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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Dear Representative Jeanne Ives: We Need to Talk

I apologize for the delay in blog posts. It’s been a while since I’ve written. I’ve been busy this summer! However, I could not ignore an opportunity to write a post focused on Jeanne Ives and her deleterious comments regarding teachers, unions, and the teacher pension system in Illinois.

Her comments have circulated social media for few weeks now (Facebook Link; Youtube Link). I find the following quote most troubling: “I’ll get out my checkbook and I’ll send a property tax bill to my county to pay for bloated administrative salaries in public schools… in public schools where on average, in the state of Illinois, less than half of the students are ready for college… Just over 1/3 are even reading or doing math at grade level… Maybe I should send them more money…”

Undoubtedly, she’s passionate. You can hear it in her voice. I appreciate that. Yet, imagine if she were more passionate about clarity. Before I begin to poke holes in the validity of her claim, I’ll first share the following troubling statistic/fact (allowing me to situate my response): Schools with less than 10% of students from low socioeconomic status backgrounds score as well as or better than the highest achieving nations (Finland, Shanghai, etc.) in the world. In fact, if one were to analyze a data set showing level of achievement and percentage of students from low socioeconomic status backgrounds, one would see an inverse correlation between the two. Therefore, as the percentage of students from low socioeconomic status backgrounds increases, the level of achievement decreases. In no way am I saying that poor students cannot achieve. Quite the opposite, in fact, considering I dedicate my life to showing that they can. I’m simply sharing this information to highlight the importance of not conflating separate issues in education. Are there overpaid administrators in education? Possibly. Yet, it’s important to understand that one issue does not exist as a result of the other. Put plainly, student academic underachievement is not a result of (possible) bloated administrative salaries. When considering student academic achievement (or lack thereof), there are far too many concurrent variables at play (poverty, student/family mobility, etc.) to make a claim that one of those variables is significantly more profound than all the others. One may see her conflation (as I do) as a complete misinterpretation of issues facing educators today. Thus, it would behoove her (and the many politicians like her) to leave education to those who have the knowledge and ability to bring about the necessary changes.

Recently, Jeanne also blasted a teacher on twitter, claiming that “support of unions = chaos in schools.” As you can see in the picture accompanying this post, I responded with a comment to get her thinking and to encourage her to explain to me how unions contribute to chaos in schools, considering that chaos is prevalent in a considerable amount of non-unionized, failing charter schools (I’m still waiting for her to get back to me…). In addition, I always think it’s wise to consider how successful districts or world nations deal with prevalent education issues. For example, Finland works closely with its teacher union in order to best serve its students. Granted, as an administrator, I’ve had many difficult conversations with teachers’ unions and union representatives. However, like Finland, I believe that in order to raise achievement for all students, it’s considerably more propitious to work with unions as opposed to lumping them all together into one picture/broad stroke and developing evil machinations to bring about union demise. Jeanne’s comments really brought me back. Teacher/union blasting was so 2014. I think Diane Ravtich should send her signed copies of her most recent work.

She also made comments about the “state’s pension problem.” This will be short and sweet. If I’m not mistaken, politicians have voted to borrow against teacher pensions for decades. These politicians have never paid back the loan. I’m no financial expert. However, it’s rare in life to get a loan and never have to pay it back (sarcasm). The pension system was never designed to serve as an interest free loan for politicians to use as they see fit.

Of course, it’s truly unfortunate when people who have widespread access to such a large array of people don’t think before they spread misinformation. At the same time, her comments truly demonstrate her lack of understanding. Not that politicians need to be experts in all fields. However, a working knowledge regarding some of the basics would certainly help.

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Courageous Actions and Conversations: The Most Effective Leaders Are Willing To Do/Say The Things That Others Are Scared To Do/Say

Good/effective leadership is most certainly not always easy. In fact, it can be downright difficult/stressful/heartbreaking/deflating/etc. However, for the sake of helping all the people we serve in our educational organizations (whether it be students, parents, or teachers), we must fully engage in the difficult aspects of being a leader (of which there are many). But, for now, I’m focusing on honest and courageous actions and conversations.

I’m focusing on this aspect of leadership because having difficult conversations with students, parents, or teachers is well within our control (and it’s one of our primary responsibilities) when considering how effective schools function. Whether your difficult conversations highlight necessary cultural shifts in the school or pinpoint areas of poor student achievement, these conversations should be and must be had (how a leader goes about having these conversations is another blog post entirely). However, the leader must be willing and courageous enough to have these conversations. The conversations will be tough, uncomfortable, tense, etc. I recently participated in a PLC workshop a few weeks back. The presenter said something that still resonates with me and I hope will continue to resonate with me throughout my career: “Schools weren’t built for our employment. Schools were built for student learning.” At the end of the day, we’re here to do what’s best for students.

As Todd Whitaker said, “The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate” (obviously, this quote is completely applicable to all leaders throughout a school district, top to bottom). As leaders, if we tolerate bad behavior, low expectations, student mistreatment, disrespect, unprofessionalism (just to name a few), what kind of implicit message does that send the rest of our staff? As leaders, our actions (or inactions) are just as important (and scrutinized) as our words. School culture takes a hit whenever we refuse to address or act on pressing issues facing our students, parents, or teachers. It’s never easy. It’s never fun. However, it’s necessary.

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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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