Interview with Collaborative Leadership Expert Peter DeWitt
peter-dewittPeter DeWitt (Ed.D) is a former teacher and principal, who now runs workshops and provides keynotes focusing on collaborative leadership, fostering inclusive school climates, and connected learning. He works for many different organisations as a visible learning trainer, instructional coach and writer, with his articles appearing in education journals at the state, national and international level.

His latest book, Collaborative Leadership: Six Influences That Matter Most, unpacks six leadership factors in Collaborative Leadership, all framed through the lens of John Hattie’s research. We are fortunate enough to have a moment of Peter's time today to talk a bit more about his book and leadership in general. So without further ado, allow me to introduce today's guest, Peter DeWitt

Hi Peter, thank you for joining us in our Expert Insights section. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do?

Thanks for inviting me to interview with you. Presently, I am an author and consultant working in North America and internationally. I run Visible Learning workshops and provide keynotes for John Hattie, instructional coaching workshops for Jim Knight, and do my own work in safeguarding LGBT students as well as leadership. Although I live in upstate NY (USA), I’ve been fortunate to work in the UK, North America and Australia.

Besides running workshops and providing keynotes, I co-created the Connected Educator’s Series (Corwin) which were 21 short form books centered around technology and social media. I’m editing the Impact Series (Corwin) which is another short-form series including thought leaders such as Michael Fullan, Andy Hargreaves, Russ Quaglia and Viviane Robinson.

Previous to being an author and consultant I was a public school teacher for 11 years and a school principal for 8 years, which provided me with experiences that I will always be proud of and never forget.

When did you become interested in the different sub-types of leadership?

For me it all started when I was doing my leadership training before I became a principal and it evolved from there. Over time I grew as a leader because of the school community I worked in, and I did a lot of research through those years because I wanted to be better in my position. I felt as though our school community deserved my best work. However, I have become even more interested in it since writing my Finding Common Ground blog for Education Week, and working with Hattie has opened doors for me that I never thought were there because of his connection to education as a whole. I want more from our leaders because I believe they can have a large positive impact on the school climate.

Your new book, Collaborative Leadership: Six Influences That Matter Most, has just been released - could you tell us a bit more about it?

I’m really excited about it. This is my 3rd book with Corwin Press and I’m always thankful for their support. They are the reason why I get to work with Hattie and Knight. For those readers who aren’t familiar with Hattie’s work, it involves the largest meta-analysis of what works in education, which directly impacted the writing of the book. In 2009 his researched focused on 138 influences on learning (i.e. classroom discussion, feedback, etc.) and then evolved to 150 a few years ago, and recently has been updated to include 195 influences on learning.

I have heard so much about transformational leadership and instructional leadership over the years, but I always felt that it focused too much on the leader calling the shots. Whereas collaborative leadership focuses on all the stakeholders in a school community, and incorporates some of Andy Hargreaves' thinking on leading from the middle. In a way it combines all the best of those leadership styles and expands on what I believe leadership can offer to a school community.

The six influences that matter most really came out of the work I do presently. After working with so many leaders around North America and Australia on Hattie’s work I was often asked where they should start because the sheer magnitude of Hattie’s work can be intimidating. So I chose 6 of Hattie’s 195 influences that I thought would be a great focal point for schools. Those areas are instructional leadership (.42), assessment capable learners (1.44), collective teacher efficacy (1.57), professional development (.51), parental engagement (.49) and feedback (.75).

What makes this book different from other leadership books out there?

collaborative-leadershipFirstly, it is the use of 6 of Hattie’s influences. John’s research is being used around the world and I’m fortunate enough to work closely with him and call him a friend. I have learned a great deal from him, and have had the opportunity to hear the back story on a lot of his research.

Secondly, I am a very practical guy who was in the role of teacher and principal for a considerable amount of time, so that helps me to offer a lot of practical suggestions to school leaders. I write about 3 blogs a week that are all under 1,100 words and they help me keep a really sharp focus on topics, and I feel it’s a great way to offer practical advice and action steps.

At this time I feel like there aren’t many other leadership books that use Hattie’s research from someone who works closely with him, and they’re certainly not written by people who spent a long time in the role of a teacher and principal. I feel like those elements make this book different.

For those who are unfamiliar with the term, what exactly is collaborative leadership?

Collaborative leadership includes the purposeful actions we take as leaders to enhance the instruction of teachers, build deep relationships with all stakeholders and deepen our learning together. It includes the managerial side, as well as instructional and transformational leadership, and is the greater whole of all of those parts.

How can collaborative leadership impact organisations in a positive way?

Great question! I believe that collaborative leadership engages the unengaged because it’s all about understanding where the different stakeholders are coming from at the same time we keep our focus on learning. Hattie has long been saying that in education we focus too much on adult issues, and we need to put our focus on learning.

However, it’s important for us to understand the human element of all of this, and part of that is understanding that we all come to school with a story, regardless of whether we are an adult or the child. I’m a guy that is the youngest of five, and was retained in elementary school. My dad died when I was in fifth grade and my mom went back to get her GED when I was in sixth grade. I struggled throughout school and barely graduated from high school. I was actually ranked fourth from last in my high school class. After failing out of two community colleges I was fortunate enough to find two mentors at the right time and changed things around, ultimately leading to getting my doctorate with a 4.0 grade point average.

Many of the parents who I worked with as a teacher didn’t understand schooling and had a hard time even walking in the door because they were intimidated. They brought their own baggage with them and sometimes it worked as a barrier to helping engage their children in school. It was important for me as a teacher and leader to understand their story, to knock down the barrier, and partner with them on their child’s education.

Sadly, as I spend more and more time running workshops and reading research, I find that we have teachers, students and parents who don’t know where to fit in with school culture, and much of it is wrapped up in self-efficacy (Bandura), which is part of the focus of my book. When we engage the unengaged we can do great things, and collaborative leadership helps meet that goal.

Do you think it’s important for everyone to develop leadership skills to some extent?

I definitely do. Leadership is not just about running a school. It’s about going from being compliantly engaged in a process to being authentically engaged. Whether we are talking about schooling or our personal lives, we need to step up and be leaders. We need to take control over the lives we live and not sit compliantly by as others always tell us what to do. I believe our current political system in the United States is a great example of how we have sat by on the sidelines and others have taken over. We need to authentically engage students, parents, and teachers to take the lead when they can.

What common leadership mistakes have you come across in educational establishments?

I’ve seen leaders make lots of mistakes. The simple examples would be when they send blanket e-mails to all staff addressing an issue that was really meant for a couple of teachers. I’ve seen leaders waste teachers' time by doing formal teaching observations but providing little to no feedback, or wasting their time by having faculty meetings that focused on a list that could have been e-mailed.

However, I made lots of mistakes when I was a leader as well. Most of them centered around not really hearing the people who were talking to me. When I entered into a conversation early on in my career I expected people to have the same information and skillset than me, and when they didn’t I would get frustrated. Over time I learned that leadership is really about listening more than we talk so we can get a deep understanding of the issue.

Do you think your leadership style should change depending on the environment you’re in?

I think leadership styles may change depending on the people we are working with, which goes back to my last answer. Not everyone has the same understanding, level of efficacy or needs, and leaders have to understand that before they start providing advice or giving answers.

What do you wish people knew about collaborative leadership?

I wish people knew that they need to be more than instructional leaders. I’ve often felt like we wanted parents to support us but we never went deep enough to support them. That takes collaborative leadership. I want struggling students, as well as those who are marginalized for some reason, to understand that we want them in school every day and we want to know their future goals. That takes collaborative leadership. Lastly, I want teachers, who have been provided little voice over the last few years because of accountability measures, to know we respect their voice and want their input because that leads to a stronger school community, and that takes collaborative leadership.

And finally, do you have anything else you’d like to share with our readers? 

I am hopeful that they will pick up the book, give it a read, and adopt some of the strategies that I write about. I’m a big fan of not reinventing the wheel and I think readers will find that many of these strategies fit well into what they are already doing.

Thank you so much for the opportunity to interview with you.

And thank you for stopping by, Peter - it was great chatting to you!

Peter's book, Collaborative Leadership: Six Influences That Matter Most, is available to order now on Amazon. If you'd like to connect with Peter, you can find him on Twitter at @PeterMDeWitt.