Collective leadership has two basic elements. First, there is a collective: a group of teachers, administrators, parents, and others with a sense of community and shared purpose. Second, that collective is granted or creates opportunities to lead. Lead whom? Lead each other towards actualizing the school’s vision and mission. Seems simple, but working at UCLA Community School, a teacher-powered pilot school with established autonomies, taught me that collective leadership is more than voting on issues. Collective leadership is about creating a culture where everyone is engaged, asking questions, providing alternative solutions, and seeing other point of views during professional development, committee work, faculty meetings, and other collaborative spaces.
Collective leadership is about creating a culture where everyone is engaged, asking questions, providing alternative solutions, and seeing other point of views.
My first four years of teaching was at a traditional comprehensive high school. Faculty tuned out meetings, and time was instead used to catch up on grading. It made sense why they did this. After a long day of teaching, mentoring, and problem solving, why go to a meeting where someone will talk at me from the front of the room? If I’m asked to engage, will there be conflict? What if my ideas are dismissed?
Nancy Garcia, a lead teacher at my school, always reminded me: “We must make sure that the meetings we facilitate are a safe place for teachers to engage in discussion, to take risks, and to lead each other.” This helped me tremendously. Collective leadership requires a sense of shared purpose and shared purpose starts when people feel safe enough to join the conversation. This does not have to be complicated or time consuming, but it does require thoughtful planning around two things: (1) the activity everyone will participate in and (2) the questions that teachers will consider and discuss (these are questions specifically about building shared purpose).
Here are 10 activities schools can do to break down walls and to build a sense of community and shared purpose:
- Check-in with colleagues. Plan 5 minutes for open-ended conversation. Share a breakthrough you had this week. Ask a question you are grappling with.
- Go on a community walk. Walk around the neighborhood and then debrief about the experience .
- Read the school’s vision, mission, and core values. Discuss with faculty and ask: which part makes you the most excited?
- Create seating where people face each other. Sit in a large circle, pose a question, and use a talking piece to give everyone a chance to share or hold space.
- Break bread. Eat–or drink–together.
- Learn together. Read an article or listen to a podcast, then discuss. Which part resonated with you? With which part did you disagree? What are the implications?
- Acknowledge small successes. Plan time in faculty meetings for teachers and staff to give shout-outs to each other.
- Celebrate together. Throw a party with food and games. Laughter builds solidarity.
- Grieve together. When tragedies happen, call a meeting. Share the incident, sit in silence, and share some words. Be together.
- Plan to end the meeting early. Closing early–even by 5 minutes–gives faculty time to reflect and express gratitude and new learnings.
These simple activities will not change a school’s climate over night. However, safe conversations build the culture so that collective leadership can thrive. Teams will begin to lead each other by asking difficult questions, facing areas of inequity, challenging assumptions, and moving forward in building a school that meets the needs of the students and the community.
Rebekah M. Kang is a 6th-12th grade Special Education teacher at UCLA Community School in Los Angeles, California. As one of the founding teachers, Rebekah has collaboratively developed a few signature learning programs such as the Seminar Program and Integration Program for students with disabilities. Rebekah is a Teacher-Powered Schools Ambassador, a National Board Certified Teacher, and a UCLA Writing Project Fellow. Follow Rebekah on Twitter: @rmkang110