Defined roles often provide us with an idea of what traditional leadership looks like in a school community such as principal, office staff or teacher. While it is imperative to understand roles and responsibilities in the environment in which we work, the transformation of education to reflect society’s needs will not be successful if these titles remain rigid. Recently, there has been a shift toward more inclusive leaderships and that has shaken up these traditionally titled roles. Essentially, “leadership” now means that responsibilities are acted out by all members in a school community, including students.
“If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.” – Maya Angelou
How are roles changing?
In her book, Empowering Schools, Empowering Students (2015), Pernille Ripp wrote about the clear “hierarchy of power” in schools in which the people in administrative roles “hold most of the control or delegates morsels of it to chosen people” (p. 3). However, we have to ask ourselves, is this the best use of people power and the most effective way to empower leadership in today’s changing learning environment possible?
In 21st century schools, roles and responsibilities of teachers and administrators are shifting to a more collaborative approach. A strength in the collaborative model supports the claim that the role of the teacher becomes more of a decision-maker, although this can become quite a challenge. In his article in the May issue of The Reformer (2018), Peter DeWitt wrote about the natural instinct to avoid conflict and “not challenge the thinking of those they are collaborating with…” (p. 49). However, when more voices are heard, and teachers get the opportunity to collaborate and talk through options, making tough decisions together becomes a huge success. This was evident in each of my experiences in three different types of schools in three very different regions of the world – Edmonton, Canada, New York City and Singapore. Roles and decision-making for teachers and administrators were shifting in all three schools during my tenure. Teachers had more voice in creating schedules, choosing and working with curriculum, as well school events, while administrators stepped back to allow for greater teacher influence.
Was this easy? Of course not. It took a great deal of time investment and growth in educator mindsets to see progress in the environment and approaches. However, the time spent building trust in the teams and creating action plans for making school-wide developments in areas such as student action, environmental stewardship, or literacy and language was extremely powerful and valuable. This approach to leadership required all team members to be open-minded and be dedicated to making it work, despite challenges. It also provided teams with opportunities to empathize with administrators and understand the difficult decisions that are made, thus supports the development of relationships.
Role-shifting is a way to re-energize a school’s leadership model, to revamp the organizational structures (Kinsey Goman, 2014) and, to support real collaborative efforts. In one California school district, this was accomplished by creating space in the schedule in order for teachers to convene and work through such goals as improving curriculum and student learning experiences. (O’Brien, 2014). The high level of partnership and collaboration between teachers and administrators proved to have a positive impact on curriculum development, teacher quality, willingness to take risks, problem solve, and student learning. Innovation and creativity are often lost when voices are not heard or included, and leaders are learning that there is a great importance to build a strong and stable culture in the school by sharing and delegating leadership responsibilities. Even with these positive changes in leadership, perhaps there is still one missing element to creating a truly inclusive model of collaborative leadership. It might be said that the most important voices are missing. The ones that provide us with real challenges yet are not usually afraid to face them. The ones that are the reason we teach – students.
“Free the child’s potential, and you will transform him into the world.” – Maria Montessori
How important is student voice in a collaborative leadership model?
With compliance concerns and urgent, yet not important matters that require attention, it is no surprise that voices of those who matter most are not heard. In that urgency, we do need to step back and remember: who do the most important voices belong to? To the people who have the fewest number of opportunities to make decisions, to share ideas and work to develop skills needed to become successful citizens. This needs to change.
Advocating for and providing students with avenues to share their ideas, thinking processes, and learn in ways that make sense to them is my priority, and should be the priority of every educator, regardless of location or type of school. Students need a voice in decision-making processes because all decisions made always impact them in some way. So why are they excluded from collaboration and decision-making?
Speaking from personal experiences, opening the door for higher-level student involvement is uncomfortable for the teacher. However, we need to step back and think about the value in this practice, and it is a practice. It is a practice which sets the stage for a number of essential life skills and the sooner it is learned, the easier it is for students to self-manage. This is one of the traits of the Swedish education system (Dunn, 2013). Developing skills for effective teamwork and thoughtful problem solving enable students to be innovators. These practices also support the development of independence and self-management skills because their environments are set up as they would be outside school life. When students have the autonomy in their daily school routines to make decisions about where and how they can work, they are emulating the life we expect them to be living outside of school. This is the goal as educators – preparing our students for life.
How do we get students involved?
Trust will always be the key element in initiating and establishing a collaborative leadership model, with teachers and students. Supportive and trusting in their relationships will sustain and ensure the prosperity in collaboration (Kinsey Goman, 2014). A team with both aspiring and established leaders, can be a force to be reckoned with, so it is important the vision and mission of the school are stated with clarity and with the expectation that goals will be met (Morrison, 2013).
For example, Jeff Petersen, Stuart Yager, and Robert Yager (2012) conducted a study in which students and school staff participated in a collaborative model of leadership. The goal was to determine the effect of this model on the climate and community of two chosen high school populations. It was identified that with a changing global society, transformation also needed to occur within schools, thus; a collaborative and distributive model of leadership was created for students to engage in their school communities. Students exercised skills and collaborated with members of the school community in ways in which they would interact with others in the workplace. This model was found to have a highly positive impact in the school community. Over 80% of survey respondents believed that the model in which they created had a positive impact on the culture and climate of the school and wanted to continue the model. Such studies provide a positive insight into the advantage of having students involved in collaboration with school staff.
Now contemplate this in your school environment. Traditional leadership models do not necessarily lend themselves to being open models for collaboration, especially with students. However, it can be done. From the example above, opening the door to collaborating with teachers, means that same door can be open for students.
Here are some ways to support these efforts:
- Spend time with all members of your community. This will build relationships and develop trust. It will take a great amount of time and the greatest effort, but it is essential in the actions that follow.
- Determine the first step in opening up conversations with students. Will you pose a question or leave the forum open as an idea share?
- Meet with the students collectively and invite them to offer ideas in establishing a system for collecting ideas to improve their community. This may begin in classrooms before it is taken schoolwide.
- Support students in finding the time and space to revise the system as they see fit.
- Invite students and/or student representatives to meet with teacher teams to share ideas and make decisions about things they recognize in their classrooms or school that could be better for them.
“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” – Helen Keller
Table 1: Roles and responsibilities in a collaborative leadership model
Think about the implication a model of collaboration and shared leadership can have in your school environment! Will your school become a place where all members of the community are given the platform to share and are included in decision-making? If the answer is yes, then think about what you can do tomorrow to make this happen. Establishing models of collaboration provide experiences in which the development of skill sets and resulting successes empower the sustainability of a strong community (Future Ready, 2015) and that is a place in which at members can thrive.
About the Author
Tamera Musiowsky is an international educator who has taught in Singapore, New York City, and her home city of Edmonton, Canada. She is an active member the President of the ASCD Emerging Leaders Alumni Affiliate. Her previous roles include elementary teacher, teacher leader, instructional coordinator, and Student Action Coordinator. She currently resides and teaches in Singapore. Follow her on Twitter: @TMus_Ed
- 2DeWitt, Peter. (2016). How collaborative leadership can transform schools. The Reformer Educational Magazine. pp. 47-52.
- Dunn, Zoe. (30 July 2013). What can Sweden and America teach us about social emotional learning? Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/teacher-blog/2013/jul/30/swedish-american-schools-social-emotional-learning
- Future Ready. (3 April 2015). Collaborative Leadership in Action. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nnd1qJt2_m0
- Kinsey Goman, Carol (13 February 2014). Eight tips for collaborative leadership. Retrieved from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/carolkinseygoman/2014/02/13/8-tips-for-collaborative-leadership/#63a02b415fd9
- Morrison Nick (30 December 2013). The eight characteristics of effective school leaders. Retrieved from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/nickmorrison/2013/12/30/the-eight-characteristics-of-effective-school-leaders/#29b76edf9762
- O’Brien, Ann. (20 November 2014). When Teachers and Administrators Collaborate. Retrieved from: https://www.edutopia.org/blog/when-teachers-and-administrators-collaborate-anne-obrien
- Pedersen, Jeff. Yager, Stuart. Yager, Robert. (2012). Student Leadership Distribution: Effects of a student-led leadership program on school climate and community. Version 1.2. NCPEA Publications. Retrieved from: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ973800.pdf
- Ripp, Pernille. (2015). Empowering Schools, Empowering Students: Creating Connected and Invested Learners. Thousand Oaks, CA. Corwin Press. p.3.
Future Ready: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nnd1qJt2_m0
Mendels, P. and Mitgang, L. (2013). Creating Strong Principals – Educational Leadership. [online] Ascd.org. Available at: http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/apr13/vol70/num07/Creating-Strong-Principals.aspx
Angelou, Maya. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/may/28/maya-angelou-in-fifteen-quotes
Keller, Helen. Retrieved from: https://www.afb.org/blog/afb-blog/happy-birthday-helen/12
Maxwell, John C. Retrieved from: http://consciousmagazine.co/consciousdaily-aug05-2015/
Montessori, Maria. Retrieved from: http://www.earlychildhoodnews.com/earlychildhood/article_print.aspx?ArticleId=698