Building Community
Building Community

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Now, more than ever, school leaders need to empower others and create a collaborative culture of decision making regarding teaching and learning.

In a recent leadership coaching session, a middle school principal confided in me that she feels like an ineffective school leader because she is unable to make most of the weekly grade level professional learning community team meetings that are scheduled. “I’ve tried to make the time sacred,” she explains, “but inevitably I get called away to address some sort of emergency or unexpected distraction that cannot wait.”

In our post-pandemic world in schools, these unanticipated events often result from student misbehaviors that boil over and extreme staffing shortages that cannot be adequately addressed. Does this sound familiar to you as a school leader?

How do you navigate getting the managerial aspects of the job done efficiently so that you have the time and mental bandwidth to engage in the more important instructional leadership aspects of the role? In my 16-year career as a New Hampshire public high school principal who lived through the pandemic, as well as my current role mentoring and coaching school leaders across the state and country, here is what I have gleaned on this topic.

First, schools must establish a distributed leadership model.

Jon Vander Els and I discuss this at length in our recent 2022 Solution Tree book on competency-based learning, Unpacking the Competency-Based Classroom, and Jon wrote about it in the April 2022 NHLI blog article, Realizing Student-Focused Change Through Distributed Leadership. In the American Educator article, Building a New Structure of School Leadership (2000), Richard Elmore provides clarity on the why and purpose of a distributed leadership model with these five key components:

  1. The purpose of leadership is to improve practice and performance.
  2. Improvement requires continuous learning, both by individuals and groups.
  3. Leaders lead by exemplifying the values and behavior they want others to adopt.
  4. People cooperate with one another in achieving their goals when they recognize other people’s expertise.
  5. Leaders are responsible for helping to make possible what they are requiring others to do.

This means a strong commitment to a professional learning community (PLC). This actively supported a shared decision making process whereby teams feel empowered and supported by school leaders to make important decisions regarding teaching and learning.

Second, establish a shared decision making structure to guide behavior as a professional learning community.

Each year as a staff, decide through consensus, at what level various decisions needed to be made using this tool:

  • Level one decisions: School leaders decide with minimal or no consultation.
  • Level two decisions: School leaders decide with the input from stakeholders who are impacted by the decision.
  • Level three decisions: A collaborative team, group, or committee decides.
  • Level four decisions: An individual or a group decides.

It is no surprise that many of the decisions related to teaching and learning—including key ones around curriculum, instruction, and assessment—were made at the team level and supported by school leaders. Our school worked hard to cultivate a collaborative culture with our staff so that they felt secure that team decisions would result in the best possible solutions for all students.

Third, in the safe and honest discussions and deliberations that led to decisions, teams regularly pushed themselves to dig deeper and reflect often in order to refine their thinking and their processes in ways that would lead to improved student outcomes.

Each collaborative team’s role was to establish collective commitments and values based on the school’s mission and vision to guide professional behavior and set demanding goals to drive the work forward and lead to results. As the work continues, teams become more confident about decisions, and thus it makes it easier for leadership to be absent from team meetings when things come up.

Fourth, when leadership is missing a collaborative team meeting, how do they respond?

I asked a middle school principal how she follows up with teams when she has to miss a meeting. She explained that she will review team minutes and ask questions of the team leader as needed. I asked her to add comments and questions directly into the team meeting minutes (this school uses Google Drive to share such documents). Noting specific feedback in the document adds a layer of transparency to the process, and shows the team that she was invested, even when she was unable to physically attend a meeting. That strategy helped her tremendously. Add a separate column to meeting minutes listing specific questions and/or assigned tasks for a school leader when they are unable to attend a team meeting.

As schools crawl out of the holes—or rather, ravines and canyons—created by the pandemic, the need has never been greater for instructional leaders who can work alongside educators as they make important teaching and learning decisions.

Gone are the simpler times when the needs of students were not as varied and the learning gaps were much smaller. We are seeing a sharp rise in special education referrals. We are seeing an influx of new educators into the profession who lack the deep knowledge of best practice instructional strategies that comes with formal undergraduate and graduate training, as well as experience in the classroom. We are seeing a tremendous change in the academic and social emotional needs of our students. We are seeing voids that are hard and in some cases impossible to address when we cannot find qualified professionals to fill open positions.

Now, more than ever, school leaders need to persevere as conditions continue to evolve. Leaders need to empower others to act and be part of the solution, not part of the problem. We need to create a collaborative culture that not only calls for but actively seeks out and supports thoughtful and intentional discussion and decision making regarding teaching and learning.

Here is the good news in all of this. I have observed that schools HAVE the school leaders who desire to do the right thing and CAN do the work needed to be an effective instructional leader. We need to follow their lead and find ways to take things off their plate so that they can dedicate time, energy, and passion to the things that matter the most: the students that they serve.

This article originally appeared on NHLInsights on May 15, 2023.

Photo at top by PeopleImages via iStock.

Brian Stack headshot

Brian M. Stack

Director of Innovative Projects, New Hampshire Learning Initiative

Brian joined NHLI in July of 2022 as the director of innovative projects. He most recently served as a New Hampshire high school principal at Sanborn Regional High School and is co-author of Breaking With Tradition: The Shift to Competency Based Learning in PLCs at Work (Solution Tree, 2018). In 2017, Brian was recognized as the NH High School Principal of the Year. His school is recognized nationally as a model PLC and competency-based school. Brian has consulted, coached, and presented at conferences and institutes throughout the United States.