Collective leadership: An approach, not a program

Why Collective Leadership Initiative?

I am a firm believer that teachers will stay in a school only if they have a high quality leader in their principal. Teachers stay in schools where there is a culture and climate of meaningful collaboration and commitment to growth. “Collective leadership has a stronger influence on student achievement than individual leadership” (Wallace Foundation 2010).  

According to research from The New Teacher Project, “Turnover rates for highly effective teachers were 50 percent higher in schools with weak instructional cultures than in those with strong cultures” (2012). When teachers strongly disagree that their administration is supportive, they are more than twice as likely to move schools or leave teaching than when they strongly agree that their administration is supportive (Learning Policy Institute, 2017).

In South Carolina, we’re committed to fostering this type of collaborative environment. Student achievement grows in areas where teachers have meaningful opportunities to work with one another and their school administration. In a 2015 blog, Developing Workplaces Where Teachers Stay, Improve, and Succeed by John P. Papay and  Matthew A. Kraft, write that teachers who work in supportive contexts stay in the classroom longer, and improve at faster rates, than their peers in less-supportive environments.

We see building climate and culture as long-term work that involves rethinking systems and how schools and districts operate.

South Carolina’s Story

In the fall of 2016 South Carolina began to look closely at developing a teacher leadership model. A design team composed of teacher leaders and principals came together and realized the work we were designing is collective work where teachers and principals lead together. The teacher leadership model shifted to South Carolina’s Collective Leadership Initiative (CLI) Pilot, where our story begins.

In the summer of 2017, the South Carolina Department of Education (SCDE) in partnership with the Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ) invited 12 interested schools to participate in our collective leadership pilot. The pilot included large schools, small rural schools, high poverty schools, and a combination of elementary, middle, and high schools with the shared goal of having every student meet the Profile of the South Carolina Graduate. Our theory of action, developed prior to the pilot, states: if we develop a cohesive vision of collective leadership and a framework of differentiated support and implementation, then we will be able to support equitable access to excellent educators in all schools and districts and improve student performance through:

  1. Effective collective leadership teams;
  2. Improved perceptions of the teaching profession;
  3. Increased teacher recruitment, retention, and advancement opportunities; and
  4. Effective teaching and data-responsive instructional practices.

In addition to our theory of action, the CLI Pilot adopted this definition: “Collective leadership encompasses the practices through which teachers and administrators influence colleagues, policymakers, and others to improve student outcomes” (Eckert, 2018).

What we learned is that collective leadership is a process, not a program. First, leaders and teachers need to come together to build their leadership skills. Next, they need practice with a process for identifying needs and resources, and identifying, acting on, and reflecting on actions taken. It takes time. The shifting of the traditional leadership mindset gets messy and at times difficult to navigate in the current system structures in our schools.

Moving forward in South Carolina

So, how do we move forward? We change the way we do work within our schools. Collective leadership is an approach, not a program or a package. Collective Leadership is a way of doing life within the culture of the school and district. The work is characterized by high levels of collaborative capacity. Collective Leadership requires adaptive work. Collective Leadership provides a way to value the knowledge and skills of educators. Effective Collective Leadership creates a way to solve particular problems of practice in schools.

Our CLI Pilot schools are made up of teams of an administrator and two teachers, one or both work in a hybrid role leading together to accomplish shared goals, specific to each site. One of the CLI teacher leaders made this powerful statement: “I didn’t think I was a leader until someone asked me to lead.” Teachers are ready to lead, but too often they are all dressed up with nowhere to go.

As a state, we are committed to preparing principals and assistant principals who realize the value of collective leadership. Superintendents and school board members must also value collective leadership, by providing support and flexibility for principals to approach leadership differently. Teachers can’t lead without collaboration and support from principals, and principals can’t embrace this work without support and collaboration from superintendents. District leaders can help by creating time and space for school collective leadership. This is the next step in the collective leadership journey for our state.

References

Eckert, J. (2018), Leading together: Teachers and administrators improving student outcomes, Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.