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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

If Collaboration Makes Us Better, Why Aren’t More Leaders Doing It?

By Peter DeWitt — March 18, 2018 7 min read
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Watching adults and children run into school every day eager to learn should be the goal of every school leader. Unfortunately, the process to achieve that level of energy becomes more complicated as leaders are faced with dealing with state and district mandates, dwindling budgets, working with diverse stakeholders in the school community who may not always have a deep focus on learning, and handfuls of students who suffer from trauma.

Still interested in leadership?

We know leadership is not easy, and it’s not for the faint of heart. Anyone who has been in a leadership position has a deep understanding of that, and new leaders find that reality soon after they take over a position. There are so many different issues pulling at the time and energy of the leader, and as we move from year to year it seems to get even more complicated.

According to the Organisation for Economic and Co-Operational Development (OECD. 2008):

  • More and more tasks have been added to school leaders’ workload.
  • Most of the leadership tasks are carried out by one individual
  • Insufficient preparation and training

Leaders are charged with many responsibilities. Robinson (2011. p. 9) sites, Establishing Goals and Expectations (.42), Resourcing Strategically (.31), Ensuring Quality Teaching (.42), Leading Teacher Learning and Development (.84), and Ensuring an Orderly and Safe Environment (.27) as the most important aspects of instructional leadership.

What puts leaders at risk of failure is that too many of them believe they have to be experts at every single one of those responsibilities. After all, they were hired to lead? This is where we need to foster a change in mindset, because no one can meet all of the demands of leadership by themselves. And no one, needs to be an expert at everything. What leaders need is the belief that they can meet those demands by working collaboratively with their staff and school community.

Who is Doing the Collaborating?
A while ago I met up with a group of teachers who wanted to take a deep dive into the subject of collaboration. Collaboration, like leadership, is not an easy subject because in many cases collaboration doesn’t work any better than if a teacher was going to do it on their own. Why? It’s because adults typically want to avoid conflict, and do not challenge the thinking of those they are collaborating with in the group. If collaboration is to work, it works best when those collaborating challenge each other’s thinking.

Additionally, working with others is not why many of us got into teaching. Most of us wanted to become teachers because we wanted to work with children and young adults, or because we were passionate about a subject that we wanted to teach. Working with adults was not part of our plan, and our pre-service programs rarely focused on the topic.

As we discussed ways to collaborate, the last question they asked before we parted ways was the one that bothered me most. They asked, “how do we get our new leader to collaborate with us?” They had been working with a newer leader who spent more time in the main office and less time in the classrooms of the teachers. They explained that their previous experience was different, because their former leader was always in the classrooms or spent time at grade level meetings. Without collaboration, can we really have energized schools?

So many times, teachers are the ones who are criticized for not wanting to collaborate, but in many cases leaders are the ones who do not take part in the collaboration. Those leaders believe their job is to get others to collaborate, but not necessarily take an active part in the process of collaboration. This is not always the fault of leaders, but it’s more about how they were trained.

They were trained to build consensus around ideas, check lesson plans to make sure teachers followed standards, and provide time so teachers could collaborate together. Some leaders simply do not have the self-efficacy to dive into collaborative groups and inspire the people within those groups to focus on learning. Too often, leaders feel they need to be compliance officers who control the collaboration from a higher elevation, as opposed to jumping into the deep end of the pool.

The Self-Efficacy of a Leader
Bandura researched the phenomena known as self-efficacy, and defined it as, “Beliefs in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to produce given attainments” (1997). Tschannen-Moran and Garies (2004) found that, “Self-efficacy beliefs are context-specific, however, people do not feel equally efficacious for all situations.” As you can imagine, this is vitally important for school leaders. If they do not believe in their own capabilities, the challenge they face in that situation may be too great, and they tend to give up.

Using the image below, if a leader does not feel efficacious when it comes to their own subject-matter knowledge of chemistry, but their job is to go into to do two or three formal observations on a chemistry teacher, it is very likely that they will go into the classroom, do the time required, and the formal observation conversation that takes place after the observation becomes a surface level discussion and the teacher leaves feeling very let down by the process.

However, if a leader feels efficacious when it comes to observations, regardless of their subject-matter knowledge, and co-constructs a goal with the chemistry teacher before the lesson, provides feedback directly related to that goal, and asks for clarification when the teacher may have done something the leader did not understand, that formal observation process may be much more effective for the teacher and leader.

Bandura’s research supports the above flow chart, because he found that, “When faced with obstacles, setbacks, and failures, those who doubt their capabilities slacken their efforts, give up, or settle for mediocre solutions. Those who have a strong belief in the capabilities redouble their effort to master the challenge.” How can a leader help foster an energized school in this era of so many challenges, especially if we know they do not feel equally efficacious in all situations? That’s where collective efficacy comes into play.

Building Collective Efficacy
Tschannen-Moran and Barr, (2004) define collective efficacy as, “the collective self-perception that teachers in a given school make an educational difference to their students over and above the educational impact of their homes and communities.” Why is this important for leaders?

Knowing that leaders do not feel efficacious in all situations, means that they can raise their self-efficacy by working directly in collaboration with the teachers they lead. Research shows that efficacy is raised through achieving a personal performance accomplishment, vicarious experiences, social persuasion (positive feedback is the major contributor), and physiological conditioning (social-emotional). All four of these can help a leader raise their own sense of self-efficacy.

As a former school principal, we went through a school consolidation where we closed a one-classroom per grade level school, and our elementary school absorbed the whole population. There was upset in the school community when the announcement was made, and social media was a buzz with support from some adults and hate speech from others.

Over the few months we had to make the consolidation work, our teachers and many parents came together to help me, not only make the consolidation work, but helped create an energized school climate that brought together two somewhat fractured communities.

Besides the school consolidation there were countless other situations, both good and bad, that we went through together. Collective efficacy is about believing in our teachers so much that they know they have our support as leaders. That belief happens when teachers see leaders grow in their position as much as leaders believe they have to help foster growth in their teachers. That sense of collective efficacy is what leads to an energized school.

In the End
We need to be able to talk about the challenges we face, as well as the challenges our diverse student populations face. Leaders of energized schools take a deep look at themselves, as well as their codes of conduct, board policies, curriculum, images on their school walls and the literature offered in the library media center. If there are students missing from those books, curriculum and images, we need to ask ourselves why.

Additionally, leaders need to understand that they need not feel less than other leaders merely because they don’t feel like an expert in every situation. No one is an expert in every situation, which is why we need to understand self-efficacy and collective efficacy. Leading an energized school means we focus on our strengths at the same time we talk about our areas of growth, and that’s why it’s difficult to do.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (Corwin Press. 2016), School Climate: Leading with Collective Efficacy (Corwin Press. 2017). Connect with him on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.