Peter DeWitt

What Kind of School Do You Want to Lead?

Experience isn't just about what you bring to the table as the leader. It's about what you learn when you're there.

Lately, I have been thinking a great deal about my first few years as an administrator. It seems so long ago, although it has only been seven years. The truth is that I never wanted to be a school principal. As a public school educator, I wanted to be in the classroom with students. They have long referred to it as "in the trenches."

Principals were the ones who sat in their offices and dealt with parents. They disciplined students. They wore suits and had to attend administration meetings. It almost seemed as though they always had to see the worst part of people during the day. Whether it was upset teachers, angry parents, or misbehaved students. I wanted more out of my day.

In my pre-teaching classes, I learned that teachers should never send their students to the principal because it was a sign that the teacher lacked classroom management. I had many preconceived notions in my head when it came to school leaders and felt as though I lacked the skill set to run a building. School leaders seemed so ... old.

In my second year of teaching in a public school, and fourth overall, my first principal approached me about getting a master's degree in educational leadership. He knew I was travelling over an hour to get a master's in history, and I was not very engaged in the program. I simply said no. I told him that I never wanted to be a principal, so I transferred to Marist College in Poughkeepsie and earned a degree in educational psychology instead. After all, I wanted to understand child development so I could better meet the needs of my students.

Then one day, while at the gym talking to two retired educators whom I had known for a few years, one of them suggested I become a principal. We had been talking about my future. Yes, it was odd to talk about my future at the gym, but they were good guys and we often talked after a workout.

Once again, I found myself saying no to the idea of being a principal. When they pushed the conversation more and asked me why not, I replied that school leaders didn't really work with kids and they were only there to discipline students and control teachers. I was naïve about the role that principals really had in schools. I was young and had an "Us vs. Them" attitude. It was clearly time to stretch my thinking.

My friends called me on it. One of them looked at me and said, "What if you could run a school the way you want?" After many conversations at the gym, he knew I wanted to encourage students and teachers to take risks, and I wanted to think outside the box. I didn't want to stick to textbooks and lesson plans. As a first grade teacher, I wanted academic freedom ... yes, even in first grade.

"What if you could run a school the way you want?" stayed with me for a few more years and became my focus for my leadership training. I often wondered what kind of school I wanted to lead. To be honest, even when I was taking administration courses I wasn't sure that I wanted to be a principal.

It's different when you're in the role of the school leader. As a teacher, I had opinions about what I would do differently if I were the principal. When it became apparent that I could apply for leadership roles because I had the degree to become one, my attitude changed. I had a better understanding of how difficult the job was on a day to day basis.

Leadership Experience

Experience isn’t just about what you bring to the table as the leader. It's about what you learn when you're there. Leaders don't know it all when they enter into the job. They don't even know it all after they have been in the role for a few years. We have all taken on the role of being lifelong learners. There isn't any harm in admitting when you don't have all of the answers. In these days of high-stakes learning and accountability, there will be times when we do not have the answers. The excitement is in trying to find them.

My first few years of my leadership experience I was nervous, scared, confident, eager, and insecure. Many nights I couldn't sleep because I was worried about decisions I made and decisions I had to make, but I tried to put on a different face when I entered school. Todd Whitaker (2003) wrote, "Effective principals understand that they are the filters for the day-to-day reality of school. Whether we are aware of it or not, our behavior sets the tone. If people see us running down the hallway screaming 'Fire!', it will be the talk of the school for days, even if it was a false alarm" (p. 27).

Over the years, I have discovered some important aspects to leadership. I wrote about them in my Finding Common Ground blog at Education Week. They are:

  • Be human. People make mistakes. Don't crucify them because of it. Address it if it is a continuing issue.
  • Have tough conversations. As the school leader you will have to have tough conversations with students, staff, and parents. Do it respectfully. The biggest mistake new leaders—and veteran ones—make is that they will call someone out the next time an issue arises. Don't wait until the next time.
  • Instill laughter into your everyday practices. Whether you are an elementary, middle, or high school leader, you get to work with kids. There is no reason why every day can't bring laughter. These days it's more important than ever.
  • Surround yourself with good people. I am nothing without my staff at school and support system at home. Your job will be much harder if you do not bond with those around you.
  • Check in on people. Don't get wrapped up in your own issues. Your job is to serve those you lead, which includes students, staff, and parents.
  • Complete teacher observations with integrity. Too often people look at observations as something to check off the list. Don't do that, because they do matter. Focus on the parts of instruction that were engaging and the other parts that need work. If you don't, who will?
  • Encourage teachers to be who they are. We have too many cookie-cutter approaches to education these days. Encourage teachers to be different. Encourage them to take risks. They'll thank you AND they'll encourage their students to do the same.

In the End

Warren Bennis says, "Leaders are by definition, innovators. They do things other people haven't done or don't do. They do things in advance of other people. They make new things. They make old things new. Having learned from the past, they live in the present, with one eye on the future." Even in our present constraints we must still remember that.

School leaders will not just create opportunities for students to be college- and career-ready, they will take it one step forward and, in the words of Will Richardson (2013), they will help students become "learning ready." All students deserve those opportunities.

There are many times that I look back on those days where I was resistant to becoming a school leader, and I'm thankful that I was surrounded by people who believed in me more than I believed in myself. I was not born into a family of educators and did not have any relatives who were principals. I learned that that didn't matter.

It's important that school leaders understand the job that they have ahead of them because it is not easy, but it is well worth it. Our students and teachers need the most-prepared school administrators to lead them, those who lead with compassion and take the time to get a better understanding of all the stakeholders within a school setting.

My question to you is, "What kind of school do you want to lead?"



Bennis, W. (2003). On becoming a leader. New York: Basic Books.

Richardson, W. (2013). Students first, no stuff. Educational Leadership, 70(6). Retrieved from,-Not-Stuff.aspx

Whitaker, T. (2003). What great principals do differently: Fifteen things that matter most. Larchmont, NY: Eye on Education.


Peter DeWitt, EdD, is an elementary school principal in New York and is the School Administrators Association of New York State's 2013 New York State Outstanding Educator. He writes the Finding Common Ground blog for Education Week and is the author of Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students (Corwin Press). Connect with DeWitt on his website and on Twitter @PeterMDeWitt.

Comments (3)

Alice KS

April 11, 2013

Wow, yes!!! Thank you for this awesome post. I shared it on my Facebook page (Alice KS-Educator). I am currently the Director of Ed Research & Staff Development at a bilingual school (Mandarin-English) in Taiwan. I am striving to do that very list you wrote here. And I am trying very, very hard to create culture at our school that TRUSTS teachers & treats them as talent to be developed & nurtured, instead of as people who need to be watched. I know that teachers blossom with support & opportunities for leadership, collaboration, & camaraderie; and they wither under enforced policing & negative reinforcement. What can I do to help our principal & academic director to see teachers as hard-working professionals who were trained for their job & have the most knowledge about the students & learning objectives & curriculum?

Peter DeWitt

April 11, 2013

Hi Alice,

Thanks for the compliment and for commenting. The most important things that school leaders can do is listen to their teachers and get into the classrooms to see them in action. It does not mean that leaders and teachers will always agree, but they must be having conversations about what is happening in their worlds.
I would also say that leaders need to be aware of how their teachers are feeling. I’m a fan of body language and I can look at a staff member and see by their facial expression how they are feeling (i.e. angry, sad, depressed, etc.) and it is my job to help them through it.
I hope that helps.



November 26, 2013

Hi Peter,
Thanks for the great article!  I, too, am hesitant to take on a leadership role as a principal.  It is a daunting job, to say the least.  I do have experience in both elementary and secondary schools so I believe that will be an asset.  Your advice is well-stated.  As leaders, we need to be able to have courageous conversations with our staff, students and parents.  If we come from a place of caring and integrity, these conversations should hopefully be easier.  I agree that laughter is always good for the soul.  Humour should be injected into daily life to keep motivation up and morale high.  Surrounding yourself with good people is a must.  No one person can do this job alone.  A strong admin team is definitely a requirement, as are teacher leaders.  How do you develop strong teacher leaders in your school?

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