Go far together: Lessons in collective leadership

I learned the power of collective leadership in 2007, when I met 50 Teachers of the Year for the first time. Since then, I’ve learned a few lessons about collective leadership: First, collective leadership takes time. And, at its heart, collective leadership is collective teaching. In this post I explore learned truths about the importance of collective leadership as educators.

The difference between the prophet and the madman is that people listen to the prophet.

A single teacher can be dismissed as a lunatic. It’s harder to dismiss an entire network with a shared vision and specific solutions. I learned the power of collective leadership in 2007, when I met 50 Teachers of the Year for the first time. Despite teaching different grade-levels in different states, we were all dealing with similar problems. Over-testing. A narrowing of the curriculum. A deficit mindset that treated children, teachers, and entire communities as a long list of deficiencies rather than considering their strengths, needs, and dreams.

We came to agreement on ten proposed changes to improve No Child Left Behind. Crafting the document was hard work, with plenty of spirited debate, compromise, and late-night conference calls. But in the end, we had a document that was not the work of a single teacher, but a consensus that reflected the shared priorities of 50 teachers from 50 states.

We shared the document with our Senators, Representatives, and their legislative aides, and they took concrete action on some of the changes we proposed. A Senator from Arkansas introduced a bill to measure individual student growth when determining whether a school had met AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress). A congressman from my region introduced a bill to expand the period an English Learner is exempt from high-stakes standardized tests from one year to three.

I have learned a lot about collective leadership in the ten years since that shared effort, sometimes through mistakes and setbacks, often through hard-won successes and small triumphs.

Here are a few lessons learned; I would love to hear your own additions to the list.

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” (African Proverb)

The proverb has it right. Collective leadership takes time. We have to learn to compromise, which begins by making sure to listen more than we speak.

Compromise, to me, means more than the acceptance that we won’t get everything we want. It’s also about developing the humility to accept that what other people care about is just as legitimate as our own priorities. They possess pieces of the complicated truth that we don’t.

I think a lot about the parable of the blind men and the elephant. One blind man was absolutely certain that an elephant is long and flexible, because he had grabbed the trunk. Another was sure that an elephant resembled a leathery tree, because he had wrapped his arms around its leg.

They were all right, and they were all wrong, at the same time. We have to balance our own perspective and experience, which is highly dependent on the context where we teach, with the partial truths our partners hold.

Whatever the scope of the work at hand, we’re teaching.

Collective leadership, at its heart, is collective teaching. We have to figure out what knowledge we want to impart to legislators, administrators, parents, the public, philanthropies and businesses.

As in our classrooms, that act of teaching begins with building trust. It’s easier to do that, of course, with an adorable seven-year old missing her two front teeth than with a Senator in an imposing suit who has voted for policies we find abhorrent. But we have to build rapport with that Senator, which begins the same way it does when we meet a new student: by seeing him or her as a three-dimensional human being, finding out what he or she cares about, asking genuine questions, and truly listening to the answers.

It’s not about a seat at the table. It’s what you do once you’re there that counts.

In a recent interview about the movie Hidden Figures, African-American astronaut Mae Jemison said she realized early on that there was no point in her being at the table if she acted and spoke exactly like all the white men already seated at that table.

The halls of power have a seduction that very few of us are fully immune to. Sometimes an individual teacher, or even a handful, will be picked out and treated by powerful people with a respect and dignity not always afforded to our profession as a whole. In those situations, it’s easy to lose sight of the commitment we carry to speak not only for ourselves and our own students, but for the teachers and students who are not represented at that table.

It’s always easier not to rock the boat. In those intimidating meetings with powerful people, it’s tempting to say the words more likely to bring an approving smile than an uncomfortable grimace.

I was sitting in a meeting where the former Deputy Secretary of Education articulated his belief that No Child Left Behind had not narrowed the curriculum. Another committee member turned to me and asked whether I agreed. I took a deep breath. Then I explained respectfully but clearly that I disagreed with the Deputy Secretary, and that in my experience in a high-poverty school filled with English Learners, the fixation on testing had created enormous pressure to strip critical thinking and creativity from the curriculum in favor of test prep.

As Maggie Kuhn said, “Speak your mind even if your voice shakes.” Those moments often turn out better than we fear. Sometimes the people we have just challenged respect us more for speaking our convictions. But not always, and it’s never easy.

When the work gets hard, collective leadership can be a source of tremendous strength. Our colleagues can inspire us to keep going, and they can help us stay true to ourselves when the temptation to take the path of least resistance is tempting.

We make this path by walking. Along the way, we meet kindred spirits who laugh with us, challenge us, and help us become better thinkers, teachers, and leaders. They walk the path alongside us. They remind us who we are and help us become better versions of ourselves. These fellow travelers are a gift. They matter as much, in the end, as the path itself.


Justin’s post is part of CTQ’s March/April blogging roundtable on collective leadership. To join the conversation, comment on this blog and read the other blogs in this series. You can find an updated list of all posts on this page. Follow CTQ on Facebook and Twitter to see when each new blog is posted and use #CTQCollab to join the conversation on social media. 

First Photo Caption: Marguerite Izzo, 5th Grade Reading Teacher and 2007 New York Teacher of the Year, speaking as former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan takes notes.

Related categories: ,