This post explores how collective leadership can be used as a lever for equity.

I am haunted by an unsettling feeling I experienced on a recent school visit.

Upon entering the building, I was greeted by a series of shoe prints taped neatly to the floor, showing students precisely where to walk. In this school, students are required to walk on the right side of the hallway, eyes forward, in complete and orderly silence. 

I name the unsettling feeling: This school looks and sounds like a prison. This school is preparing students to be compliant inmates.

Just to be clear, I am not talking about the precautions needed to ensure safety related to the spread of COVID. No, I am talking about an environment that supports the command and control of students separate from safety precautions.

Do I think that the adults are consciously preparing students to be inmates? No.

But a lack of consciousness does not justify the result: a climate and culture that values compliance over creativity. Sameness over uniqueness. Order and control above all.

Currently, the education system in the United States is driven by compliance, embodying test-and-punish practices. This system, based on an outdated industrial model, requires teachers, and thereby students, to do as they are told and “follow the rules.” The system encourages teachers and students to believe that someone above them in the hierarchy knows what is best for them and is responsible for solving their problems.

The consequences of a decades-long adherence to this model are reflected in real time in our current political climate. Millions of people engaged in the recent election with the mindset that a single person alone could make things “great”; that they could rely on someone above them in the hierarchy to solve their problems. Now millions are being asked to be compliant and count on this person to “save” us all. And we are already seeing that the most vulnerable among us are becoming targets of hate and violence, while simultaneously being told to be compliant.

Our students don’t need to learn to look to someone else to solve their problems. Nor do they need to learn to be compliant, especially as their dignity and rights are being violated. Rather, they need to learn to advocate for themselves, problem solve, and take responsibility for how their lives unfold.

How are our kids supposed to learn these skills when they often see their teachers being told what to do by others in positions of power “above” them? When are they supposed to learn to question what is right and wrong when they see their teachers being expected to be compliant? When will students learn to solve their own problems when they see their teachers not being trusted to problem solve for themselves and their students?

Our most vulnerable students need a different kind of teacher than what the current system values. They need teachers who are leaders, not followers. They need teachers who are problem solvers, not those who look to someone above them to solve difficult problems. They need teachers who can advocate for themselves and their students, not those who are compliant.

Collective leadership allows students to see just that — significant adults modeling the types of skills and dispositions that students need to develop. When educators experience conditions that allow them to problem solve, question the status quo, and develop solutions to their own challenges, they create these conditions for the students they serve.

Collective leadership translates to student leadership.

Take my colleague Jozette Martinez, a teacher leader who works in a collectively-led school. She recently supported her students to create a forum for their voices to be heard. Rather than arranging for her students to attend a rally, she supported her students to plan, design, and organize a rally. It is this type of teacher that our most vulnerable students need — teachers who can model all of the skills and dispositions our students need AND create the climate for students to learn those same skills.

Now more than ever it is imperative that schools are redesigned to serve our most vulnerable students. Schools must provide the conditions that help all students develop the knowledge and skills to advocate for themselves and their communities. Our schools must encourage students to question the status quo, develop problem solving skills, and take responsibility for how their lives unfold. They should be noisy, messy, and active places where educators and students are learning and leading together.

CTQ can support your school or district’s efforts to design and implement collective leadership. Click here to connect with us and find out more and check out the Collective Leadership Playbook.

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