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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Reflecting on the School Year So Far: My Idea Log

I’ve been writing songs since I was approximately 8 or 9 years old. At that time, I would carry a notebook with me in my guitar case or in my pocket, and if I felt inspired, I would write lyrics or compositional notes (chord progressions/charts/etc.) inside that notebook. I brought that notebook with me to school, to band practice, to basketball games, to family parties… In short, I brought it with me everywhere!

When I got into high school, I got my first cell phone. Instead of using the notebook, I began texting myself lyrics. I would pull up a blank text message, input my own cell phone number, type any lyrics I was drafting at the time, and hit send. This served as an ongoing record or database of lyrics for me. When phones become more advanced, I started using note-taking applications to document lyrics and I would use the phone’s audio/visual technology to record the actual music while I played my guitar or hummed/whistled the melody. As a doctoral student endeavoring through my dissertation, I continued to use cell phone applications such as the Google Drive/Docs and Evernote to document or audio record ideas for exploration or inclusion in my drafts.

Now, in my profession as an educator, I’ve regressed back to using the traditional notebook. I’ve done so for a few reasons. Writing notes using pen and paper (the research I’ve read deals with students using pen and paper to take notes vs. using a computer to take notes during classroom instruction) allows the note taker to retain information better. In addition, I use a highlighter to highlight notes (or aspects of certain notes) that I’ve implemented/accomplished, which allows me to better visualize progress I’ve made over a certain period of time. I call this notebook my “Idea Log.”

Over break, I always take some time to peruse my Idea Log and reflect on the highlighted portions. These highlighted portions help me visualize the things I’ve tried/changed/implemented/achieved/etc. The following is a brief list of ideas I’ve tried or implemented this school year so far (quoted verbatim from my Idea Log):

  • “Utilize a Contact Journal to keep note of who I’ve spoken with and which classrooms I’ve seen. Take notes in the journal and follow through when someone needs support with something.
  • “Make positive phone calls home to the parents of my teachers. Try starting or ending the week with this strategy.”
  • “Create a ‘What Are You Learning Today? A Visit from Dr. E.’ shared document. Share the Google Form/Office 365 One Note with staff members so they can edit the document in real time and share the wonderful things happening in their classrooms that they would like me to see/observe.”
  • “Use Animoto to make monthly videos of the happenings in the school and share through social media channels.”
  • “Find an interesting and timely ‘Article of the Week’ and share through email. Encourage staff to share their own and continue through our journey of professional learning.”

Looking through the Idea Log, I am also reminded of a few other ideas I’d like to try this coming semester.

How do you record your ideas? What have you done or accomplished this year and how do you keep track of your progress?

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The Best Professional Development Providers are the Educators You Already Employ

I know there’s debate concerning the distinction between “professional development” and “professional learning.” Many believe that “professional development” is outdated and that districts (on a macro scale) and educators (on a micro scale) must consider and employ “professional learning.” For the sake of brevity, I won’t get into the clarification between the two concepts in this post (I plan to discuss the distinction in a later post). But, I’m going to use the phrase “professional development” throughout this post to help make my point.

In regards to districts providing professional development for their teachers, it is essential to remember that the best professional development providers are the educators currently employed by the district/school. The educators on staff who are in the trenches and charged with the tasks of implementing new curricula/designing and rolling out innovative behavioral management plans/actualizing cutting edge learning strategies/etc. are the experts. They know more about all of that than the grand majority of “consultants” or “PD providers” from any of those large education corporations/text books companies/etc. They’re the ones in the classrooms making this stuff work with their students! They have the best firsthand knowledge regarding the good, bad, and the ugly of every district initiative!

Educational leaders must work to identify the teachers (or other staff members) who have successfully implemented the district initiatives and build up their capacity so they can share their knowledge with others. Seeking out the expertise of educators currently on staff and offering them the opportunity to share their knowledge with others is empowering. Offering these opportunities to educators already on staff is encouraging and helps foster leadership qualities.

Now, I’m not saying that the teachers on staff with this expertise are the best PD providers or presenters. And, to be clear, some staff members wouldn’t want this added responsibility or feel comfortable presenting in front of their peers. I get that. But, if we’re concerned with offering the best professional development for our teachers, we owe it to them to at least try and get the best professionals to provide that development.

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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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The Journal of Small Wins

Woah… What a whirlwind of a week. It’s been pretty crazy. The first week after summer break is always considerably hectic for educators. Besides the general misperception that we’re simply getting our schools in order for the first day, we’re actually doing so much more.  We’re cleaning, planning, organizing, coordinating, moving, meeting, preparing, analyzing, managing, and a plethora of other verbs you can think of. Often times, we engage in these actions all in one day!

That being said, I’ve found it beneficial to physically document successes throughout the day. I call this my “Journal of Small Wins.” It helps remind me that I am having an impact. In fact, research suggests that this practice helps us stay motivated and productive. Of course, there are other things I’d like to be doing/accomplishing. For instance, I’d like to focus more on student and teacher learning. However, at this point, I feel inundated with managerial tasks and putting out fires. Yet, this journal really helps me visualize and recall my whirlwind days so that I can truly reflect on my impact (and areas of my leadership in need of improvement).

As an educator, how do you reflect on your professional practice in light of all of your other responsibilities? Do you have any techniques/strategies that help you analyze your impact?

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Education/Teaching: This Profession Isn’t Just a Paycheck, It’s a Purpose.

I had a rather nontraditional start to my career as an educator.  I graduated from Illinois State University with a degree in Mass Communication with an emphasis in Broadcasting.  After graduation, I got a job in a public relations/marketing/advertising agency downtown.  I was so excited to start my post-college life.  I saw myself living downtown and making a living in the business world.  I felt confident that I had a job and that I would soon be making enough money to leave the nest and start my own life.

However, it now occurs to me, I never really thought about my purpose.  I do have to give myself a little credit.  I was only 22.  Finding a purpose in life takes some people their entire lives.  At the age of 22, purpose wasn’t something I was thinking about.  In fact, I hadn’t really thought about my purpose at any point in my life.

Anyways, I started my job interning as an account manager for this PR agency.  The hustle and bustle of the commute and the first day felt exciting.  I was “adulting” and it was kind of cool!  Fast forward about three weeks…  After some time making the commute in the rat race and working in the agency, I began losing interest.  It didn’t feel fun anymore.  I started dreading going to work.  There was nothing invigorating about sitting at a desk, staring at a computer screen, writing emails, and making cold calls all day (of course, not all PR agencies are like this.  However, this was my experience).

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was missing something extremely important.  I was not fulfilling my purpose.  I had no conviction.  I had no passion.  I felt like an easily replaceable cog, just spinning and spinning as the days went by.  I had daydream nightmares of myself getting old still doing the same thing, day in and day out, staring at a computer screen, writing emails, and making cold calls.

The day came for my internship to end, and I was not offered a full-time position in the agency.  This may sound strange, but I felt a small (very small) sense of failure because I was not hired on full-time, but I also felt an extreme sense of relief.  After that internship, I was fairly certain that I wanted nothing to do with the business world, or at least a company that made me feel irrelevant and easily replaceable.  Some may say I didn’t give the business world enough time and should have stuck it out because not all businesses or agencies are like the one in which I worked.  I know that.  Yet, I’m extremely thankful I didn’t stick around.

My mom was a principal around the time that my internship ended.  She told me that I should look into substitute teaching to make some money while I was job searching.  I did.  AND I LOVED IT!  Who loves substitute teaching?  Subbing is notoriously difficult.  Students don’t always treat subs well.  The pay isn’t that good.  I had no insurance/benefits.  I didn’t know much about education at the time so I occasionally felt unprepared.  But, I began to notice something.  I noticed something about myself as I began interacting with students and the school/district community.  I was happy.  I felt a connection with education and with all my students and their families.  I began to feel a sense of purpose.  Because of the connections I was making with students and the school community, I felt like I was making an impact.  My students, (which weren’t really mine at the time because I was only subbing, but still), really helped cultivate this purpose in me.  I began to feel a strong sense of conviction.  I needed to become a teacher in order to help positively change the lives of my students!  So, that’s what I did.

I’m writing this post because I’m currently interviewing candidates for multiple teaching positions in my building for the 2017-2018 school year.  There are hundreds of books on interviewing.  These books delineate types of questions to ask potential candidates.  They highlight nonverbal cues to look for while interviewing candidates.  However, none of the books touch on purpose, or at least they don’t go into depth about it.  One of the things I’m looking for in candidates (among the plethora of other criteria I look for in good teaching candidates) is PURPOSE.  I wish I could define this better (so then I could write that book, lol).  Sometimes, I even wish that purpose was more quantifiable.  I’ve hired teachers in the past who were/are very passionate, and I think this is an aspect of purpose.  Yet, I don’t think it’s the same thing.  It’s hard to describe.  But, as a leader making hiring decisions, sometimes, you just know when someone has/knows his or her purpose.  It comes through in all of their answers and their questions.  It comes through as they describe their day-to-day responsibilities interacting with children.  It becomes apparent when candidates talk about the time they spend with their school communities.  At the end of the day, I’m looking to hire teaching candidates who view this job as their purpose, not just a paycheck.

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Turns Out, Happiness is the Key (or, at Least One of Them)

Did you know the following benefits of happiness (Achor, HBR, 2012):

  • 56% greater sales
  • 3 times more creative
  • 31% more productive
  • 40% more likely to receive a promotion
  • 23% fewer fatigue symptoms
  • Up to 6 times more engaged
  • 39% more likely to live to age 94
  • People who are happy and positive are more productive, which results in a better ROI for companies and school districts.

I attended a 2-day Happiness Advantage workshop in Schaumburg this week.  At first, I was skeptical.  I mean,  I already knew happiness was important.  I knew being happy was a big part of success and creativity.  I knew that happiness helped fuel relationship building.  However, I didn’t know the aforementioned specific benefits of being happy.

Also, happiness is a mindset.  We must make a choice to be happy.  As obvious as that may seem, I never truly thought about happiness that way.  I thought that if I worked hard and became successful, I would be happy (almost automatically).  However, that thinking is backwards.  I must first choose to be happy, which will help my brain work better, and then potentially help me become more successful.  As the presenter mentioned, negative emotions narrow our focus towards fight-flight, whereas positive emotions broaden the amount of possibilities we process, thus, making us more creative, thoughtful, and open to new ideas (Fredrickson, 2004).

In addition, I learned that we have to be careful.  Apparently, it’s fairly simple to fall into the “darkness” or be negative (which shouldn’t be hard to believe.  Just turn on the news).  What is more, I also learned that there are specific habits that people engage in order to remain consistently happy.  During the training, I made a commitment to try at least one of these habits for 21 days.  I’m hoping this commitment will become a habit so that I can begin working on developing another one of the happiness habits.

To clarify, it’s not that I’m not a happy person.  I am happy.  There are many things that make me happy.  However, as the presenter also said (or asked), we’re not always happy at work.  He asked a poignant question: why do we always wait until retirement to be happy?  We should be focusing on ways to make work happy, so that happiness is part of our regular routine and so happiness is also shared with all the people with whom we come into contact.

I definitely plan to live by what I learned.  I was about to say, “implement what I learned.”  Yet, what we learned can’t really be implemented (in the most literal sense).  The Happiness Advantage focused on a paradigm shift/mind shift/seeing the world through different lenses (emotional lenses).  The presenter wasn’t selling a program or some type of scripted curriculum.  Being happy is within us all.  We must choose to be happy.

Let’s bring this post back to the classroom and apply it to my context as an educational leader.  I believe the rubber will truly meet the road when I’m faced with the plethora of issues that plague educational leaders (or, educators in general) on a daily basis: student misbehavior, problematic parent, having difficult conversations with teachers, etc.  When I’m faced with those challenges, I hope I can remember what I learned from the Happiness Advantage training.  I hope that I can remember my commitment to being happy, and spreading that happiness to others.

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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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