We were recently working with a group of energetic and passionate teachers during one of their district professional development days. During preparation for a collaborative inquiry project we asked the teachers what types of district professional learning they appreciated most. The response we were given was not surprising, “We really like interactive sessions when we get to share strategies and learn from each other. It’s so great when we walk away with practical suggestions from our colleagues — if they can make it work with their students, we know that we can make it work too! I just wish we had more opportunities like this.”
When we work with schools, districts, and educational organizations around the world on building collective efficacy we notice a definite pattern: the idea that leading collective efficacy is for formal leaders and teachers often do not recognize the leadership potential within themselves. In our book, Leading Collective Efficacy: Powerful Stories of Achievement and Equity, we share our belief that leadership does not have to be positional (Hite & Donohoo, 2021). In fact, when leadership becomes a mindset and not a title, good things happen for students (Ingersoll, et. al., 2017).
What is a Leadership Mindset?
We suggest that a leadership mindset is a set of dispositions held by anyone who chooses to step into the role. Those with a leadership mindset:
- Hold aspirational goals for themselves and their team;
- Create a psychologically safe environment of transparency and collaboration;
- Regularly offer and seek feedback that leads to team learning;
- Believe in and actively cultivate leadership potential in others.
So how might all of the educators in a learning community embrace a leadership mindset, regardless of their position or title?
Hold Aspirational Goals
Reaching consensus on goals is certainly a challenge but it is often more difficult when we assume that we need to reach unanimity. In fact, the process of working toward defining goals is a healthy team activity that allows us to share our values and vision for what will work best for our community. In the end, we don’t need unanimity, we need the experience of working toward defining our goals together. That process will reveal that we are typically more aligned than we think and finding common ground in our values is the most important first step.
What can educators do? Use a list (like this one from Bright Morning) to determine one’s personal and work-related values. Comparing those with colleagues helps demonstrate that we’re often more in sync than we think.
Create a Psychologically a Safe Environment
A key ingredient for a psychologically safe environment begins with vulnerability and trust. It’s hard to be honest about what we need to improve if we’re worried about being judged or if we think that what we share during a meeting might be discussed with others. Team-and trust-building exercises, however, can be awkward and uncomfortable
What can educators do? Try starting meetings with a check-in practice that asks participants to share something meaningful that gives us insight into who they are and how they’re thinking. One of our favorites is to ask everyone to share a 6-word memoir. It can be simple or highly creative (check out these examples from The Kelly Writer House at the University of Pennsylvania). Even better, revisit the memoirs over time to see how they might change depending on context.
Offer and Receive Feedback
As educators, we’re pretty used to giving feedback, but how about receiving it? We are more willing to listen to feedback from trusted colleagues (see Psychologically Safe Environment above). But we’re a lot more likely to act on feedback when we’ve actually sought it out because we’re interested in hearing what others have to say.What can educators do? Using a structured protocol provides some objectivity and makes giving and receiving less evaluative and more supportive. There are several feedback protocols from the School Reform Initiative (check some out here) that we use with teams to develop effective feedback skills.
We believe in the saying “there’s a leader in every chair.” But it’s one thing to say, and another to practice. When we shift our thinking away from the idea that the leader is the one in control, we can envision more opportunities for anyone and everyone to be a leader. These can be as complex as facilitating the next PD day as an Edcamp or as simple as rotating the lead facilitator during a PLC session giving every member an equal opportunity to set the agenda.
What can educators do? Don’t cling to the idea that leaders are those with official titles. Be curious and open to opportunities that might provide leadership experiences for yourself and others. Most important, don’t wait for someone to tap you for leadership; look for opportunities to create those options for yourself. In the words of Shirley Chisholm: “if they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”
Hite, S. A., & Donohoo, J. (2021). Leading collective efficacy: Powerful stories of achievement and equity. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Ingersoll, R., Doughterty, P., & Sirinides, P. (2017). School leadership counts: Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.