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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  • stillja27

    Thinking about leadership.

    We have a politically diverse group at my school right now (both in building staff and community). There were some rising tensions right before and after the election. However, I fully believe we have kept our focus on students every step of the way. There are several things, many of which you bring up that have helped us to remain connected. We have our commitment to our work and the roles we all play within the school. We know we are here for the students first, and there are leaders in many different roles in our building. I would say our next big accomplishment is listening. We are listening to each other, to differing opinions, and listening to our community too, even when we would rather not. As, you state, “listening is hard”, but we really need to listen, not just wait our turn to speak. The final component and probably most important is that we have a shared vision of what our school’s role in the community is. It was built together, and it didn’t come over night. We have a strong leader who is not afraid to give us the pieces to build this vision and time to co-construct. We have a leader who is able to step in and shift the focus when it isn’t headed in the right direction and somehow step right back out when it is.

    • BrianCurtin


      Thanks for the comment, Jason! I think you nailed it with the idea of remaining "connected".  That's the goal in any organization, isn't it?  To feel connected.  I'm happy to hear you've noticed such a strong willingness to listen to one another, too.  It's amazing what can happen when educators open up their ears and minds to various perspectives.  Best of luck with your school's continued connectedness!

  • CourtneyBerendes


    The part the resognated the most with myself thinking about where I currently teach is the section on advocating and celebrating one another. Sometimes I think forget that we are all in this for the same goal, student achievement. Sometimes I think teachers at my school feel they are on an island and know what is best. This upsets me because many of us work with students. We need to collaborate with one another and make decicions for the child, not to prove someone is right or wrong.  I battle with this daily and I strive to make a positive difference in my role as a teacher at my school. Teaching is not competitive, I want to take action to remind everyone of this but I'm not sure how to go about it without stepping on anyones toes or hurting feelings. I feel if we collaborated more as a staff, we would have more success in academics and even behaviors. We need to support one another because we are not in this alone. 

  • CourtneyBerendes


    The section that stood out the most to me was advocate and celebrate one another. Teaching is not a competitve sport, we are all working towards the same goal. We all contribute to student success, general education teacher, special education teacher, specialist teacher, and administration. I am blessed to work at a school where this is evident. As a teacher leader I want to continue take opportunities to celebrate one another. There are days where we can get down and worn out because our job can be so demanding. I want to be the change at my school. I want to encourage and celebrate so our morale can be boosted and continue through the year with a positive attitude.

  • lewisthomas

    Leadership qualities

    Once i read a beautiful quote regarding the leadership skills and after that i literally thought that it is true if you want to lead your team and want to be a leader in any organization or in any field. Like me, this quote will really help you in getting jobs in New Zealand. The quote was "Great keasership usually starts with a willing heart, a positive attitude, and a deisre to make a difference" (quotes by Mac Anderson)