Collective leadership: Blurring boundaries and creating conditions for teachers and principals to lead together

CTQ’s work has always been firmly grounded in teacher leadership. But now we  believe it’s necessary to take the distributed leadership model a step further, embracing a collective leadership framework that unleashes the leadership potential of both principals and teachers. Our vision for collective leadership is a public school system that encourages teachers and principals to lead together and creates opportunities for them to do so.

 

In the United States, our education system has long classified principals as the primary—if not the only—source of leadership in school buildings. It does not take an archeological dig to unearth the roles that principals have been expected to play in controlling the work of teachers; just take a gander at Ellwood Patterson Cubberley’s 1929 edition of Public School Administration. And as high stakes, standardized test-based accountability has become more prevalent, both district administrators and policy makers have expected principals to take on even more authority in shaping classroom instruction.

However, along with authority comes immense responsibility, and as of late the principal’s job has become overwhelmingly demanding and complex. In the MetLife Survey of the American Teacher (2012), for example, 75 percent of principals reported that their jobs had become too complex and half reported feeling great stress in their jobs at least several days a week. Today’s public school principals face a number of challenges, from diminishing resources and increasing numbers of special needs students (including those living in poverty) to often competing and contradictory demands from bureaucrats, politicians, and parents.

Teacher leadership has to be more than a career ladder for a few classroom experts to climb. All educators must embrace the role of leader.

In this context, I offer a simple proposition for the future of school reform: If all K-12 students must take charge of their learning in order to prepare for the global economy, then all of their teachers must do so as well. This means that teacher leadership has to be more than a career ladder for a few classroom experts to climb. Now and in the future, all educators must embrace the role of leader.

Granted, more robust forms of teacher leadership have finally started to gain the momentum and widespread recognition they deserve (consider this new report from Learning Forward). But as this recent article in The New York Times suggests, the prevailing sentiment has not changed. We can tell from the headline (“Want to Fix Schools? Go to the Principal’s Office”) that our focus is still on the principal. What this article fails to recognize is that principals’ success in “fixing schools” depends on their ability to leverage the talents and expertise of teachers within their buildings.

Principals’ success in ‘fixing schools’ depends on their ability to leverage the talents and expertise of teachers within their buildings.

Scholars like Mark Smylie and Jim P. Spillane have recognized the problems that result when we create rigid boundaries to separate the roles of principals and teachers. In “A Distributed Perspective on School Leadership: Leadership Practice As Stretched Over People and Place” (2004), Spillane and his colleague Jennifer Z. Sherer called for a distributed leadership model, where “leadership activity is distributed in the interactive web of leaders, followers, and situation, which form the appropriate unit of analysis for studying leadership practice.”  In this framework, school leadership is not about the person in the principal’s office; it’s about the practice of leading and how leadership can be “stretched over people and their situation.” Sometimes leaders follow and followers lead in this model, but in practice distributed leadership in K-12 schools is still more about principals who delegate to teachers.

There is no doubt that principals—and the school cultures and structures they help create—are critical in either “empowering or marginalizing” teacher leaders, as Wenner and Campbell noted in “The Theoretical and Empirical Basis of Teacher Leadership” (2017). We can cite many examples of principals creating conditions where all teachers have opportunities to lead—take, for instance, Ali Wright’s piece in the CTQ Collaboratory about Scott Salter’s work as principal at Swing Elementary in Covington, Ohio.

CTQ’s work has always been firmly grounded in teacher leadership. But now we believe it’s necessary to take the distributed leadership model a step further, embracing a collective leadership framework that unleashes the leadership potential of both principals and teachers. Our vision for collective leadership is a public school system that encourages teachers and principals to lead together and creates opportunities for them to do so.

It’s necessary to take the distributed leadership model a step further, embracing a collective leadership framework that unleashes the leadership potential of both principals and teachers.

School leadership is often vested in an individual. But as my colleague Jon Eckert explains in his forthcoming book for Corwin Press, leadership is about the  work—and much less about the individuals, personalities, or roles. In distributed leadership, there are clear boundaries between leaders and followers. In collective leadership, those boundaries become murky—and there is poignancy and power in this “murkiness.” As Jon notes, the same leaders “cannot always lead because the work (of reform) dictates that different types of expertise are need for different types of leadership.”

In distributed leadership, there are clear boundaries between leaders and followers. In collective leadership, those boundaries become murky—and there is poignancy and power in this ‘murkiness.’

Let’s consider Tricia Ebner’s story of impact. In “Collaborating for Change,” Tricia describes how—and explains why—teachers and administrators at Lake Middle School in Hartville, Ohio, came together to make curriculum changes. Adopting a collective leadership framework allowed teachers and administrators to co-create, developing new structures for data (not just test scores) to be assembled and varied teaching expertise to be identified and spread.

Collaborating for Change

At Lake Middle School, collective leadership emerged directly from the needs of students. Teachers and administrators engaged in collective leadership, Tricia writes, in order to “make the change that improves learning for (their) students.” Unfortunately, in most cases this type of collective leadership results from serendipity, instead of being cultivated intentionally.  And without intentionality it will be pretty much impossible to spread and scale the innovations sought from collective leadership.

Without intentionality, it will be pretty much impossible to spread and scale the innovations sought from collective leadership.

At CTQ, our emerging model of collective leadership is a fluid one. But it is firmly grounded in the seven research-based conditions necessary for teachers to lead their own learning, which we identified in “Teacher leadership and deeper learning for all students.” Our efforts to define and describe collective leadership have surfaced a number of examples of what these seven conditions look like:

  1. Vision and strategy: Teachers do more than simply buy into their school’s vision and strategy. They co-construct this vision and strategy alongside administrators.
  2. Supportive administration: Principals are prepared specifically in their training programs to identify and cultivate teacher leaders, as well as to broker teachers’  expertise.
  3. Adequate resources: System leaders rethink allocations of dollars, people, and technology to leverage collective leadership, so more teachers can lead without leaving the classroom (see Teaching 2030).
  4. Enabling work structures:  Teachers and administrators redesign school schedules to create time for both formal and informal leadership to spur school improvement.
  5. Strong collaboration: Teachers ground their collaboration in assessing academic progress; this assessment is driven by student-centered cycles of inquiry, where they own the analysis like at Murray Hill Academy.
  6. Blurred roles: Teachers serve in hybrid roles and learn to lead with principals, and they create the space to do so by systematically abandoning policies and programs that are not serving students well.
  7. Inquiry and risk-taking: Professional learning communities facilitate opportunities for educators to measure the impact of their leadership and go public with their evidence.

Over the next several months, my CTQ colleagues (fellow staff members as well as the teachers and administrators of the Collaboratory) and I will be developing even richer descriptions of these conditions, especially as we work more closely with our partnerships being established in South Carolina, Tennessee, Florida, and California, as well as in growing numbers of school districts. It’s time for America’s young people—all, not just a privileged few—to engage in deeper learning. But transforming how students learn and lead requires parallel changes in the systems that govern teacher learning and leadership.

It’s time for America’s young people—all, not just a privileged few—to engage in deeper learning.

More than 25 years ago, the late Phil Schlechty made a brilliant observation in Schools for the 21st century: Leadership imperatives for educational reform (1990). If school improvement is to be sustained over time, he noted, then teachers must be seen as “inventors” and principals must become leaders of leaders, who “create conditions” in which teachers thrive. Today, this means we must cultivate collective leadership among teachers and administrators.

As my colleagues and I wrote in Teacherpreneurs (2013), it is time for us to “blur the lines of distinction between those who teach in schools and those who lead them.”

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