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).

Share Your Leadership to Build Teacher Capacity

The following excerpt is from an article I wrote for Principal magazine.  It appeared in the 2013 May/June edition on closing the achievement gap.

It would be difficult to imagine any school succeeding at eliminating the achievement gap without a philosophy centered in the values of collective responsibility.  Leadership that is shared is exponentially more effective than leadership that comes from position.  Principals must be willing to share leadership with teachers, staff members, and parents if they truly seek to have all students succeed.

The relationship between shared leadership and student achievement is clear.  In 2010, a study by Seashore-Louis et al. and funded by the Wallace Foundation found solid relationships between the level of shared leadership in schools and the achievement of students.  In Investigating the Links to Improved Student Learning, the researchers noted that they were unable to find a single case of student achievement improving without talented leadership in place.  Their key finding suggests that when teachers and principals work collaboratively, and relationships are strong, student achievement is higher.

The principalship is too big to expect that one heroic leader can be the sole reason a school makes gains toward eliminating the achievement gap.  Principals must find ways to value and include the perspectives of everyone who has a stake in the growth of the students.  When principals seek support from teachers, students, staff members, parents, and the community, they start a cycle of empowerment that can be a catalyst toward true academic success.

Middle Child Syndrome

“An average school I would want my children to attend”

The following excerpt recently appeared in the Washington Post in Valerie Strauss’ column, The Answer Sheet, under the heading above.  Its author, Craig Hochbein, is an assistant professor of educational leadership in the College of Education at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.

“J-town represents what is wrong with current judging and ranking of schools. Like many schools across the country, J-town will not be identified as a persistently low-achieving school, nor cited as a top school in the state. For many educators, this limbo-like designation has become welcomed camouflage. This lack of attention allows them to not only keep their jobs, but also provide meaningful educational lessons to future business leaders, doctors, military personnel, and educational researchers. The current state of accountability has put a premium on being left alone.”

Hochbein accurately describes a condition that most schools are very familiar with.  It’s the educational equivalent of “middle child syndrome.”  While challenging schools continue to receive the resources they need (no it’s not enough), and high performing schools excel regardless of their support, it is schools in the middle that have been left to fend for themselves.

For years we have seen an educational “whac-a-mole” approach to school funding.  As federal and state funds have withered, districts have been forced to shift funds to the schools with the most need.  No one would argue whether persistently low-achieving schools need support, but where does that leave schools mired in the middle?  It leaves them out.  It also places a heavy burden on passionate teachers and school leaders.

Fortunately, these schools are not waiting for the cavalry to come.  They are doing incredible work with limited resources.  Teachers in these schools see their jobs as a calling.  They put in long hours, foster meaningful relationships with students, and look for any and all available resources to support their teaching.  Yet, just like the middle child, they are often ignored and overlooked for their efforts.

Accountability in the Common Core era must include ways to acknowledge these unsung heroes and “average” schools.  Let’s celebrate the excellent teaching that happens every day in these schools.  Let’s stop ignoring the “middle child.”

See full Washington Post article below:

Re-imagining Mission and Vision Statements

Many schools address their mission and vision statements on an annual or biannual basis.  The process is worthwhile as it provides clarity and direction for teachers, support personnel, and administrators.  It is the process itself that is often most beneficial.  Mission and vision statements that are developed collaboratively foster common beliefs, goals, and actions.

There is, however, one potential step that might add value to the process of developing a mission and vision statement.  Prior to initiating the mission and vision process, schools should consider developing a staff manifesto- a public declaration that describes the goals of a group.  A staff manifesto is an agreement on how the adults in the building will treat each other.  It outlines the expectations colleagues have for each other and sets the bar on how professionalism is defined.  Here is an example of a working staff manifesto:

  1. We are caring individuals from diverse backgrounds with unique talents and knowledge who work collaboratively to provide a quality education to all students.
  2. We are AWESOME!!!
  3. We will respect each other’s individuality.
  4. We will support each other in a professional, collaborative manner.
  5. We bring our own talents and beliefs to work for the success of all parties.
  6. We interact respectfully and professionally with the students, staff, and community.
  7. We expect our leaders to include us in making meaningful decisions.
  8. Our leadership will ignite the fire that burns in the engine of our well-oiled teaching machine.
  9. We hope to be caring and compassionate about our students in order to inspire and motivate students to become lifelong learners.
  10. We hope to be more connected to all staff members by having opportunities to interact throughout the school year.

This example illustrates how the adults will work together in a building.  As a collaborative product, it lays the groundwork for any mission or vision statement that might follow it.  Before determining what a school can do for its students, it must decide how it will operate as an organization.  Once the manifesto is developed, it should be displayed in areas where the staff will see it daily (staff lounge, restrooms, meeting rooms etc.).  It then serves as the foundation for writing a meaningful mission and vision statement.

Re-imagine it this way:  Manifesto first, Vision next, then Mission.

Why Common Sense?

So, why call a blog Common Sense School Leadership?  As far back as I can remember, when it comes to following someone, all I have ever wanted is to be led by someone with common sense.  It seems like a simple and practical wish.  Common sense leaders are confident in their ability, but also keenly aware that they don’t know it all.

Leaders with common sense have a balanced perspective on life and work.  They work hard and play hard and they never take themselves too seriously.  Common sense leaders protect their employees in the way that Todd Whitaker discusses in his book, Shifting the Monkey.  Common sense leaders intuitively know how to motivate, inspire, and challenge those who work for them.

Can anyone be a common sense leader?  Probably not, common sense is hard to teach.  You might be a common sense school leader if…

-your first thoughts are always centered on what’s best for students when solving problems.

-you see teachers as leadership assets in your building.

-you recognize your own power and reflect on whether your decisions are based on protecting or maintaining that power, or what’s best for your students and staff.

-you allow for some wait time before making important decisions.

-you value laughter and it can be heard throughout your building.

-you lean on others for advice and seek it out when you’ve made a mistake.

-you trust others, even before they’ve earned it.

Common sense leadership is needed now more than ever.  The number of changes occurring in schools across the country requires common sense leadership that can help students, teachers, and parents understand it all.  How about if we all try to be the common sense school leaders our communities deserve?