Peter talks about his current projects and his hobbies (1:00)
He describes his career path, which he never saw coming, given how he grew up (3:45)
How he came to love working with kids (5:00)
Peter’s transformation from “D” student on the verge of flunking out of college to “A” student who never missed a class (7:25)
The importance of having family and friends who support you (10:45)
The point at which Peter decided to switch from teaching to administration (13:05)
Some lessons Peter learned while juggling teaching full-time, working on a master’s degree, and teaching college at night (16:00)
One of the most difficult periods on Peter’s journey from teacher to administrator (18:33)
How his struggles when he was younger gave him the strength to deal with problems later on in his career (19:50)
It can take a while, but every educator needs to reach a point where they realize their career focus should be more on their students and less on themselves (25:35)
Several more important lessons and takeaways from Peter’s career journey (27:40)
The amazing seven and a half year period Peter still looks back on today (34:30)
How Peter’s impact as an administrator is different than his impact as a teacher (37:10)
How Peter’s career focus became writing for, speaking to, and leading workshops for educators (39:30)
The best leadership advice Peter has ever received (47:20)
Why a strong sense of empathy is crucial (48:00)
Some books Peter recommends for educators (48:30)
Apps and tools Peter recommends (49:40)
Peter’s advice for admins when it comes to working with students (50:47)
Peter’s advice for admins when it comes to working with teachers (51:05)
The advice Peter would like to have had at the beginning of his admin career (53:20)
Books mentioned in this episode
Apps and tools mentioned in this episode
How to connect with Peter DeWitt
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Podcast Session #12
Show notes: http://www.educatorslead.com/peterdewitt/
This is the Educators Lead podcast with Jay Willis, Session #12. Let’s go!
Intro: Dr. Peter DeWitt (Ed.D.) is a former school principal in Upstate, NY, and he is now a Visible Learning trainer and instructional coaching trainer and runs workshops on school leadership. Before he became a principal he taught elementary school for eleven years. His syndicated blog Finding Common Ground is published by Education Week and he is a freelance writer for Vanguard Magazine. That’s just a brief introduction Peter, but tell us a little bit more about yourself.
Dr. DeWitt: Sure Jay, I’m excited to be on. I was a teacher for 11 years and a school principal for 8 years and I left to become an independent consultant but most of my work is actually with my publisher Corwin Press and I work with John Hattie, who is located in Melbourne, Australia so I do John’s visible learning work. I run North America and Australia and I’m an instructional coaching trainer with Jim Knight who is at the University of Kansas and then I do my own work in leadership and I created the Connected Educator’s series which is 21 books about connected education. I created that with Ariel Bartlett and Ernest Fervicovs and Corwin Press. And I am actually working now on a new short form leadership series with Ernest Sonario and we are getting books from Michael Fowlin, Yung Zao, Prezzy Zolberg, Andy Hargreaves and a few others, so I do a variety of things.
Jay: Wow! Do you say, 21 books?
Dr. DeWitt: Yeah. It was supposed to be 6 books on connected education. Mine was one of them and Flipping Leadership and what ultimately happened is, it became such a good idea and we got so many good ideas from people that I meet on Twitter that it turned out to be 21 books instead of just 6.
Dr. DeWitt: Yeah, yeah and that’s when my life got crazy.
Jay: Yeah, I could imagine. So what do you do with all that spare time then like tell something about your personal life that you’re willing to share?
Dr. DeWitt: Let’s see. I travel quite a bit so; I don’t have a lot of spare time. And I haven’t had a lot of spare time in the past.
Jay: I said that of course jokingly, you know.
Dr. DeWitt: Yeah, there is the past 10 months, but when I get the opportunity, I have a partner we’ve been together for 14 years and he owns 4 old cars so we go out driving in classic cars quite a bit. So that’s a nice break away from education.
Jay: Yeah, so tell us a little bit about your career path.
Dr. DeWitt: Yeah, I often say that the, the best things that happen to me were the things I never saw coming. That’s for sure, I was, I was actually a school teacher for 11 years in a variety of city school districts. And I really was never meant, maybe I was meant to be a teacher but it was certainly not anything that I ever thought I could actually accomplish because I was retained in elementary school and my dad died when I was in 5th grade and I struggled throughout school so I was the youngest of 5 and I graduated 4th from last in my graduating class. So thank goodness for the 4 people behind me. Because I didn’t have to be last but I bounced out of, I failed out of two community colleges and when I went to my 3rd community college I was, I was actually pretty good long distance runner. My coach there said, “DeWitt I want you to go into Learning Assistance Center if you want to run with us” and I did and that’s my story. Went in with a 1.7 GPA and I walked out with the 3.86 and then things just kind of changed for me from there. I started to get A’s.
I started working in an afterschool program, in the neighboring suburban area from where I was living at the time in Troy, New York, and I absolutely fell in love with working with kids at the elementary level and I think there’s a piece of me that thought, that’s when my life is simpler. So I just, I fell in love with working with the kids and it was always a blast for me and I ended up doing my Bachelor’s Degree in Elementary Education and one of the first jobs that I had was teaching at a private school for boys but I was part time and I was working two other jobs on top of that and then I ended up getting a teaching job in Poughkeepsie, New York which is about 90 minutes south of where I was living and it was you know so it was in a suburban school district but we were on the city line of Poughkeepsie and we were a poor city school and I had 30 1st graders and it was the greatest experience of my life at that time. And I taught there for 4 years and just absolutely loved working there.
Learned a lot, got to co-teach with many really great teachers, some of whom I still talk to today and when I was there, actually my principal believed it or not had been in a school district for 50 years which was pretty incredible and when I was going to do my master’s degree at Marist College, he suggested that I do it in school administration. And I looked at him and I very respectfully said, “No way! I’m never gonna be a school principal.” and I didn’t, I went back and got my master’s in Ed Psych and then I moved up to the Albany area to be with my partner actually and when I was teaching at the city school outside of Albany, I decided that school administration was something that I was interested in. So I went to the College of St. Rose where I actually got my undergraduate degree and did my, I did my administration degree over two years but at that same time, I actually started as an adjunct professor at the College of St. Rose too. And so I was teaching graduate courses and I was taking administration courses so, a lot of steps but I never thought that I would actually be able to do but it all led me to; you know what I’m doing now.
Jay: Yeah, so I just went back up for a second, so what happened like what would you say, was the contributor to, what caused you to go from being that you know the D student or what was your GPA that you said, that was, I mean I was …
Dr. DeWitt: I was more a… a DI would have been great.
Jay: Yeah, so what caused that transition from that to an A student. I mean that’s just a very fascinating to me.
Dr. DeWitt: Yeah, you know there were, I think there were variety of things. Number 1 was that my sisters, one of my sisters, she was actually like National Honor Society and everything else but my dad died 3 months before she graduated from high school and she really stuck around home kind of really help raise my brother and me with my mom, you know my mom was young when my dad died, she was 46 which when your 11 that seems old but when your 45, 46 isn’t that old at all. And I had good friends, one of my best friends who was actually going to Cornell University, a full navy ROTCY scholarship and he was #2 in his class and never once made me feel dumb even though I felt like I just wasn’t going to achieve. And then the coach, when I met Coach Molson, I had really good coaches during my running career but there is something that he said, it was my 3rd community college and I knew it was my last chance really because I if I wasn’t successful, I was gonna start having to work at the paper mill where my oldest brother actually still works and I think that a variety of things happened at the same time and when I went into the learning assistance center, I met a teacher named Don who was pretty incredible guy and the way he spoke to me definitely connected with me and I got my first A or at least the first A that I ever remember getting and from then on I actually have perfect attendance. I never a skipped a class again and the A’s kept rolling in. and I think that you know, you looked for it, I guess now in our leadership degrees, we always talk about looking for short term wins, I guess at that time I was being hit with short term wins and I, I had professors that were so different from how I grew up in this you know, small suburban town in Upstate, New York and everything started to connect and I felt like I was just, I just started to take it all in and you know I’ve been asked a question many times because I you know, and I’ve thought about it quite a bit. I don’t know if there is one thing, I think there’s just a combination of things all happening at the same time. And I realize that that was really my last opportunity. At least in my mind, it was my last opportunity to be successful with school and I took it for everything I possibly could and I just literally ran with it from then on.
Jay: Yeah, it sounds like to me correct please correct me if I’m wrong but it sounds like maybe it was a combination of or a lot of it had do with the combination of someone believing in you maybe on a deeper level that you’ve experienced before and when that couple of things …
Dr. DeWitt: Yeah, yeah you know I was always lucky because my; you know, my mom was always super supportive and my siblings were always very supportive. But we were kind of I used to say that our family didn’t suffer from low self-esteem, we suffered from no self-esteem because you know my dad had been sick for about 3 years before he died of cancer. And I think in all of our grandparents died by the time I was five. So, it was just a, I think there’s an incredibly hard time in our lives and you know at that time when I was a kid, my teachers didn’t read any books where parent had passed away so my life just seemed very different from that of my friends and I think, yeah when I got to, when I got to Community College, I think that I just had this small group, a very tight knit of group of people who all really cared and honestly in our cross country team there were only, I think there were only 7 of us all together in our cross country team and that includes the girls. And we were just a very close knit group of athletes. One of, actually several of them I still talk too today and I think that that was also something that helped. I had some friends, you know, on the team that just really wanted me to do well and I think that that it was always a case of you know times like I always had people in my life who had made to do well but I think of that point, I actually wanted to do well as well.
Jay: Yeah and then it sounds like the combination of that plus the getting some successes like getting some early wins, maybe once you started to having that you know the injection of belief I guess like that combined with the early wins seem to help create some momentum for you is that, would that be accurate?
Dr. DeWitt: That would be very accurate, I mean absolutely, and I’m very thankful still you know all these years later that I sort of woke up and I had the people around me who were encouraging me.
Jay: Yeah, so at what point along this journey did you make the decision to move in to school leadership. I guess you kind of mention it, I guess dive in to that story a little bit more.
Dr. DeWitt: Sure, I had been teaching at a smaller city school. I guess I will backtrack a little bit. When I was in Poughkeepsie, and my principal at the time had asked me about going back for school administration and I flat out said no. I used to go to a gym where these two older guys that I knew. They were both; one was a retired teacher and the other one was at the end of his career as a school psychologist. I remember talking to them. I vividly remember talking to them at the gym and I had said that, you know the principal talked to me about going back to get my school administration degree and they were like, you should think about doing that. And I said, “No way, are you kidding me. I can’t be a principal like that” and they said, well what if you could be the principal you wanted to be. And their words never left my mind like and so when I went on, when I move to the Albany, New York area and started teaching 1st and 2nd grade at another city school. I really started to think about, “I think I could be a principal and I think I could be the principal that I wanted to be” although it didn’t really have all the answers of what that look like. I knew that there’s something drawing me into that, into that situation and what ultimately happened is when I started to go back to the College of St. Rose and doing my administration degree and then I started teaching at the College of St. Rose and then as an educator as well, I think just like when I was at the community college, everything started to come together where I was taking the knowledge that I was getting in one class and then when I was taken up to my students I was teaching in my graduate course, and you know I was lucky enough to be able to do my administration internship at the school where I was teaching and like all of these things, started to connect with me very strongly. And you know, so I did my administration degree over two, two and a half years I would guess and I finished probably in June of 2005. And I didn’t end up getting my school principalship job until June of 2006 because I actually started to dabble in young adult fiction so I wrote a couple of young adult novels and one was coming out in early 2006 and I really wanted to see where that was sort of the writing piece was going to take me. So I waited about a year after I finished my degree before I actually applied for a principalship.
Jay: So then how did you, as you are doing that because, so just on the journey. How did you juggle all that because you were teaching at that time right when you’re taking classes and …
Dr. DeWitt: Yeah, it was, it was a crazy time; I had a very supportive partner at home. Very supportive family and ultimately what was happening was that I was teaching during the day and I had a Special Ed Teacher that I was co-teaching with. I would go to my class that I was taking from 4:30 to 7:00 and then teach a class from 7:15 to 9:45. And one of the cool things that I looked back and now I was, I remember taking this class called Critical Issues and Critical Issues was with a guy named Jim Bob Smith who actually ended up being a mentor of mine. He was the assistant commissioner of education for New York State, he had been a superintendent for a long time before that and he used to have us read Education Week and we would have to read about 5 or 6 articles in Education Week. And he had so much experience and so much wisdom that I was trying to take in and then I would leave his class and go and teach my own and I had a really great group of undergraduate students and they were small. They were probably like 12 or 15 people and it was just really cool the guy from Critical Issues and then start in teaching them and then I was doing a 600 hours internship at the same time.
Dr. DeWitt: I think that back then what I realize, well I realize a couple of things. Number 1, when I was younger, I didn’t make this kind of sacrifices because I didn’t put myself out there. So this was really one of the first times that I was putting myself out there so much and I think I realize what is meant by opportunity cost and that you have to give up something in order to gain something. And you know I had a lot of support at home which was really great. But I also knew that I couldn’t see, you know, my friends that I used to see all the time. There were certain things that you just, you have to give up in order to be able to move forward and that’s that was one of the major sort of things that I have to deal with when I was going through that; the whole idea of opportunity cost and you know I learned from those experiences.
Jay: So speaking into that and kind of talking about the experiences along your path way from the time you made the decision to become an administrator and actually arriving at that you know becoming an administrator, so what were, I’m sure there are some you know high points and some lower points. What were some of the most, I guess if you could maybe just take us to one of the most difficult moments during the journey and tell us that story.
Dr. DeWitt: I think, yeah, I think one of the most difficult pieces for me was that when I stayed for that year when I was teaching, although I had my administration degree. A new principal had taken over the school and I remember calling them and saying you know I’m really glad you got the job because I knew the person I’ve worked for a couple of years. And they seem surprised, they said, “Well” and I was like I don’t know why they feel this way. Then I said, “If you need anything, I’ll be more than happy to help you out” and the difficult piece was that our relationship changed and I think they looked at me as some sort of competition. When I had never even applied for the job and that year was very difficult because I started to think about, I missed the boat – I should have applied for a principalship and why am I teaching kind of thing. And there were some jobs that I applied for early on that I got passed over and some that I went through interviews and I made it to the last round but they you know ended up giving the job to somebody else. That happened probably, I think that happened two or three times in that last year and that was, that was difficult because at the, you know I don’t have the experience that I have now and at the time I looked into, I just I may put myself through all of my degrees so I was thinking I need to get a principalship because I have college loans like I have to make this degree work. There is no, this has to work and that was very much a struggle because I remember for months, I was happy to be a teacher but at that point I knew I wanted more, so I think that within struggle, I started to reconnect with the fact that I had been a struggling learner. That I had failed lots of times. That I had people saying that I wasn’t go past the two year school kind of stuff and I think within that struggle is when I started to say you know, I needed to wake up and say “Whew, wait a second. You’ve been through struggles before and the struggles you’re facing now are not anywhere in comparison to the struggles you had when you were younger” with my dad passing away and you know the stuff I went through. You know with my mom and putting food on the table and that kind of stuff. That I think that, within that kind of deep hole that I felt like I was in, I started to dig myself out and say, “You know what, I think it’s time. You have to seriously start pursuing jobs” and that’s what I did.
Jay: Yeah, so would you say that I am, because my question was gonna how did you get yourself out of that, like how did you persevere during those difficult times. Actually I have kind of have two questions.
Dr. DeWitt: Sure.
Jay: One would be how did you remain effective at your current position? You know it’s the one you’re a teacher. How did you stay, kind of knowing that you are meant for more? How did you stay there and still, you know, still bring it every day and you know try to be effective for the kids but then also how did you get through that just from the you know emotional challenges, how did you persevere through all that?
Dr. DeWitt: Yeah, I’m gonna be very honest for this… sadly, I don’t think I was always as effective as I could have been as a teacher and I think that’s one of the places that that I’ll write from every now and then when I’m writing for my blog. I think that at the time, I had a very diverse group of students. We had a high poverty rate and I had 15 classified in 6 regular ed kids. I had looped with the class before that and I don’t know If I was always as effective as I could have been because I did feel like I had a little bit of a chip on my shoulder; that I deserved to be somewhere else. Luckily for me, I have a very honest partner at home who had no problem with kind of giving me a wakeup call. And I also started to think about the idea that I needed to be more effective with the students that I have because they didn’t choose me. They were in my class and my former principal had said, “You know parents are sending the best kids that they’ve got. And these kids were all coming from backgrounds that were much worse than the background I came from because they don’t always have a supportive family.
So when I say I wasn’t as effective as I could have been that had mean for the whole year, that meant, you know for a day and that I would kind of come out of it and then maybe I would pull myself back into that funk. You know, a month later but it wasn’t, I had to be very purposeful and conscious of the fact that these kids were coming in every day and they needed somebody who is going to support them as badly as I needed somebody who was going to support me when I was growing up. And so that was one of my ways to make sure that I was focusing on what needed to be focused on and the question you asked is a little bit deeper than you may have expected because when I applied for the principalship that I ultimately got, I actually was hired the first week of April and the principal who I had been working for that I had a very tumultuous relationship with had said to me, “I hope you’re not gonna be a lame duck now that you’ve got a principal job” and I will tell you that, that hurts quite a bit but I think I also needed to hear that because, because of, because it would be easy to start saying, “Hey, hey hey look at me, I‘m gonna have the status as a principal next” so as hard as it was and as rude as that was probably, it was also something that I think was necessary for me to hear because it was part of that overall plan and my mind that as I went through the next couple of months, I needed to be very effective with the students that I had because they were very happy to know that I was gonna be a principal in another school but it also meant that I had to be a really good teacher when I was with them. So you know, so yeah, it was roughly here but I it was something that I think was necessary for me to hear.
Jay: So it sounds like probably, the times when you were successful and still being a great teacher in the classroom is when you changed the focus from you, which I know would be difficult to do in that situation, but you changed it and thought about what’s gonna be best for the kids in that classroom.
Dr. DeWitt: Yes. That is a very articulate way of saying that. Yes, that’s absolutely true and I think that is, that has been very beneficial to me and then the past couple of years that I’ve been you know running workshops and those kinds of things which I know will get into later that it’s not about me. It’s about the work.
Dr. DeWitt: And so I, I think that that’s sort of where the path was, back then as well you know, I was always very honest with my students about my struggles because and I probably sound very intense for somebody who taught 1st grade but these kids came from really difficult households and to say you know, you need to leave problems at the door kiddo because now you’re in school. When you know some of their parents were prostitutes and dealing drugs and those kinds of things. You know, that’s just not a reality.
Dr. DeWitt: So I thought with my students who were struggling, about the fact that I struggled at their age, and you know I think that they felt something some sort of comfort in knowing that I came from a one parent household because my mom never remarried. And I think they found some sort of comfort in that because unlike when I was growing up and I didn’t have sort of those images to connect with when I was a student, I wanted to provide those some of the images to connect with when I was a teacher and I think that did that very well with my students.
Jay: So we kind of talked about some of the struggles and the more difficult points and what do you think like going through that struggle, what has been some of the biggest take aways that you now used or that you used as an administrator or maybe even now that you used in your daily life?
Dr. DeWitt: Yeah, you know it’s a couple of those I kind of; one is to understand that any none of these whether it’s what I’m writing a blog or when I’m presenting or whenever it’s not about me, it’s got to be about the work and the greater good, you know. And I know that sounds kind of cheesy but it has to be about how is this going to make who you are working with better by the end of the day or by the end of the 3 days or whatever. I think I also learned that failure is something that might hurt at times but I sort of, I don’t find it daunting anymore because I’ve already been there. You know that’s the same with writing books. Yeah, if I get a rejection letter, it’s alright. You know I’ve gotten lots of rejection in my life so I don’t need a lot of yeses. I only need one yes. So it doesn’t matter how many no’s I get but it’s important to look within and say, you know, the mentor that I was talking about before Jim Butterworth. He had said, “Follow your instincts because I think that they’ve always taken you to a good place” and when I am feeling uncomfortable about something or when I feel like I’m being stopped at doing something. I have a, I really want to be able to be reflective and say why I am feeling this way and what do I need to do differently to be successful? And I think some people don’t want to change and that’s why they still find that they’re not successful because they keep doing that same thing over and over again. I think it have been pretty good at you know once again looking at the opportunity cause and say I was not successful when I was doing this so I need to stop doing that and move one and change the direction.
Jay: Yeah yeah. There’s so much from what you just said there. It seems like a lot of times because for what you’re saying. It sounds like you’re kind of saying once you failed a lot but then you found success. It’s kind of like the lesson that you learned from that is if you persevere eventually, good things are going to start happening. And I mean just even the example that we’re talking about earlier just from having a really low GPA and then you know someone instilling a belief in you and you having a little taste of success, helped you, helped propel you on the path to I mean really to where you are now. And the success that you that you’ve had up to this point, it just seems like the message that I’m getting from everything you’re saying is just…it’s amazing to me because it seems like so many people quit and if I just what I can’t go on a little bit further, a little bit longer then that’s when things would have started going the right direction.
Dr. DeWitt: Yeah and it’s also, you know, I’m very fortunate, I really am, because I have been surrounded with incredibly good people and yeah well it’s kind of, well like my mom, because sometimes I would run and I had athletically induced hypoglycemia so sometimes I just wasn’t prepared to do the race that I was going to do and I would come in dead last and my mom would still be up there like clapping and going, “come on, you’re doing great!” I was dead last and I looked pretty pathetic. I’ve always been very fortunate to have family members around me and some very good friends who wanted me, really wanted me to be successful. And some good teachers and coaches so absolutely I am very, I am sad for people who do give up because I don’t think I’m special. I think what happened is that I was just too persistent and I was very, I became very resilient to say, I’m going to keep moving on and I wonder if sometimes people are unsuccessful because they have this idea of what success looks like in their mind and when they don’t hit that point then they give up because it’s not what was in their image and that goes back to why I say some of the best things that happened to me were the things that I never saw coming because not to joke around but you know I have friends that their parents always had very high expectations based on who their siblings were or where their parents went to school and those kind of things. I… people didn’t really have high expectations of me when I was growing up. So I never felt like I was, I never felt like I was letting a lot of people down. You know what I mean? And I know that sounds very strange because we should always have high expectations of kids. It was after I started to show signs of success where people had high expectations of me and that was really good because then I started going, “Wow, this feels very different for me.” And so like I’ve always kind of looked at life saying, I’ve had these incredibly bad things that have happened to me and I’ve had incredibly good things that happened to me and you know life is that way, like not every thing’s gonna come out looking rosy and you have to be prepared for those good times and the bad times and I think that’s where we need to spend time with kids too so they understand what, I know we talked a lot about grit and I’m not sure I’m so crazy about that word. I actually much prefer the work resilient like how can we help them become more resilient because like I always feel that people that gave up, they’re missing out.
Dr. DeWitt: You know, I’m like they’re missing out it. As far as I know this is the only life I’ve got.
Dr. DeWitt: So I want to do as much with it and as good with it as I can possibly do.
Jay: Yeah. So tell me this, I know you’ve, you’re in education for a while and school administration for a while. I’m sure you have some amazing stories that like just some really heartwarming touching stories but if you could take us to just where you consider one of your best if not the best moment in education. Take us to that story.
Dr. DeWitt: You know, I don’t know if I have a best moment. I think and this is gonna sound really corny but so I moved from teaching 2nd grade in the city school to being a principal in a suburban rural school district. Then I had no experience going into this principalship but luckily I had an assistant superintendent who was actually my predecessor. She had been the principal in this building and I had a really good staff and I’d done some proactive work like I was over at the school one night a week after I got hired in April so I knew everybody by the time I start in July 1st. I studied the yearbook. Like I did my work to go in and say “Now I’ve officially started” but every day I would take the kids off the bus and every day, I would go and say good morning to every single classroom in K5 in the school and I just always really loved being able to connect with students so you know I was a principal in an Elementary School and I still yeah I still talked to the parents and my former staff and everybody. I was just really, we went through hard times. We went through budget cuts, school consolidations and teacher layoffs and staff members who had passed away. We went through some really difficult times but that 7 and half years that I was a school principal there was just over all an amazing experience for me. So I don’t really have one moment. I would say that I have a culmination of some really awesome moments as a school principal. I’m not remembering more fun that it was. It was just I feel we had something really special for the 7 and half years we were together and you know I got recognition for some things too but it was how the kids reacted like it was just really cool for me to have kids who could walk into my office and not because they were in trouble but because they wanted to ask for my advice on things and I loved that. Like that’s pretty awesome for a school principal and that goes back to what those two guys were saying. I became the principal that I wanted to be not the one that I thought that I had to be.
Jay: Yeah, I mean that’s great. So what would you say is the biggest difference you noticed between the impact you had as a teacher and the impact that you had as a principal.
Dr. DeWitt: Good question. I think I, my reach was wider as a school principal because I can help mediate between teachers and parents. I can help get parents greater understandings of you know of what learning was about within the school. I had the benefit to get to know kids across kindergarten through 5th grade and know their siblings and you know meet their grandparents and get to know them because they’ll pick them up so for me I think you know, I had my classroom community when I was a teacher and I loved that but as a principal I had a whole school community and there’s a lot of responsibility that came along with that. You know, you can’t hide. You have to even when you’re making, even when you’re making decisions that aren’t very popular. I think that you just, you have to own it. You have to understand that you have a sort of status as a school principal and it doesn’t mean that you use it for evil. It means that you use it to bring people together. I’ve always been a huge fan of servant leadership. And I always felt like and I didn’t always do great job but I always felt like my role as a principal was to serve the students, teachers and parents and not to boss people around. I will never forget when I was a, when I was a teacher and one of the school’s I remember saying to a group of 1st graders and you always have to be careful when you do this, “Why do you think I became a teacher?” and one of the kids said, “So you can boss kids around” oh my gosh that’s exactly what they think. That’s awful! So I want to make sure that people didn’t think I became a principal so I can boss everybody around.
Dr. DeWitt: I wanted to connect. I wanted to connect with people.
Jay: Yeah, that’s great. So, what have you been up to since then? Since you left being a principal, what have you been up to since then?
Dr. DeWitt: Oh not a lot, you know, just kind of laying around, eating bon bons, putting my feet up…
Dr. DeWitt: You know, so I was lucky enough too because I had been writing, I’ve been writing the Finding Common Ground blog for Education Week since the summer of 2011. I actually published a book based on my doctoral research in 2012 with Corwin Press. It’s called Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students and then after that I became pretty close with my editor and he invited me out to Thousand Oaks where Corwin is located. And that was 2013, I actually spent a week with Jim Popham who did a lot of work in teacher evaluation. When I was out there, I actually ended up talking to Mike Soules, the president of Corwin who I had known. I had met him once before. And I talked to him at dinner and said that I thought that he should look at doing short form books around one central idea because that’s why blogs are so powerful these days because you can read today and what you read today, you can put into practice tomorrow and a couple of months later that became the started the connected educator’s series but at the same time that I was at that dinner. It was a very good dinner for me. Kristin Anderson who is the head of professional development at Corwin talked to me about taking a leave of absence from my job to work with John Hattie and John has done the largest met analysis ever done in education. And it involves about 250 million students and his work Visible Learning has been implemented around the world so 3 years or last year or in 2014. Cognition which is the parent company that owns Visible Learning that started Visible Learning: The Professional Development arm of John’s work, invited me to New Zealand. So I went up to Auckland, New Zealand where they’re located and that’s where I met John for the 1st time. And then I found myself in Europe with John about a month later, we did the tour trip in London, Denmark and Sweden.
Jay: Wow. Fun.
Dr. DeWitt: And about a month after that, Jim Knight, somebody I have respected greatly for a very long time who he was reading my blog. He was gone into this relationship with Corwin and he chose about 6 people to do instructional coaching and I was one of them so I started doing instructional coaching trainings and then I ended up, I did about 3 weeks in Australia in February of this year. I’ll be heading back to Australia in February of next year to do John’s Visible Learning work. I’ve been doing some writing with John. My blog I post 3 times a week. I’ve written Flipping Leadership Doesn’t Mean Reinventing the Wheel. And we’re closing up the connected educators series and were working on what’s called the impact series that’s with Michael Fullan and Michael, I’ve known for few years and Andy Hargreaves. He’s an awesome guy. I’ve known Andy for a few years now too. So I’m getting to work with all these you know, really great leaders and learning from them. And I’m running workshops based on visible learning, on instructional coaching, and I’m doing it mostly in North America but occasionally I’m doing it in Australia as well and I will be presenting on my own work in London in January on collaborative leadership so it’s taking sort of the whole idea of instructional leadership and collaboration and putting those together. So I’ll be presenting on them next month and I just finished writing a book on collaborative leadership so hopefully that will be out sometime in probably in the summer of next year. So I’m doing a lot of that stuff, I am very fortunate too as hard as it is to be away from home because a you can probably tell I, I was kind of a homebody as a school teacher and a school principal and now I’m in these extraordinary circumstances but it’s really cool because I get to work with some school districts over a long period of time so I feel like when I’m on the road, I get to see familiar faces and people I really liked and I get to hear their story and that’s you know that’s kind of a cool thing for me because that helps, it helps my own learning. So this is definitely one of those things that I did not see happening. So when I went to, when I went to dinner at that night in 2013, I would not have thought that I would be in the position that I’m in now and I feel very fortunate and especially eve more fortunate knowing you know my background and how I grew up and stuff. Definitely not what I thought it would be but very thankful to be here.
Jay: So what is visible learning? What’s the mission with that?
Dr. DeWitt: So it’s not a program, it’s a framework. John has found there to be 150 influences on learning. Some of them have a negative influence. Others have a very positive. What he found is that the hinge point is once students are making a year’s growth with a year’s input and that hinge point is about.40 affect size. So what we do is we take school districts, state education apartments, regionals, whatever you know whoever is bringing us in. I take them through John’s work and his research and sometimes you know John’s in the country about 20 days a year so I present with John quite a bit when he’s in the US which is awesome for me. But what we do is we take them through John’s research and then we teach them how to collect evidence of their impact and we get them to find the focus for their school building and school classrooms around whatever that influence might be. And it’s teaching them about being more purposeful in the things that they do for example I wrote a blog a few months ago based on the growth mindset which is very popular as we know around the world. But when John was giving a keynote, he had said that the growth mindset versus a fixed mindset has a 0.19 affect size which is well under that hinge point of .40 and I was very interested in that because I’m a huge fan of Carol Dweck’s.
And I wrote a blog about why the growth mindset does not work. That got a lot of their attention. And what that is that we talked about the growth mindset a lot but we still treat kids in very fixed ways. And what we do with visible learning is to make sure that when we talked about yeah, we give feedback to students to understand that feedback is multiple avenues and it also includes what kids give back to us. And do we really give good feedback, or we give praise? It’s starting to focus on things that matter as supposed to the things that don’t; including increasing dialogue classroom and stopping teachers from talking so much. I was definitely guilty of that when I was a teacher. And so it’s really, it’s a very huge undertaking because John’s research involves right now about 12 hundred meta-analyses and like I said 250 million students. So that was the Cliff notes version that I gave you. We are spending in some school districts, we’re spending 3 years and other schools we’re giving them a starting point on what you want to look at and sometimes it’s just as simple as, “How do we really talk about learning” because when we asked kids what does a good learner looked like, very often we will talk about compliance things – sitting in your seat, raising your hand, doing what the teacher said. As 0pposed to talking about what we’ve been talking about – perseverance and having those learner dispositions to know what to do when they don’t know what to do.
Dr. DeWitt: So that’s the visible learning piece.
Jay: Interesting. Very interesting. I’m gonna roll through real quick. I’m in a transition and go through some rapid fire questions if you’re ready for those?
Dr. DeWitt: I am ready.
Jay: Alright, so first of all what’s the best leadership advice you’ve ever received?
Dr. DeWitt: Todd Winicker, the best line I use as a quote all the time and I know Todd very well. The best quotation that I ever read was when the principal sneezes; the whole school catches the cold. And when I read that, I knew what he meant and it’s that we have to understand that there’s a school leader. Our impact can either be very positive or very negative and we should act accordingly.
Jay: What would you say is your biggest strength or what was your biggest strength as a school administrator?
Dr. DeWitt: I think empathy. I think the whole idea of trying to get an understanding of where people, where even the angry parents walking in, where they were coming from and trying to get an understanding of why they were upset. So that goes with students, teachers or parents. So I think I, I think I did a fairly good job at understanding that.
Jay: Ok. Is there a book or two that you’ve recommend for other school leaders?
Dr. DeWitt: Well I’d love to say Flipping Leadership Doesn’t Mean Reinventing The Wheel because you know that’s mine. That’s seems kind of self-serving but I you know, I’m gonna be serious about that one because I think that we have to look at the structures we have in place. I figure out really practical ways to make sure our focus is about learning so I’m very proud to have written that one but yeah, I really liked, I really loved Michael Fullan’s book; The Principal. That came out of couple of years ago. I thought that it offered many practical steps but so it’s called The Principal: 3 Keys to Maximize and Impact and also I just mentioned Todd Whitaker. I know that his book is well over ten years old now but it was What Great Principal’s Do Differently: 18 Things That Matter Most Now. I think now it’s like 21 things that matter most. Still think that book is very relevant.
Jay: Yeah, and I’m gonna put your book as well as those others that you mentioned to the show notes so people can connect that way.
Dr. DeWitt: Ok.
Jay: Is there a or do you have a technology tool or an app or software that you just felt like you can’t live without that you’d recommend to other school leaders?
Dr. DeWitt: Absolutely! I have a couple so how about I say them really quick. Number 1 is TouchCast. When I flipped my leadership and I started flipping my faculty meetings and my communication to parents, I used TouchCast which is a free in Ipad and he has come a long way since I started doing that in 2012. It comes with green strains and just so many cool features that you can use. Number 2 is Twitter. I still find Twitter to be very very relevant. Because I connect with people all over the world and it’s just been such a and honestly that what has helped me make my blogs so successful because I think I tapped into Twitter net work that just has been really incredible over the past 3 and half year so that’s, that’s another one that I find to be really important. But I would say those were the two most important for me.
Jay: Ok. What one piece of advice would you have for working with the students that you serve, you know in the school?
Dr. DeWitt: Well, I would give the advice that you just said, “Remember that you are there to serve the students” and they’re not there to serve you.
Jay: Very good. What about working with the other educators, the teachers there?
Dr. DeWitt: Once again, you have to understand that not everybody is in your place. You have to understand that people are coming from different places. There’s a really good dissertation that I read lately and yes I did just say that I read the dissertation for fun but it’s about Teacher Efficacy that’s by a researcher name Rachel Eells who did her doctoral dissertation, she finished in 2011, at Loyola University and she talks about teacher efficacy. To understand that very often we are looking at problems as if we’re going to compare our school to another school. John Hattie has written about this quite a bit in the The Politics of Destruction as well, is that we need to stop comparing ourselves to others schools and we need to start looking at the teachers within our school. Because there is a huge discrepancy between our teachers that need the most growth, I’m not saying failing teachers. I’m very careful to say, the teachers that need the most growth and they are high fliers and I think that we need to understand that at faculty meetings and other conversations and whatever structures we have in place that some people are coming in and they don’t, they don’t have the same skillset than you do. They don’t have the same mindset that you do. But it doesn’t mean that they can’t be successful with kids and right now, those teachers that feel a low level of efficacy, don’t feel like they can make an impact on students and we have to do something about that. So what opportunities to collaborate are we offering them? And I’m not talking about release time and I’m not just talking about PLC’s and great level meetings. I’m talking about what kind of structures do we have set-up in our faculty meetings. Are they gonna help people come together instead of be ripped apart?
Jay: That’s good. What is the best way for people to connect with you if they’ve like to after the show?
Dr. DeWitt: Twitter would be great @petermdewitt, I would definitely be there. The best way to connect with me, they could also send me an email. My email address is pmdewitt518(at)gmail.com.
Jay: Ok so last question, if you could go back to when you were a teacher and you had just made the decision to move into school leadership. If you could have a time machine and go back to that point, what advice would you want to give to your younger self?
Dr. DeWitt: That’s a great question. Stop losing so much sleep worrying that it’s all gonna work out ok. I lost lots of sleep over you know whether it’s a student in my classroom or whether it’s me paying bills. All of those kind of things because like I said, I put myself through all of my degrees, I lost lots of sleep. And I think that I guess I’m glad that I didn’t see all of these coming but I would tell myself to relax a little bit; let yourself off the hook.
Jay: Great advice. I could use that myself.
Dr. DeWitt: Believe me. I still have to say it to myself when I’m going you know when I’m going somewhere; let yourself off the hook.
Jay: Yeah. That’s great. Well, edu-leaders this has been a great interview today. For the show notes of today’s show and other resources visit educatorslead.com and type the word peter into the search tool to find his show notes. Peter, thanks you for sharing your journey with us today!
Dr. DeWitt: Thank you for having me.
Jay: Absolutely! And that represents another episode of Educators Lead.
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Educators Lead is a podcast created to help launch educators into the next level of leadership. This show is for you if you are interested in educational leadership as an assistant principal, principal, superintendent, teacher or someone who hopes to be a school leader one day. Educators Lead offers inspiration and practical advice to help you lead more effectively. Jay Willis interviews school leaders weekly to discuss why and when these educators made the decision to move into school leadership, challenges along the journey, and stories that made it all worthwhile. Educators Lead is a great resource for any educator looking to make a greater impact.
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