Collective leadership: A call to action

Over the past two months, a collection of teachers, administrators, instructional coaches, and educational leaders from around the nation have grappled with these very questions in CTQ’s blogging roundtable discussion on collective leadership. And from that discussion, I’ve learned that the time for collective leadership is now.  Here’s what schools and districts need to make the shift from traditional leadership to collective.

by: Brian Curtin

Click here to read Barnett Berry’s introduction to Brian as the leader of CTQ’s blogging roundtable on collective leadership. Brian is an English teacher at Schaumburg High School in Illinois. In 2013, Brian was named Illinois Teacher of the Year. 

In a nation divided, we need collective leadership more than ever. In education, collective leadership is the idea that educators and administrators share the leadership responsibility of identifying challenges, addressing challenges, and mobilizing the best talent to the places where it has the most impact. What this looks like in practice can vary, but the end result is often the same: better teaching, more effective leading, and improved student outcomes.

Given the abundance of new initiatives and educational theories, I’ve often wondered: What is the most effective way to best serve my students? Exclusively within my classroom?  Serving on committees?  Sitting at the leadership table?  Engaging in professional development? And regardless of where, how do I best participate in that work?

So many teacher leaders are asking: What is the most effective way to serve my students? Where should I devote my time?

Over the past two months, a collection of teachers, administrators, instructional coaches, and educational leaders from around the nation have grappled with these very questions in CTQ’s blogging roundtable discussion: Collective Leadership. And from that discussion, I’ve learned that the time for collective leadership is now.  Here’s what schools and districts need to make the shift from traditional leadership to collective.

Create and honor clear, shared values

While creating a set of values is common for most schools/districts, it’s not always common for teachers to be involved in that process. They should be.

Teachers are not always involved in creating the shared values of a school and district. They should be.

After establishing these values, all staff members must accept them and put personal preferences aside to ensure that all work supports these shared values.  Why must they do this?  Because they were given an opportunity to be a part of the value-creation process.

Finally, all decisions from selecting professional development opportunities for staff to selecting resources available for students must reflect those values. By reinforcing these values through concrete action, schools move from conceptualization to actualization. When decisions align with shared values, trust and unity are built among members of the school community. Both trust and unity are necessary foundations for any high-functioning organization.

Encourage healthy conflict through conversation

With trust and unity comes the ability to really engage in healthy conflict through conversation.  But to do this, first you must listen.  Listening is hard, especially when you wholeheartedly disagree.  But that’s the most important time to listen.  Why?  Because you want to be heard, right?  So you should listen as well.  Approach the person without judgement.  Sum up what you’ve heard them say.  Show them you understand why they feel that way.  Now they’ll be prepared to listen to you.  Without listening, it’s not conversation, it’s an argument, and the goal in an argument is to win; the goal in conversation is to be understood.  There’s a difference.

Furthermore, healthy conflict builds perspective and progress. If decision-makers surround themselves with completely like-minded individuals, the risk is they may overlook the potential impact of their decisions on others in their school. Additionally, the possibility for multiple solutions to a singular concern is decreased considerably, which means the chosen solution may not be the best solution. I agree with Nader Twal in that there’s no single perspective that is all encompassing because “No one person has all the knowledge, skills, and experience to meet the needs of everyone in the system. That’s why collective leadership is important.”

Open seats at the table

Know someone with untapped potential? A good idea? Or even a harsh criticism? Offer them a seat at the leadership table. Many times, these folks might respond with “they wouldn’t listen to me” or “I’m never asked for my opinion, so why should I bother?” These kinds of opinions reflect a limited mindset about leadership because there’s a perceived disconnect between the “decision-makers” and the “decision-recipients.” Those sentiments fade away with collective leadership because it empowers teachers with agency.

Offering teachers a seat at the table can be a scary proposition for administrators and teachers alike.  Any deviation from business-as-usual should be a bit scary.  But as Justin Minkel puts it, “It’s not about a seat at the table, It’s what you do once you’re there that counts.”  To encourage a culture of openness, all participants must set aside personal grievances or agendas and focus on solutions based on shared values.  They must maintain established norms, listen, engage, and offer solutions-focused contributions.

Advocate and celebrate one another

If all educators don’t support one another, who will? Teaching is not a competitive sport, and it’s certainly not a “zero sum” profession. One teacher’s success does not come at the expense of another’s. So encourage each other by recognizing and celebrating one another. Most teachers are intrinsically motivated. I can’t imagine a single teacher who thinks, “I’m in it for the accolades and fame!” Conversely, I’ve also never heard a teacher say, “Eck!  Mr. Smith said he loved my idea and wanted to know more about it…The nerve of that guy!”

So let’s remember: we’re human. As people with emotions, we feel energized by support, no matter how small the recognition may be.

Feelings of appreciation build confidence, which is the necessary currency for risk-taking. And collective leadership requires risk-taking. Collective leadership calls upon teachers to take a risk by moving outside of their comfort zone, and administrators take a risk by inviting ideas that may challenge their authority. In either case, the rewards of collective leadership far outweigh the risks.

Collective leadership NOW

The decisions that guide our schools are too important to be made in isolation, and the challenges are too pressing to wait. The time for collective leadership is now. When identifying challenges, brainstorming solutions, and mobilizing talent, collective leadership will elicit the best solutions to the most challenging obstacles. It draws upon the best talent among the collective group. And that talent currently works hard inside our own school buildings, waiting to be tapped, waiting to be asked, and waiting to lead.


Brian’s post concludes CTQ’s blogging roundtable on collective leadership. To join the conversation, comment on this blog and read the other blogs in this series. You can find a list of all posts on this page. Follow CTQ on Facebook and Twitter and use #CTQCollab to join the conversation on social media. The next blogging roundtable is on teacher shortages

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