Distributive Leadership: Why It’s Essential in Schools and Districts

We all have different leadership styles. Some leaders employ a transactional leadership style that is very business-oriented, where goods and/or services are exchanged for money (paycheck). Some leaders utilize a bureaucratic leadership style by ensuring people follow the rules and always complete tasks by the book. Other leaders may use a laissez-faire leadership style where the workplace is characterized by a “let them do/let it be” or “hands-off” approach. Others embrace a transformational style that inspires staff through effective communication strategies and helps create an intellectually stimulating environment. There are numerous more leadership styles. I’ve seen entire books dedicated to defining each leadership style, and then proclaiming to help individuals develop the style that best suits them.

Whatever your leadership style or take on leadership itself, I believe that if we conceptualize leadership as being confined only to those in “leadership” or “authority” roles, not only are we overlooking the potential leaders and leadership capabilities of the many people within our buildings, we are overburdening ourselves as administrators and teachers. It’s no secret. We can’t do it all. And, to be honest, we shouldn’t have to. Like the old adages say, “two heads are better than one” or “it takes a village.” When optimal conditions exist (minimize opportunities for group think, norms for collaboration have been established and modeled, a clear purpose has been established, people are working together for the betterment of children, etc.) the more people working together collaboratively to generate solutions, the better.

I’ve heard of democratic leadership and shared leadership styles that encourage teams to share ideas and input together before making a final decision. I utilize these approaches daily. But, recently, I read about Distributive Leadership. Distributive leadership emphasizes maximizing leadership expertise at all levels to build widespread capacity throughout an organization. It also holds that no one person at the top makes all the decisions. For example, in schools, teachers are empowered to run/operate crucial aspects of a school, such as admissions, scheduling, professional development, and new teacher training and mentoring. Research suggests that one of the main differences between high performing and low performing schools is often attributed to varying degrees of leadership distribution. High performing schools often distribute leadership widely throughout the building.

Personally, I like its focus on interdependent interaction, ownership, and empowerment. I believe teachers should be empowered and encouraged to make the decisions that will impact them and their students most. As a leader, it’s my job to listen to my teachers and include them as we endeavor to improve all our practices. Most importantly, I must trust my teachers and not shy away at the first sign of bumps in the road.

What leadership style do you employ? What leadership style does your administration/manager/boss/etc. utilize? What leadership style do you think works best? Under what leadership style would you enjoy working most?

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“My/Your Students” vs. “Our Students.” Harm Caused by a Competition Mindset

Competition… Good or bad in schools? I’m not talking about school athletics, band, or other extracurricular activities. I’m talking about schools competing against each other for better test scores or other standardized measures of success. The verdict may still be out. Some researchers have found positive gains from competition in schools (though the validity of said research is now being questioned). Other researchers suggest that any gains from those studies are so small, they may as well be insignificant. Many conservative education reformers declare that schools and educators operating in a free-market system encourage innovation. Let’s look at the charter school movement. Some charter schools are doing amazing things. Some charter schools do sound very innovative. However, the research is fairly clear… charter schools perform no better than public schools when educating the same students (comparing apples to apples, not apples to oranges). Whatever you believe, in the end, one thing is usually certain… when gauged through the lens of standardized measures such as test scores, attendance percentages, or drop-out ratings, competition usually leads to problems in education.

Don’t get me wrong… I like competition. I’m not very competitive myself. But, I love watching (certain) competitive sports such as baseball, basketball, golf, and the UFC. What is more, I’m obsessed with the Olympics. The Olympics are pretty much the gold standard when it comes to competitive athletics. So, I don’t take issue with all competition. I’m not saying “all” competition is bad.

However, in my experience, when I’ve seen schools compete against each other for better test scores or better levels of student achievement, students and teachers suffer. Some immediately ask, “Why?” or “How can that be?” Because, as research has shown, competition leads to the privatization of professional practice. Competition, in this sense, hinders collaboration and the sharing of ideas among schools. Yes, Albert Shanker’s initial conception of charter schools and the sharing of ideas among all schools sounded promising. Under more ideal circumstances, that model may work. However, realistically speaking, competition has perverted his work.

When I hear about educators who embrace a competitive mindset so much so that it hinders collaboration, that always makes me wonder, “Aren’t we in this together?” “Aren’t these students ‘our’ students?” Rhetorically speaking, if the students in my building or classroom can benefit from something the students are doing in your building or classroom, but you erect barriers to the sharing of that knowledge, you’re hurting the children. What’s even more unfortunate, I see this as a disservice to children all in the name of professional, adult pride.

I read something from George Cuoros the other day. Along with some educators and cognitive neuroscientists, I question his work regarding the “innovator’s mindset” and his obsession with innovation. However, in this case, I thought he was right on the money. In one of his posts, he posed an interesting duality: Classroom Teacher vs. School Teacher. Cuoros states that, the “classroom teachers know their content amazingly well and are great with their current group of students. But, once they step outside of their classroom, the students they do not teach are ‘not their problem.’ ‘School teachers’ on the other hand, can do all of those things that classroom teachers do within their own classrooms and subject matter, but when they walk out of their room, every child in the school is their child.” In education, it would behoove us all to understand that these children are “our” children… The students at this school are not “their” children. The students at my school are not “my” children. They are all “our” children. We must constantly be thinking about what we can do to best serve all of “our” children. I’m going to take Cuoros’ duality a step further by arguing that competition enforces the classroom teacher mindset, rather than the school teacher mindset. Let’s remove competitive barriers and see ourselves as “school teachers.”

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Similar to Feedback, Professional Development Given Isn’t Always Professional Development Received

A few weeks ago, I heard a profound quote at my District Institute Day. Regarding Hattie’s Visible Learning, the presenter stated, “Feedback given isn’t always feedback received.” I find this quote completely applicable to a plethora of areas. I reference this quote to help establish the context of this post.

That being said, I always strive to provide my teachers with pragmatic, relevant, and timely professional learning opportunities. This year, I’m looking forward to providing more personalized professional learning options. However, I must keep in mind, like feedback, just because the professional development/professional learning opportunities are given/provided, that doesn’t always mean they are clear or received. Think about the feedback messages we receive on a daily basis. Though we receive them (constantly), that doesn’t mean we process them. I relate it to the difference between hearing and listening. Hearing and listening are not the same things. Just because I may hear you doesn’t mean I am listening to you.

In order to make professional learning opportunities more applicable and practical for my teachers and help to ensure clarity and message acceptance while facilitating learning, I always consider multiple tenants of Adult Learning Theory: adult learners must be actively involved/included in the learning, adult learners must be afforded the opportunity to make choices relevant to the learning objectives, adult learners must be encouraged to connect past knowledge and experience with new learning, adult learners must understand the relevance of the learning through real-life applicability, learning outcomes and objectives must be clearly identified for adult learners, and learning must be highly practical for adult learners.

It’s also essential to consider major aspects of Change Theory. It’s important to emphasize that “shotgun” PD sessions or single sessions where content is only referenced once are not satisfactory. Aspects of providing professional learning, such as developing the learning experience, delivering the learning experience, implementation, roll-out, progress monitoring, analysis, feedback and renewal require time. It’s important to acknowledge that the aftermath of providing professional learning is a journey. At that point, it may require further PD sessions on that topic, future conversations to help clarify misunderstandings, encouraging mentoring and modeling, allowing for observation cycles, etc. Point being… take it slow. We’re all in this journey together. We all need support as we endeavor through these journeys together.

How do you help ensure learning/clarity/message acceptance while providing professional learning opportunities?

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Calling All School Administrators: Collaborate! Deprivatize Your Practice! Share The Learning!

Dr. Brad Gustafson said, “If school leaders are not modeling effective collaboration, can we really expect teachers to facilitate it for students?” (2017, p. 50). Gustafson went on to say, “School leaders must model collaboration if it is to become part of a school’s culture” (2017, p. 53).

I wholeheartedly agree. I first focus on these questions as they specifically pertain to administrators and teachers (before thinking about the trickle-down effect with students). Can we really expect teachers to facilitate or engage in collaboration among THEMSELVES if we as administrators aren’t modeling it OURSELVES? I can’t help but notice some reluctance or trepidation regarding collaboration in my meetings with fellow administrators. Clearly, effective collaboration takes time, effort, commitment, and support. Therefore, apprehension concerning collaboration is most certainly understandable. Yet, purposeful reluctance or defiance regarding collaboration will only serve to harm teachers, students, and school culture.

In order for us to improve as educators (and improve schools and the field of education itself), collaboration is key. We must become comfortable with collaboration. We must become committed to collaboration. One of the most effective ways to begin this process is through dialogue with other educators. It is essential to deprivatize our practice and share our learning (and failures) with others (I completely understand that this may be difficult when systematic issues in some districts discourage failure and risk-taking, thus hindering trust, the deprivatization of professional practice, and effective collaboration). However, if as an administrator (or educator in general), you don’t personally accept the reality that collaboration is key for improving schools, you will hinder your school’s efforts towards improvement.

In my district, we’ve implemented Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) which, when done well, requires high levels of collaboration, risk-taking, and deprivatization of professional practice. We’ve had lots of bumps in the road. It has not been smooth sailing to say the least. However, we are committed to the process and the reality that, without collaborating, our schools will not improve. I can’t speak for the other administrators in my district. But, I can say that I will stay the course, as I’ve seen wonderful results regarding collaboration in our PLCs. It must be noted, PLCs are not the only avenue through which educators can collaborate. Educators from across the world have collaborated through face-to-face methods and have broken down barriers by collaborating through asynchronous means using social media. Thousands of educators have embraced technology to help build their Professional Learning Networks (PLNs). Embracing technology’s ability to tear down barriers to collaboration is a wonderful example of effective, technology-based collaboration. Teachers and administrators are constantly learning and developing (for free!) by reaching out to their PLNs.

Also, collaboration doesn’t always have to start with the school leader. I’ve read about teachers starting their own collaborative efforts (through traditional methods or by using social media) and the wonderful effects these efforts have had on the entire building. However, it is important to understand that if the school leader does not personally embrace collaboration, this will drastically harm the school’s collaborative culture and its improvement potential.

During my next administrator meeting, I will challenge/encourage my fellow colleagues to not only deprivatize their practice and share the learning, but also collaborate with school leaders inside and outside our district. I will encourage the utilization of traditional and more modern methods (such as collaboration using social media) to help our schools improve. These types of collaboration, when effectively modeled by the school leader, can lead to positive changes for teachers, and eventually have a positive impact on students.

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