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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

What Is Collective Leader Efficacy?

By Peter DeWitt — July 29, 2019 6 min read
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Self-efficacy and collective teacher efficacy are popular topics these days. Sometimes when words in education become this popular, they are at risk of becoming buzzwords, which often happens when school administrators start using them at teachers instead of with them. Over the last few years, words like “fidelity,” “feedback,” “rigor,” and “walk-throughs,” have entered into the buzzword category.

In reality, self-efficacy has been researched by many people over the last few decades. One of the most familiar researchers behind self-efficacy is Bandura (1977), who defined self-efficacy as “beliefs in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to produce given attainments.Basically, self-efficacy is the confidence we have in our own abilities. Tschannen-Moran and Gareis found that self-efficacy is context specific, which means we have areas where we feel confident and areas where we do not. Makes sense, right?

Bandura actually extended his research on self-efficacy and looked at leadership efficacy, which resulted in important findings. Bandura (2000) 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.

Efficacy, Efficacy and MORE Efficacy!
Bandura’s research focusing on efficacy inspired me to begin thinking about how leaders function. Why do some leaders flawlessly enter into instructional leadership while others feel more comfortable staying within the realm of management? Why do some leaders explore topics that seem controversial while others cannot seem to get far enough away from those topics?

For example, I did my doctoral work in how well school administrators in New York state safeguarded LGBT students (DeWitt. 2010), and what I found at the time was that they didn’t safeguard LGBT students very well at all. Not necessarily because they didn’t care (although that is sometimes the case), but sometimes their lack of response to the needs of LGBT students, as well as many marginalized populations, was due to the fact that they didn’t know how to help those students. As Bandura found in his research, we double our efforts in those things we are confident in, and many leaders didn’t (and still don’t) feel confident talking about an issue they deem to be controversial.

When studying self-efficacy and leadership efficacy, the common extension of that work is to look at collective teacher efficacy. Tschannen-Moran and Barr (2004) define collective teacher 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.” In this recent Educational Leadership edition, my colleague Jenni Donohoo wrote an article on collective efficacy with Stephen Katz, and I wrote one as well. We no longer work in schools where we can operate alone. We must work with others, and that includes leaders as well.

So ... What About Collective Leader Efficacy?
As a former school leader, and one who studies it through the work I do with leaders and leadership teams, as well as reading countless research papers, books, and dissertations, I am deeply interested in collective leader efficacy, which naturally involves self-efficacy, and the discussion around collective impact. Compared to self-efficacy and collective teacher efficacy, collective leader efficacy is a fairly new concept.

One of my favorite researchers in the area of leadership efficacy is Leithwood (Click here for a research paper he wrote with Yantzi). What we know about self-efficacy and collective efficacy is that one can influence the other. Meaning, a leader with a low level of self-efficacy in the area of instructional leadership can raise their own self-efficacy through working with a team. And there is no better place to start this work than with our own administrative teams.

A school climate can be positively impacted when building leaders work with their assistant principals in more authentic ways through collective leader efficacy. This does not happen as often as it should. In fact, I have heard horror stories by principals who were once assistant principals, and they were only allowed to “do discipline,” or “patrol hallways” to look for passes or complete paperwork needed for compliance. All of which may be a part of the job, but they were not given the opportunity to focus on instructional leadership, which means they were ill-prepared to do it when they took on the position as principal.

Collective leader efficacy happens when a leadership team comes together, focuses on a learning goal among their group, and does the work together to learn and achieve that goal, which will ultimately have a positive impact on students. For those leaders who lack experience walking into classrooms or knowing what to talk about in formal observations, collective leader efficacy is about helping them focus on making those experiences more meaningful. This effort is less about compliance and more about growth and learning.

Before you ask the question, there’s more ...

Why? Why a team of leaders?
To be clear, this is not about leaving teachers out of the equation. In my experience, there are many leaders who authentically work with teachers. Those leaders elevate the voices of teachers and collaborate well. Looking and understanding collective leader efficacy is actually a precursor to expanding our collaborative efforts to include teachers, counselors, and staff in more authentic ways.

However, there are leadership teams that do not take the time to figure out how to work together as a leadership team. They do not adopt a common language and a common understanding of that language. They divide and conquer, meaning that they divvy up the tasks and go about achieving them separately. The most successful teams are those that can work together, learn from one another, get a common language and common understanding, and then expand out to work with teachers, counselors, and staff.

When leadership teams do this work they:

  • Are better prepared to have conversations around learning with teachers
  • Can be more proactive than reactive when it comes to conversations around student engagement and behavior
  • Help coach each other to be more prepared for instructional leadership
  • Create a more positive school climate

In the End
We know collective teacher efficacy is when teachers come together to understand a problem of practice. This happens in PLC’s, department meetings and grade level meetings. Leaders should be allowed to spend the time, and authentically do it so, they can decide on a common language and common understanding, get some of their questions sorted out, and build collective leader efficacy together. I realize it is more difficult to understand the impact leaders directly have on student learning, but through a formal process like collective leader efficacy, they can at least get the ball rolling.

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), and Coach It Further: Using the Art of Coaching to Improve School Leadership (Corwin Press. 2018). Connect with him on Twitter.

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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.