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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Considering School Improvement in Underserved/Disadvantaged Areas

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Actually, this has probably been a thought of mine (at times, it may have lingered in the back of my head as opposed to taking center stage), since I first started my career in education. I work (and have worked since the start of my career) in a severely disadvantaged school district. Over 80% of our students come from low-income homes. We have a 40% student mobility rate. It doesn’t help that our standardized test scores according to PARCC are not very good (which, in my opinion, is highly indicative of socioeconomic status. You can take a map of the south suburbs of Illinois, throw a dart at it, and you will more than likely hit an area that’s underperforming while serving a severely disadvantaged population). What’s even more unfortunate, there is an undeserved negative connotation associated with my district and a plethora of unfavorable perceptions regarding my current school district (and a lot of districts that serve similar populations).

This unfortunate scenario is reinforced by social scripts, which are “a series of behaviors, actions, and consequences that are expected in a particular situation or environment”(https://www.alleydog.com/glossary/definition.php?term=Social%20Scrip). In my district’s case, the social script is defined by environmental factors such as poverty, dysfunctional student home lives, high percentages of EL students, high percentages of students with special needs, etc. Districts like mine (there are many) are often expected to fail (sometimes, this expectation is even held by those whom the district employs) because of the out-of-school factors impacting our students and their learning (among other things). But, I’m trying to find a way to flip that script. We focus a lot on what we CANNOT control in education. Let’s start focusing on what we CAN control.

Elena Aguilar (2013), author of The Art of Coaching: Effective Strategies for School Transformation, describes the Coach’s Optical Refractor as an essential tool which encourages coaches to view issues/problems/situations from six different lenses. If you’d like to learn more about the Refractor, I highly recommend her book. I want to focus on the first lens, Inquiry, and how it relates to my thoughts regarding school improvement in disadvantaged areas. She states, “The way we define the problem dictates how we define the solution” (p. 50). Defining/describing improvement efforts concerning our disadvantaged schools are almost always plagued with assertions and descriptions regarding the effects of pervasive poverty, the dysfunctional family home lives of our students, the lack of resources to properly help our students learn and live productive lives, etc. I understand that those issues impact our reality. There’s no way around that. We can’t deny this reality, and we must be cognizant of how it shapes our own perceptions, beliefs, and actions.

However, I can’t help but wonder if we’re focusing on those aspects of the problem so much so that the solution (if there is one) is often (only) defined in these ways as well. I’ve heard the, “If only we had more resources,” “If only our students’ parents cared more,” “If only we had more parental involvement,” “If only the neighborhoods where are students come from were safer,” “If only our kids came to school on grade level (a good portion of our students do not come to school on grade level),” etc.

In my opinion, we may need to reframe the problem so that it doesn’t focus so much on issues outside of our control. By reframing the problem, we may also need to adjust our professional practice mirrors onto ourselves to determine what exactly we CAN do in order to positively enact change and improve learning and/or achievement for our students. Can we safely reframe the problem so that we take into consideration all the contributing factors to a student’s success, but also focus mainly on what we, as educators, can do to help ensure learning? I think so. I think it will require honest, courageous, uncomfortable conversations. But, I think it’s possible (and worth it). I also think that this type of change won’t occur until we get honest with ourselves and begin focusing on what we CAN change, as opposed to focusing on those issues over which we have no control.

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