences that give not just leaders but also teachers the biggest bang for their buck: instructional leadership, collective teacher efficacy, professional development or professional learning and development, feedback, assessment-capable learners, and family engagement.

In terms of instructional leadership, we are focusing on changing the narrative and creating or reviewing the structures that is in place like faculty meetings and make them focus more on learning and goal setting. In turn, collective teacher efficacy is about getting people to work collectively around a goal that we co-construct together; this can be very powerful because we can learn from each other. And, when we are looking at professional learning and development that is completely tied into what our goals should be and how we learn with one another.

Related to that, I think that feedback is even more important now than I thought when I wrote the book because you introduced me to Stone and Heen’s book Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well. I have come to realize that feedback is not just about how we give it, but also about whether we are in the same place. Do we have a common understanding of what kind of feedback we should be giving and the kind of feedback we can expect?  The feedback triggers that Stone and Heen talk about articulate what happens when somebody gets upset when we give them feedback. This is obviously very relevant for instructional coaches, who are likely to come across teachers who do not know how to accept feedback in a constructive manner.

The fifth influence, assessment-capable learners, is basically about how we want students to articulate what they are learning about where they are going to next. Finally, we need to involve families in this process because we can’t always do it alone. But the family engagement must be authentic. Sadly, at open house and parent-teacher conferences we typically talk at parents, not with them. So there is no dialogue, no authentic engagement.

What have been some of your key learnings over the past few years?

The past three and a half years, during which I’ve been in this new role as consultant/author, has been a huge learning curve. When I was writing for Education Week, I had a very myopic view because I always wrote from the perspective of building principals. When I started running workshops and getting feedback from the people I was working with, I began to understand that you’ve got to look at things from more than one perspective. For example, when instructional coaches, whom I find to be one of the most engaged groups I have ever met, ask for practical ways to engage the teachers they are working with, many of whom are resistant, I feel a sense of pressure to make sure that I am looking at as many ways as possible to offer practical guidance based on what their context is.

So, one of my biggest learnings lately is understanding the context of the people I am working with and making sure that I’m giving them what they need. A reminder here is if a traditional lecture style in professional development is used, you can lose ninety percent of what you learned. That knowledge weighs heavily on my mind when I give a workshop because I want to know the goals of the people I am working with. So, when I start off, I have participants write down and hand me their goals. Then over time, I put them in the common teams and I make sure that I am hitting all of those goals.

What is a good metaphor for what coaches do?

I don’t have an answer right now.

What else to people need to know about your approach to coaching and leadership?

I look at it from a couple of vantage points. Number one is that leadership is about making the people around you better. Number two is that I feel like I was very fortunate to be a school principal because I learned from the people I worked with. I never could have done it without the staff and the school community. So, I feel that an approach to leadership where you want to learn from people is very important, too.

Since the conference theme is It’s All About the Kids, please tell me a little bit about the impact your work has on children

My goal is to enable attendees to look at kids from a new perspective. This is very personal for me because I’m a kid who was retained in elementary school. I lost my dad when I was young and my mom went back to get her GED, yet I graduated fourth in my high school class.  When people hear that, I hope it gives them a different perspective – recognizing that there ise no such thing as throw-away kids because I was one of those kids who easily could have been thrown away. I am hoping to offer particular suggestions that participants can use in the classroom right away, and that will give them a larger view – to say, “Yes, that child struggles, but it doesn’t mean that he is doomed to struggle for the rest of his life.”

Can you summarize what you are going to present at TLC?

I’m going to present on collaborative leadership and the six influences that matter most – whether you are a teacher, teacher leader, instructional coach, or school-based leader. I am also very excited because I am presenting with Lindsey Deacon on the different types of evidence that instructional coaches can collect to understand the impact that they are having.