Education Opinion

Who, Me? Distributed Leadership in Schools

By Justin Reich — September 18, 2017 3 min read
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Starting September 28th, we will launch our second run of the free online course, Launching Innovation in Schools, offered through edX and taught by MIT faculty Justin Reich and Peter Senge. Launching Innovation in Schools guides school leaders-teacher-leaders, principals, department heads, IT directors, superintendents-through fundamental principles of launching and sustaining innovation in schools. You can register now.

In our upcoming online course--Launching Innovation in Schools--we look at how schools change by looking at the role of school leaders. We define “school leaders” broadly. Put simply, leadership in schools begins with individuals who bring colleagues together to improve learning for students. And the one line that you’ll hear my co-instructor Peter Senge and I say over and over again in this course is that leadership is a function, not a role. Leadership has to do with the actions that you take, not the formal position that you’re assigned.

Moreover, if we confine leadership to superintendents or principals, then we overlook the deep resources in our schools. To be sure, the role that principals, headmasters, department heads, and superintendents play is incredibly important. They set a direction, allocate resources and deliver key support. However, our course emphasizes that teacher leadership is incredibly important because teachers are essential to leading innovation in schools. Because of their daily interactions with students, teachers are the people who most directly impact student learning. The only real innovations in schools are those that actually change student learning experiences. There just aren’t enough administrators in any system to go to every classroom, K-12, and initiate changes in teaching. Leadership needs to be shared, collected, and extended. It’s not a particular person in a department or building. Instead, it’s a set of functions distributed widely throughout a school.

These ideas about distributed leadership aren’t new. Still, we made it a point in our course to ask participants to rethink their assumptions about leadership and underscored the idea that leadership is a function, not a role. It sounds simple, but it is also incredibly difficult to do in practice. In fact, these ideas presented an exciting and new approach for many of the teachers who took the first run of our course. Post-course interviews revealed what many people assumed about leadership, especially teacher leadership. One person succinctly described the feeling as, “Who, me?”

Unfortunately, many teachers doubt their own capacity to be leaders. But teacher leadership is essential because when researchers interview teachers about who influences their teaching practice, their number one answer is other teachers--not principals, not outside consultants--but other teachers. In other words, teacher leadership is vital for sharing innovative practices among teachers. If we want to improve students’ learning experiences, we must recognize the profound influence that teachers have on each other and the classroom and empower teachers to be leaders and collaborators.

This is not meant to exclude administrators. On the contrary, if you are an administrator outside of the classroom, then one of your core jobs is to mobilize leadership expertise at all levels in your school so that teachers have the time, resources, incentives, and cover to be able to experiment in their classrooms and share their successes and challenges with their colleagues. Teachers really lead the center ring about changing practice in classrooms. And it’s your job as administrators to protect, nurture, and speed up that cycle.

The primary goal of Launching Innovation in Schools is for participants to take what they learn and put it directly to work in schools. Reading our participants’ additional reflections on distributed leadership was extremely gratifying:

This course has left me with [major] take-aways. The first is the reminder that 'leadership' is an action, not a title. This prods me to focus my energies on how I can effect positive change by leading with my actions and interactions regardless of my title or position within the school and by encouraging others to do the same..."

Another person noted how this course helped them to rethink their role at school:

I am currently a school administrator...This course has greatly influenced [my] views about how to launch innovation, [and] about how school leaders should [set] the conditions for teachers to innovate..."

We are thrilled to hear that our course inspired people to rethink their roles and their assumptions about leadership in their schools. We tell our participants that everyone has a different sphere of influence. Some of you might be leaders of huge districts with thousands of students. Some of you might have a few close colleagues on your department team or academy or grade level team. But regardless of the size of your sphere of influence, you can make teaching and learning better with your colleagues inside that sphere. If you’re excited to help colleagues come together to improve instruction, then I hope you will join us for Launching Innovation in Schools.

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my publications, C.V., and online portfolio, visit EdTechResearcher.

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