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Are Teacher-led Schools Viable?

The October edition of Educational Leadership focused on leveraging teacher leadership.  This is a topic near and dear to my heart.  I am convinced that growing teacher leadership is the key to raising the level of instruction in our nation’s schools.  I also believe that principals are responsible for making this happen.  I was, therefore, intrigued with Lori Nazareno’s article titled, Portrait of a Teacher-Led School.

In her article, Nazareno describes the teacher-led school she opened in Denver, Colorado.  According to her, “(they) have consciously created an environment that requires all teachers to lead in a climate in which everyone owns student learning.”  The school reports that is uses teacher teams as well as peer observation and evaluation to guide instruction.

The article gives a balanced view of the innovation that can be fostered in a teacher-led school, while also outlining the challenges of leadership in a “flat” organization.  Nazareno isn’t suggesting that all schools can make do without a principal.

New ideas in teaching and school leadership are needed and should be welcomed.  If a teacher-led school model fosters increased academic achievement, then we should embrace it.  Nazareno, however, doesn’t offer any data to tout her school’s success.  It would be interesting to see a longitudinal study conducted on the efficacy of teacher-led schools.  Of course, there is more to a school’s success than student performance data.

After reading the article, I still feel strongly that teacher leadership should be able to thrive regardless of whether a school is led by a principal or by a lead-teacher.  In fact, a strong, collaborative principal can foster a level of leadership that empowers teachers to make the same instructional decisions that are made in teacher-led schools.  Principals are also skilled at protecting teachers from administrative tasks that can sidetrack their instructional focus.

Frankly, the concept of teacher-led schools also makes me a little sad.  Has the state of education reached such a low point that principals are now seen as obstacles to the learning process?  I also find it a little ironic that when you visit the website for Nazareno’s school*, the Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy, they list a principal and a lead teacher as staff members.  This would suggest that maybe the packaging was changed, but the contents are the same.

Perhaps the biggest contribution of the teacher-led movement is that the term lead-learner has become popular.  If a principal sees himself or herself as the lead learner, then it won’t matter what other titles he or she may hold.  Teacher-led schools are unlikely to replace principal-led schools, but maybe their ideology can influence school leaders to be more collaborative and team-centered.

* As noted in the article, Nazareno left the Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy for a position as a teacher-in-residence with the Center for Teaching Quality in Conifer, Colorado.

ASCD members and EL subscribers can access Nazareno’s article at the following link:

http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational_leadership/oct13/vol71/num02/Portrait_of_a_Teacher-Led_School.aspx

Sharpening the Saw- Ode to Stephen Covey

Stephen Covey would have celebrated his 81st birthday on Thursday.  His passing in 2012 left a void that few can fill.  I often return to his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.  It provides comfort and wisdom that stands the test of time.  With the stress that comes with being a modern educator, Covey’s thoughts on “sharpening the saw” are worth re-reading.

According to Covey, sharpening the saw means, “preserving and enhancing the greatest asset you have–you. It means having a balanced program for self-renewal in the four areas of your life: physical, social/emotional, mental, and spiritual.”

Covey cites the following as examples of activities in each area:

Physical:  Beneficial eating, exercising, and resting

Social/Emotional:  Making social and meaningful connections with others

Mental:  Learning, reading, writing, and teaching

Spiritual:  Spending time in nature, expanding spiritual self through meditation, music, art, or service

School leaders need to spend as much time in supporting their teachers with sharpening their saws as they do in developing their pedagogical skills.  Not that the two are mutually exclusive, but not all staff development needs to be focused on the act of teaching.

Our teachers work hard.  They balance the demands of family life with a profession that seems to be more challenging every year.  As they attempt to be the best teachers they can be, they often ignore their own needs for the benefit of their loved ones and their career.

Principals not only have an obligation to remind teachers about the importance of sharpening their saws, they must provide opportunities and activities that lead them in that direction.  When principals promote the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health of their teachers they strengthen their learning community. Teachers are better at what they do when their lives are in balance.

What can you start doing tomorrow to help your teachers sharpen their saws?  Here are a few simple ideas:

Monthly birthday celebrations

Fitness activities led by staff (yoga, Zumba, volleyball, kickball, etc.)

Running Club

Book studies (voluntary)

Staff hikes

Social hours outside of school

Weekly recognitions

Dress down days

Dress up days

School spirit days

No meeting days

The possibilities are only limited by your creativity.  If you run out of ideas, ask the teachers.  I bet you’ll get some interesting suggestions.

Our Students Deserve Better

“What parents are observing is the inevitable consequence of a reform that did not put the gradual implementation of standards first, but rather put testing front and center, as charter schools do. King’s holding of the microphone for one and a half hours at the now infamous Poughkeepsie hearing (and the subsequent suspension of further hearings) was a strategy to contain the voices of teachers, principals and parents across the state who are saying, “Slow down. Something is wrong. Let’s thoughtfully institute reform, keeping the well-being of our children front and center.”

The paragraph above recently appeared in Valerie Strauss’ Washington Post column.  It was written by Carol Burris, a New York high school principal who has criticized the test-driven reform taking place in her state.

New York has been moving forward with Race to the Top reforms and is ahead of many states in the process of implementing the Common Core.  This means they are also ahead of other states in rating principals and teachers using results from brand new assessments.  New York is an educational canary in the coal mine.  Other states would benefit from paying attention to what is going on there.

What is becoming clear is that the federal government, and the states that are adopting the CCSS, have skipped a step in the implementation process.  Their missteps are driven by an attempt to comply with federal guidelines and to avoid losing out on funds.  They have rushed past the provision of adequate training on the standards to rating and evaluating teachers and principals using questionable student data.  They completely skipped over the teaching part.

I have heard very little criticism directed at the content and scope of the CCSS from teachers.  No one is arguing that raising the level of instructional rigor is a bad thing.  Teachers and principals just want the time to learn the new standards before being judged by assessment results.

Ironically, Race to the Top has brought us right back to the problems associated with No Child Left Behind.  The data-driven focus of NCLB forced many school districts to adopt a teach to the test approach to instruction.  Can we all agree that teaching to the test is a poor way to raise the level of rigor?  Our students deserve better.

Sustaining the Principalship Via Shared Practices VII

Part VII (of VII)

Final Thoughts on Shared Leadership

The final of the five practices that principals can use to grow leadership in their buildings is authentic collaboration.

V. Provide Authentic Opportunities for Collaboration

Nothing builds the shared leadership capacity of teachers quicker than authentic opportunities for collaboration.  The collaboration must be focused on real issues within the schoolhouse walls.  Whether through study groups, action research, or pedagogical trial and error, collaboration brings the creative process to life.

Teachers are eager to be viewed as part of the solution to student performance concerns.  Principals need to show faith in their teachers and give them the chance to solve instructional questions related to student achievement.  A belief in the collective intelligence of teachers nurtures a sense of shared responsibility for school achievement.

While principals must respond to federal, state, and local educational initiatives, they should collaboratively utilize teachers to introduce and interpret these changes.  The days of district-centered staff development are gone.  When teachers are relied on to lead staff development in their schools, their role as professionals is reaffirmed.

Shared leadership fosters a proactive value system that keeps teachers from feeling that educational reform is something that happens to them.  Rather than being reactive to new changes, they begin to anticipate and prepare for the change.  This makes them much more capable than teachers who operate as free agents with no connection to their peers.

Leadership Can Be Shared

Principals tend to report that they are strong proponents of shared leadership.  The question is, are they strong practitioners?  When beliefs and practices converge, the possibilities for schools are endless.  The only risk with shared leadership is that teachers will become empowered and pass those feelings on to their students.

Imagine a school full of adults and students who recognize, value, and utilize their strengths every day.  Principals who share leadership are not ceding power, if they ever had it.  Adopting shared leadership practices instantly makes a principal smarter.  With all of the challenges facing school leaders today, being a little smarter could make a big difference.

Sustaining the Principalship Via Shared Practices VI

Part VI (of VII)

III. Know Your Teachers’ Strengths

Effective shared leadership begins with knowing your staff.  Principals must take the time to uncover the strengths of each person who works with children in their building.  This takes time, but it is time well spent.  Principals who uncover the strengths of teachers can use those strengths to enhance their school while building overall teacher capacity.

Goals conferences, pre and post observation conferences, and end of year evaluation conferences are great opportunities to learn about the skill sets teachers possess.  Attending social functions, grade level meetings, and informal sessions with the staff provides principals with the chance to learn of the interests and abilities of their teachers.

IV. Include Teachers in Decision-making

Involvement in the decision-making process greatly impacts teacher efficacy.  Teachers do not expect, nor do they want to be involved in every decision.  They do, however, want to be involved in decisions related to the how, what, and when of teaching.  Principals can include teachers when developing schedules and targeting instructional strategies.  In the age of state and federal standards, teachers should still be empowered to develop curricula to address the specific needs of their students.

One of the quickest ways to build a culture of shared leadership is to include teachers in the hiring of new employees.  When teachers help select new staff members it reinforces the collective responsibility of teaching.  How impressive is it to new teacher candidates if they are selected by their peers?  Teachers who select their new teammates are instantly invested in their success.  Opportunities for including teachers in school-based decisions are only limited by the imagination and creativity of the principal.

Sustaining the Principalship Via Shared Practices V

Part V (of VII)

Making Shared Leadership Work

So if we know what shared leadership is and we know how it enhances schools, how do we “do” shared leadership?  How do we make it work for our schools?  This is where it gets complex.  There are no pat formulas for making shared leadership work.  The approach school leaders need to take is similar to the one teachers take every year with differentiation in their classrooms.  The characteristics and strengths of a school determine the approach that will make shared leadership a success.  There are, however, five general practices that principals can begin using today to grow the leadership in their buildings.

I.  Establish a Culture of Shared Leadership

The starting point for successful shared leadership begins, ironically, with the singular principal making a commitment to utilizing its dynamic nature.  Any long-term success is unlikely without the principal’s genuine interest in sharing leadership.  Principals must voice their plan to utilize shared practices.  It is not enough to hold the belief, you have to make it part of an ongoing discourse.  If shared leadership is to become part of the school culture it must become a common language throughout all practices in the school.

II.  Include Everyone

Principals must possess the belief that each and every staff member truly has something to offer.  This requires an unfailing belief in teachers.  Nothing will harm the efforts toward sharing leadership quicker than selective shared leadership.  Teachers who are not included in the decision-making process cannot be part of the solution.  Choosing favorites to carry out leadership roles undermines both the teachers who are selected and the ones left on the sidelines.

This means that principals will have to put their faith in teachers not normally seen as leaders.  The risks are worth it, however, because you can never have too many leaders.  Is it possible that teachers who have never aspired to leadership could surprise a skeptical principal with their unknown talents?  The answer is an unequivocal yes and that is what makes shared leadership so energizing.

Sustaining the Principalship Via Shared Practices IV

Part IV (of VII)

The use of shared leadership practices empowers teachers and raises student achievement.

Empowerment

Empowerment is a constructive byproduct of shared leadership.  Dee, Henkin, and Duemer (2003) found that “empowered teachers with increased motivation, enhanced feelings of meaning, and strong organizational commitment are at the root of dynamic school progress.”  They supported the use of shared leadership as a collaborative structure through which educators and schools can reach their goals.

While comparing directive leadership with participative leadership, Somech (2005) found that shared practices enhance teacher performance through two motivational mechanisms: organizational commitment and teacher empowerment.  Somech’s study supported previous research that noted to improve teacher innovation, “they need to be recognized as experts in their fields, have input about what they do and how they do it, feel that they are engaged in meaningful work, and be respected by others.”  This further illustrates the dynamic nature of shared leadership and its effect on student achievement.

Student Achievement

The link between leadership and student achievement has been explored in several noteworthy studies.  In 2003, Waters, Marzano, and McNulty conducted a meta-analysis that examined the effects of leadership on student achievement.  They found significant correlations between leadership and student achievement.  Specifically, they found correlations among many factors that are associated with shared leadership including:  culture, communication, affirmation, relationships, and intellectual stimulation.

Lambert conducted a study on high leadership capacity schools in 2006 and discovered that challenging schools made tremendous improvements through shared leadership and a professional culture.  In many cases, this allowed them to remove the “low-performing” designation assigned to their schools.  The schools in their study, “stopped at nothing to improve student learning.”  Approaches to problem solving revealed a strong sense of collective responsibility in the schools.  The principals led from the center or side with an emphasis on facilitating and co-participating rather than on dominance.

In 2010, Seashore Louis et. al. found a positive link between educational leaders and student learning outcomes.  They found that student achievement is higher in schools where principals share leadership with teachers and the community. The study, funded by the Wallace Foundation, provides some of the most compelling evidence related to shared leadership and student achievement.  The researchers examined collective, shared, and distributed leadership effects on teachers, students, and principals.  Their findings suggest that when leadership is used as a shared property by parents, teachers, principals, and staff members, students achieve at higher levels.

Sustaining the Principalship Via Shared Practices III

Part III (of VII)

Principals who utilize shared leadership practices enhance vision and trust.

Vision

Shared leadership and the development of a living and meaningful vision are closely linked.  Skillful leaders focus their attention on the key aspects of a school’s vision and work to communicate that vision clearly (Leithwood & Riehl, 2003).  They emphasize new possibilities and promote a compelling vision of the future due to their own strong sense of purpose (Tucker & Russell, 2004).

Traditional views of leadership are based on an assumption of powerlessness, which diminishes the potential of vision.  In organizations truly dedicated to learning, vision is cooperatively developed with all stakeholders (Leech & Fulton, 2008).  With shared leadership, no one is asked to sacrifice his or her personal interests to the team; rather “the shared vision becomes an extension of each individual’s personal vision” (Senge, 1990).

Trust

The concept and application of trust is central to shared leadership.  When principals share leadership, they raise trust levels throughout their community.  Daly and Chrispeels (2005) explored trust and efficacy in relation to moving schools from deficit orientations to strengths-based approaches.  They noted that trust “can ameliorate organizational stress.”  They added that trust alone is not enough, “individual and collective beliefs of efficacy are also necessary strengths-based components for building school capacity.”  They identified trust, efficacy, and positive psychology as essential in developing positive organizations.

The relationship between trust and shared leadership is reciprocal, which makes it difficult to isolate within the context of shared leadership.  In 2008, Slater studied how principals use communication strategies to foster the empowerment of stakeholders within the context of collaborative initiatives.  The researcher noted that traditional hierarchical approaches to leadership are “less likely to involve shared leadership norms that promote collaboration and resultantly enhance trust.”

Sustaining the Principalship Via Shared Practices II

Part II (of VII)

Why Shared Leadership?  

What is it about a shared leadership model that makes it appealing to administrators, teachers, and school communities? If school leaders commit to using the strengths of their staffs to guide site-based decisions, how will their schools benefit?  There is increasing evidence that shared leadership impacts many aspects of school culture and student performance.  Six specific effects seem to be markedly enhanced through the use of shared leadership practices.  The first two are communication and collaboration.

Communication

The importance of developing relationships is a common theme for schools seeking to improve the academic achievement of all students.  Nevarez and Wood (2007) found that schools rich in respect and a sense of community promote solid relationships and communication.  They argued that urban school leaders can change school conditions by developing proficient and culturally competent teachers and administrators.  Additionally, they noted that communication is enhanced through “positive school culture, inter-organizational confidence, and respect” (p. 274).  These attributes are closely aligned with, and enriched by, shared leadership practices.

Collaboration

Shared leadership practices lead to collaboration and collegiality among staff members.  In 2009, DuFour and Marzano identified high-leverage strategies for principals that clearly established the need to create structures to ensure that collaborative time for teachers focuses on issues and questions directly related to student learning.  DuFour and Marzano share a vision for school leadership that celebrates the collaborative team process.  They encourage principals to “spend less time supervising and more time working collaboratively with teams to examine student learning and help more students achieve at higher levels” (p. 68).

Marks and Printy (2003) also viewed the principal as key in sharing leadership and promoting active collaboration.  They investigated the connection between school leadership and student performance, as well as the potential for active collaboration around instructional matters to enhance the quality of teaching and student performance.  They found that active collaboration around instruction and assessment leads to significant school improvement.

Sustaining the Principalship Via Shared Practices I

Part I (of VII)

Many principals realize that the requirements of the job are too big for one person.  The management responsibilities alone can overwhelm even the most veteran leader.  Finding the time to focus on instructional leadership requires strong organizational and planning skills.  If principals are to meet the increasing expectations placed upon them by local, state, and national initiatives, they will have to consider utilizing the strengths and skills of the teachers in their buildings.

Reforming and revitalizing schools requires creative school leaders who recognize the wealth of talent and expertise within their own schoolhouse walls.  Shared leadership practices offer the modern principal the tools needed to drive effective instructional change.  Shared leadership is the most effective tool for sustaining the principalship and the success of schools.  Used pragmatically, shared leadership builds a culture that relies on everyone rather than a single heroic figure.

What Is Shared Leadership?

While the definition of shared leadership seems apparent, it has been refined by scholars over the past twenty years.  Shared leadership refers to, “a team property whereby leadership is distributed among team members rather than focused on a single designated leader”(Carson, Tesluk, & Marrone, 2007, p. 1217).  It is defined broadly to denote the influence of teachers through their participation in school-wide decisions with principals (Seashore Louis et al., 2010).

The terms shared leadership, distributed leadership, collaborative leadership, collective leadership, democratic leadership, and leaderful practice are used interchangeably to describe the practice of decentralizing leadership.   A common distinction between shared leadership and traditional forms of leadership is that the process of shared leadership includes peer or lateral influence (Bligh, Pierce, & Kohles, 2006).  A distributed model of leadership centers on the interactions of individuals, rather than the actions of those in formal and informal leadership positions (Harris & Spillane, 2008).