One of my most eye-opening experiences occurred following an in-service on school improvement that I thought went really well. Most of the staff were engaged and the discussions were productive and badly needed. I was anxious for the responses to the post-session survey to come in and validate my high expectations. The first response arrived in my inbox almost immediately, and it read, “I’m really disappointed that we spent time on this. I need to spend time in my classroom preparing; I prefer to work alone in my content area. Very dissatisfied.”
As painful as it was to read, I truly appreciate this teacher’s honesty. These words reminded me how hard it is to change the behaviors and attitudes of adults, especially those who have been in the field for decades. One could argue it is harder to change behaviors in adults than in students.
Since no individual leader will be able to move a school forward alone, shared leadership in schools is crucial, and in order to share leadership, we need to build leaders around us.
By building leaders, I don’t mean just giving someone a different title. Just having a title such as “teacher leader” or “assistant principal” doesn’t necessarily mean the person with that title will exhibit leadership qualities. As my former colleague Sid Bailey used to say, “You aren’t leading if people aren’t following you. If people aren’t following, then you are just going for a walk.”
So how do we build leaders within our staff? For starters, add them to a team or a project with an exemplar leader. By watching what a strong leader does on a regular basis, up-and-coming leaders can witness firsthand what strong leadership looks like and have the opportunity to “pick the brain” of a leader who is doing it right.
Next, have the leader-to-be play an important decision-making role in a multi-step initiative. Provide guidelines and the non-negotiables and then let him or her have some autonomy. Schedule times for the leader-to-be to give you updates and to ask questions. Equally important are questions you ask–sincere questions that will cause him or her to reflect on why certain decisions were made and whether any unintended consequences of those decisions might affect other aspects of the school. If something didn’t go as planned, how will he or she react to a similar situation in the future?
Finally, provide professional learning on how to work with people and what aspects are found in successful teams. Many leaders fail not because of the decisions they make but because of how they treat people, or are perceived to treat people, while making those decisions. Our schools currently use Roger Schwarz’s eight mutual learning behaviors from his book, Smart Leaders, Smarter Teams, as a mini-book study with our grade-level teacher leaders. The book study allows us to have rich discussion about aspects of leadership, such as the importance of asking genuine questions of team members, the power behind explaining your reasoning and intent, and why we need to move people from discussing their positions to discussing their interests. The leaders-to-be also have the opportunity to ask other teacher leaders how they have applied these learning behaviors in real life leadership scenarios.
Who knows? Maybe the teacher who was so averse to the school improvement workshop would have changed his tune if I had better explained the reasoning for that professional learning session and sought his increased input in planning the next session. The negativity that staff members express is often the result of lacking a sense of ownership or input. Perhaps he just needed to witness his peers taking the lead on improvement efforts. Luckily, if your school has shared leadership, you don’t have to figure these problems out alone. By taking the time to build future leaders, your school will have people who collectively can come up with better solutions than one person could ever be able to come up with alone.
Oran Tkatchov’s educational career has included such roles as a middle school English teacher, high school English teacher and charter school director. For over a decade he directed and provided professional development in the areas of special education and school/district improvement at the Arizona Department of Education. He currently supports professional learning at the Arizona State Schools for the Deaf and the Blind. His latest book, Success for Every Student – A Guide to Teaching and Learning, is now available.