Principals used to believe that THEY had to be the center of curriculum expertise and problem-solving for their staff. It was about THEM knowing, doing, and sharing. This way principals could be assured that high quality decisions were implemented.
But the Breaking Ranks® research from NASSP presents a different perspective—one in which deep transformation occurs within a school when leadership is shared among faculty and staff. That is because sharing leadership broadens the responsibility and the commitment for making desired changes. When leadership is caught, taught, and shared, transforming a school becomes a “WE” project rather than a “Me” one.
But what does “shared leadership” look like and sound like? How do you “do” it and still ensure the high quality that you desire?
Well, let me introduce Robbie Hooker, principal at Clarke Central High School in Clarke County, Georgia, His teachers were mostly door-closed, teaching-in-isolation kind of teachers. Robbie was discouraged about the impact he had been having on creating a “learning culture” at his school. The student achievement levels just were not improving as he had hoped at his school in which 75% of the students lived in poverty. He had been working hard to move teachers into more collaborative teaching, but change was going very slowly!
So when a new superintendent arrived who said, “We will no longer use poverty as an excuse for why our students can’t succeed,” Robbie took the message seriously! He invited his staff to begin to see the students as fully capable of high achievement. That was quite a mindset shift for his staff!
He began by starting a whole-faculty study group of Breaking Ranks II: Strategies for Leading High School Reform. At the end of the book study Robbie asked the faculty what they learned and what ideas were sparked in them about how to better meet the needs of their students. Instead of deciding himself what the faculty should do, he invited them to determine together what first step they were willing to take.
Together, they decided to change the Master Schedule so that they could form teams to bring teachers of like subjects together. They said this would allow them to plan some common lessons and review student learning data together.
As they looked at the data in these teacher teams, they saw that special education students were mostly separated from the mainstream. But that model of “separate but equal” instruction conflicted with the research which said that special ed students did better when they were integrated more frequently into regular classrooms. So they began working to make their classrooms more inclusive for special education students.
But the biggest move came when the faculty looked at their Advanced Placement data. In their conversations they began to realize that those teachers who taught AP classes used teaching tools and strategies that provided more challenge and interest than typical textbooks offered. The faculty wanted to challenge each other to use these same AP teaching tools and strategies to help all the students, including at-risk ones, be successful. So they committed to encourage ALL teachers to become certified for Advanced Placement classes.
By letting go of being the “expert,” Robbie recognized and built on the strengths of his teachers. By sharing leadership in the decisions made, Robbie invited a whole lot of smart, dedicated people to join in his vision, take responsibility, and partner with him in leading the way. In 2013 Robbie’s school was name a Breakthrough School by NASSP and MetLife.
What Robbie did was to inspire his faculty with a compelling vision. He helped them believe that students CAN achieve at high levels IF teachers give them support and scaffold the curriculum in ways that energize and challenge them.
Then he enrolled the faculty in deciding what steps they were willing to take forward at each juncture of the change process. When they got stuck or seemed to lose belief in the students, he would send individuals to other high poverty schools which had been successful. Those teachers came back with more confidence and energy as they saw what works and could be possible for their school.
Rather than telling teachers what to do at critical points, Robbie helped them define what was working as they tried new ideas, and create criteria that were important to meet for whatever steps they chose.
For instance, the criteria for instructional strategies might be:
- Instruction needs to involve and energize the students;
- It needs to build students’ confidence in their ability to learn rigorous content;
- It needs to be connected to real world problems and issues.
Robbie knew that if the instruction met these criteria, it would communicate to the students that the teacher believed they were smart. And that would affect how the students felt about themselves.
By focusing on defining success and creating criteria, Robbie was able to influence and ensure that the process maintained the high expectations he had for his school and faculty.
Sharing leadership does not mean diluting one’s influence. It means being influential at the “balcony level” rather than on the “dance floor.” At the balcony level principals keep sight of the overarching goals, key criteria, pitfalls to avoid, and the bottom line. They are holding up the standards that need to be met in order for the project to be considered a success.
Meanwhile, those co-leaders on the “dance floor” are the ones in the classrooms, working directly with students. They are sending information to the balcony all the time so that trends and patterns can be spotted, and issues can be recognized early so that they can be addressed before they become big problems.
In this way, sharing leadership actually expands the influence of the principal rather than diluting it. It’s about being less in the trenches and “playing a bigger game!”