Collective leadership is both appealing and overwhelming. Appealing because it empowers educators by giving them a voice in the decision-making process. Overwhelming because fostering this kind of leadership depends on building consensus across an invariably diverse organization.
In the traditional school structure, teachers having a voice in leadership had seemed pretty far-fetched. When I started my degree in education thirty years ago, teachers were expected to know their content, their students, and the best ways to connect the two. The management of a building or district was the administrator’s domain, and if a teacher wanted that kind of role, then he or she needed an administrative license or certificate. As a novice, I understood this hierarchy, and quite honestly, I was happy with it.
Thirty years later, I’ve learned that this traditional approach does not effectively address the needs of our school and the students we serve. We need teachers’ voices at the table when administration, school boards, and legislators make decisions. Making that happen, however, is a different story.
Many teachers and administrators alike expect a traditional model where administrators make all building and district-level decisions, and teachers focus on students and classrooms. So when change is needed, getting administrators, teachers, parents, students, and other stakeholders to join the effort is a daunting task on all sides. There are three basic keys which can help foster collective leadership in education.
Key one: Listen
When working to make decisions, all too often we come to the table with ideas already crafted. While it’s not unusual for everyone ready to speak up, what makes for truly effective collective leadership is the willingness to listen. Many times the best approach to a problem isn’t spilling out all the possible solutions. Instead, it’s listening to the concerns of each person at the table and the nuances of the situation. Careful listening can lead to consensus, which is the ideal in collective leadership.
This spring, as state-mandated testing approached, teachers voiced more and more concerns about our students’ readiness for the assessments. We listened to each other, reassured each other, and planned together. Part of the planning included dedicating a day this summer for professional development, so that we can develop text and question sets to use throughout the year. By listening to each other, and then sharing our ideas with our district administrators, we were able to craft a plan to help us address this concern.
Key two: Be transparent
A collective leadership structure shouldn’t have the sense of closed-door, backroom dealings. Everything about the collective leadership team should be open and transparent to all stakeholders. In a collective leadership model, every employee in the building should know who is on the leadership team and should also feel welcome to attend the team’s meetings.
Transparency can be challenging because leadership teams might assume that the rest of the organization knows their voices and ideas are welcome. Those who aren’t in those roles often assume that they are not welcome to contribute. The assumptions made across the organization are what prohibits the transparency.
Assumptions undermine collective leadership–those who aren’t in leadership roles often assume their ideas are not welcome.
Last year my school district began examining our grading scale. Our community was giving feedback that our students were at a disadvantage in applying for scholarships because our grading scale established an A as being 95-100%, and an A- as being 92-94%. This was in contrast to other districts in our area. As a study continued, the high school principal reached out to our middle school staff for feedback, knowing that any change made was going to impact all of us. This welcome invitation for feedback encouraged me. As the intervention specialist for gifted, I decided to email him, so that I could share some of my observations of the impact our grading scale had on gifted children. He sent back a response thanking me for sharing those insights and assured me that the needs and concerns of gifted children would be considered in the discussions. Everyone in the organization has a responsibility to support transparency.
Key three: Keep a solutions-oriented focus
Staying focused on solving problems alleviates many of the issues that come up in more traditional structures. Being invested in finding and implementing solutions means that egos get checked at the door. There isn’t room or time for anyone to take individual credit; the team is focused on making something better.
Recently, our building has had the opportunity to practice this focus. We are preparing to make a major change in our district by realigning our building’s grade levels; soon our seventh and eighth grades will be moving into a newly-renovated high school to become a 7-12 building. A shift of this magnitude can be overwhelming, so taking a solutions-oriented approach was critical. Part of the purpose for this realignment is to encourage and foster acceleration in subjects for students who need it. For example, 8th grade students ready to take geometry would no longer have to travel to the high school to take the course; they would already be there. In order to make this process easier our schedules would have to be aligned.
Our teachers had to decide between two different kinds of schedules. Over the course of a week, we had several meetings discussing the possibilities and alternatives. There were moments when we lost our focus, and instead spent time discussing what we liked about our current schedule and how we weren’t necessarily happy about these changes. Those kinds of discussions might be necessary to process the changes happening, but I usually left the meetings feeling discouraged. When we were focused on solutions, however, I may have left the meetings feeling a frustrated that we hadn’t yet arrived at consensus, but I also felt empowered and hopeful. Having a solutions-oriented focus is powerful becuase it invites all voices to contribute, and it minimizes emotional reactions.
Collective leadership in schools may not occur naturally. The results, however, are well worth the effort. By listening to each other, being transparent, and keeping a solutions-oriented focus, we can make wise decisions and work together toward a common mission so much more easily. Through collective leadership, everyone feels respected and empowered, which increases our ability to make positive differences for every child in our classroom.