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Building collective leadership from the central office

by: Nader Twal

Nader Twal is a program administrator for Innovative Professional Development (iPD) in Long Beach Unified School District. He is an accomplished teacher. In November 2003, his outstanding instruction was recognized by the Milken Family Foundation’s prestigious National Educator Award.
 
 
 

How do you define collective leadership as a leader in the central office?

Collective leadership represents the recognition that we can operate in one of two ways: as a human-centered enterprise or as a sterile system. Systems can be very mechanical; they have interchangeable cogs. But education is a human-centered enterprise. We cultivate the minds, hearts, and emotional well-being of students and staff. Human-centered efforts focus on people, so the system operates more like an organism and less like a machine.

The analogy I would use is an amoeba under a microscope. Think about the amplified image of a needle poking the amoeba and the entire thing moves. It is so interdependent that touching one part has a ripple effect across the whole.

Collective leadership can be represented in that way. There is recognition that no one person has all the knowledge, talent, skills, and experience to meet the needs of everyone in the system. You need to have collective leadership to be highly effective. If you’re about cultivating success of all kids, then you have to recognize that it is impossible to do it alone.

No one person has all the knowledge, skills, and experience to meet the needs of everyone in the system. That's why collective leaderhsip is important. 

Collective leadership is the recognition of varied sets of skills and strengths that need to be called out and called up to operate as an organism rather than merely as a system. Collective leadership amplifies natural strengths while modeling and developing potential areas of strength.

What is the power of collective leadership in both shaping the culture of a school and improving student learning?

The power of collective leadership to improve student learning depends on whether that collective leadership is a structure or a value.

We can build collective leadership structures that have no impact. The small schools movement, a powerful catalyst for positive change when implemented well, is an example. Many wanted to personalize education by shrinking schools, but we didn’t see an impact for students because everything stayed the same—only in smaller learning environments. Personalization isn’t about the size of a school, it’s about people knowing your name and teachers coordinating efforts for students. Changing the structure should have changed the way schools were doing business, but instead some kept doing things the same way they always had, just in smaller spaces.

Shared governance and distributed leadership are amazing ideas, but they have to be applied appropriately to carry meaning. For many, those terms mean representation in a meeting, but that isn’t voice, nor is it impact. Empowerment for teachers at the site level is expressed in how collective leadership functions. What are the norms that govern group dynamics? How are decisions made and implemented? Is there allowance for failure?

How does collective leadership move from an idea on paper to transforming outcomes for students?

There has to be a shared vision and purpose that everyone finds value in. There has to be adequate time given for people to build relationships within the group — professional relationships, not ropes courses. I’m talking about creating an atmosphere where real discussion can happen and people are creating meaning together, which is a messy process. Collectively making meaning creates culture, which becomes self-sustaining.

There has to be real decision-making power in that collective. Organizations that value collective leadership are flat—with few or no levels of middle management between staff and executives—when priorities are being decided, but they become vertical—with managers and supervisors responsible for divisions of labor—when it comes to execution.

As a district administrator, I won’t be the implementer once a decision has been reached. I will resource, strategize, and enable implementation, but I won’t be leading it with the kids. Our principals, teachers, and support staff do that, so their stake in the work has to be honored. All voices matter to arrive at a decision, then it has to be flipped vertically to execute it.

What is the relationship between individual leadership and collective leadership?

Collective leadership, if it works well, builds up individual leadership capacity. Conversely, individual leadership capacity functions and thrives best in collective leadership environments where it has a context to have an impact.

There’s a whole psychology about the difference between power and influence. Power is positional. I can get you to do stuff. I can build up the resume and titles to give orders, which builds culture of compliance. But when I leave the school or district, so too does everything I prioritized.

But the psychology of influence is that my individual leadership gets valued as part of the collective. My voice now matters in informing the collective. It is shaping not just work we do, but the thinking and approach to the work. In this case, if I were to leave, my influence is sustained. Leading with a greater skill set and a deeper body of experience that I can bring to different contexts.

Individual and collective leadership only detract from one another when they conflict. They only conflict when used as a mechanism of compliance rather than change.

True leadership isn't threatened by the leadership of others. Every leader should want to bring his/her best to a team. 

If you’re an individual leader invested in collective whole, you are bringing your best to a great team. You also know when to let others shine because they aren’t a threat to you, they are an asset.

How can teachers and administrators support and encourage collective leadership?

There are three layers that come to mind. First, there has to be structural commitment to collective leadership. Symbolism in the representation, time devoted to meaningful conversations, and some value attached to it in terms of how it is resourced and empowered to make decisions. To show it is valuable, you have to create time for people to meet, and fund the work tied to what they are doing, and give them real say in what happens.

The second layer is about support, coaching, and training. How does one function in these groups? How do they come to consensus and reach a decision? People need to have a framework for getting the work done.  

The third layer is establishing how the group’s deliberations and conclusions are communicated to the rest of the staff. How does the rest of the staff access and inform what is happening in that group? It is not just a matter of describing what transpired in a meeting, nor is it sharing an agenda of the five things that should be covered in the meeting. Appropriate communication recognizes that in collective leadership contexts, real decisions are made. For those to be informed and implemented, people have to trust that they are heard. And people have to trust that when a decision is made—whether or not they agree with it—that it was adequately addressed. That kind of trust is built over time with early wins and small successes.

When people are moving into collective leadership from more traditional models, I think ‘high process and low content’ works best to get people used to functioning in that environment. When they are comfortable functioning in that new space, they have internalized the work and the system of the school has shifted to function more like an organism.


Nader's interview is part of CTQ's March/April blogging roundtable on collective leadership where teachers and administrators are sharing their stories. To join the conversation, comment on this blog and read the other blogs in this series. Follow CTQ on Facebook and Twitter to see when each new blog is posted and use #CTQCollab to join the conversation on social media. You can find an updated list of all posts on this page.

 

3 Comments

Liz Sheehan commented on April 3, 2017 at 3:28pm:

Planning for Transparency

Building collective leadership feels like it should be a simple process -- everyone contribute! Everyone lend a hand! But, as many of us know, the process is anything but simple. Leadership, be it individual or collective, must be trusted to be effective. And planning for transparency is such a crucial element. Part of transparency is making clear what constitutes success for a particular objective. Once others see not only what is trying to be accomplished but also how it will be measured, there is a greater chance for buy-in and contribution to the movement. In this way, collective leadership can grow exponentially and organically.

 

Justin Minkel commented on April 4, 2017 at 10:35pm:

Coherence without Compliance

I was struck by Nader's point that when we conceive of education as a "system," we forget that it is living--comprised of humans.

It's incredibly hard to achieve coherence--the idea, for example, that if a child moves to a new school (let alone a new state or district), she will receive instruction in math that builds on some semblance of what she learned the previous year--without moving toward a compliance mindset. The temptation to mandate and enforce a long list of requirements is a powerful one.

In a meeting with a state department of ed staffer, I talked about the need for more collaboration time in the school day. She said, "Yes, but how can we compel teachers to collaborate during that time?" I said, "If you don't trust teachers to collaborate during the time set aside for collaboration, you shouldn't trust them to teach 25 or 150 students."

It's hard, though, to balance the dynamism (and messiness) of an organism--hundreds of teachers in a district with differing beliefs and levels of expertise--with the desire for coherence across a system.

I'm curious whether any of you have thoughts about how to strike that balance.

Rebekah Kang commented on April 8, 2017 at 4:07pm:

Communication System

Nader’s point about communication accurately described an area of growth that I face at my school. It is hard to create an effective communication system that allows important and relevant information to flow smoothly between teams. We seem to face either information overload or information block. I would love to see a CTQ roundtable discussion on effective communication system.

 

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