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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

Why Collaborative Leadership Matters Most

By Peter DeWitt & Lisa Lande — February 03, 2016 6 min read
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Today’s guest blog is co-authored between Peter DeWitt and Lisa Lande. Lande is the Executive Director of the Teacher Voice and Aspirations International Center.

Many years ago the Partnership for 21st Century Skills released a framework revolving around what they believed students needed to be prepared for their future. At this point we know that the Partnership wanted schools to focus on:


  • Life & Career Skills
  • Key Subjects & 21st Century Themes
  • Information, Media & Technology Skills
  • Learning & Innovation Skills

Under the learning and innovation skills came the 4 C’s, which are critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity. Although the mandates and accountability measures from the US Department of Education and state education departments across the country that followed seemed to work against the idea of creativity, one of the C’s became a central focus for our students.

...And that is collaboration.

Collaboration has become a popular word. The issue is that, as much as we talk about collaboration, we don’t always do a good job of implementing it with our students. Back in 2014 I wrote this blog about the research of Robert Coe, who showed that we often sit students in cooperative seating but they are often doing individual work. So, just like how we approach the growth mindset, we say one thing and our actions show we are doing another.

If we continue to tout collaboration but have students do individual work, they will have a lopsided understanding of what collaboration means. Where our students are concerned, they need to understand what it’s like to work together and pull their own weight. They need to learn responsibility, and take it when it comes to their own work.

...And then we have the “silo” issue when it comes to our teachers.

As a teacher Peter always loved being behind closed doors with his students. Students were great to work with, but the adults were much more difficult. That was until he began working with Jo Valeo (speech pathologist) and Anna Leigh (special education). The team of three learned from each other, had fun and provided feedback to each other. But, Peter also understand the significant fact that they chose to work together and were not forced to do so.

Lack of meaningful collaboration opportunities is not just an issue for students, but for teachers as well. In fact, we often observe parallel practices; seating teachers at round tables for an “interactive” professional development session in which they actually end up talking to each other very little, if at all. Teachers are told to create integrated units and collaborate across subjects and grade levels, but then they are only held accountable for their individual students.

That is where leadership enters into the picture. Through the work of Rachel Eells (2011, p. 36) we know that Ashton et al found,

Teachers with low teaching efficacy don't feel that teachers, in general, can make much of a difference in the lives of students, while teachers with low personal teaching efficacy don't feel that they, personally, affect the lives of the students (Ashton & Webb, 1986).

We also know through the work of Eells that collective teacher efficacy can help alleviate some of that low level of individual teacher efficacy if leaders approach it correctly. The great part about the sad quotation above is that low levels of teacher efficacy does not have to be fixed. Much like the growth mindset we all talk about, teachers with a low level of efficacy can be inspired to change.

Russ Quaglia, someone we both work with in the arena of School Voice, and his colleagues have been studying the impact of Teacher Voice on the teaching and learning environment. The national Teacher Voice Report 2010-2014 tells us that only 69% of teachers are excited about their future career in education, and only 59% are comfortable expressing their honest opinions and concerns in their school (QISA & TVAIC, 2015).

Why should we care about teacher efficacy? John Hattie, someone Peter works with as a Visible Learning trainer, has found that collective teacher efficacy has an effect size of 1.57 which is nearly 4-times the hinge point of .40 that shows a year’s worth of growth for a year’s input. We also know that teachers whom are confident voicing their honest opinions and concerns are four times more likely to be excited about their future career in education and three times more likely to believe they can make a difference in the world (QISA & TVAIC, 2015).

As leaders, we can bring different teachers together and inspire collaboration through our faculty meetings or PLC and grade level meetings. All we need to do is give teachers voice to collaborate on a common goal, provide teachers with meaningful opportunities to make decisions, and take action together. But we have some work to do. Currently, only 53% of the more than 10,000 teachers surveyed report having a voice in decision-making at school, and only 60% believe building administration is willing to learn from staff (QISA & TVAIC, 2015). These statistics are more than alarming to us. We know we can do better, and we must!

Research clearly paints a picture that increasing collective teacher efficacy and giving teachers authentic voice are well worth the effort. But what does it look like to be a leader that models, develops, and fosters effective collaboration that leads to increased teacher voice and efficacy?

Peter’s forthcoming book Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (Corwin Press), outlines 4 types of leadership, of which two types seem to focus on collaboration, with one being much more manipulative than the other. The four types of leaders are:

Bystander - This leader doesn’t define any positive goals and they don’t inspire stakeholders to collaborate. They have low growth performance and low partnership qualities. Teachers work in silos and the principal remains in their office more than they make attempts to be visible.

Regulator - This leader defines the goal for the teacher and the school. Although they have high performance, they control the whole environment. These leaders know what idea they want to walk out of a meeting with well before they ever walk into the meeting. Unfortunately, they do not inspire true partnerships around the school as much as they promote compliance, which ultimately creates a hostile school climate where teachers wait to be told what to do.

Negotiator - Negotiators seem as though they are inspiring collaboration but what they do is define the goal behind closed doors, and then slowly make their way around the school or district and get people on board with their ideas. They create coalitions. This works just as long as stakeholders believe in the goal, rather than feel they have to achieve it because it’s coming from the top.

Collaborator - This leader finds the perfect balance between inspiring stakeholders to collaborate and co-constructing building and classroom level goals. They believe in a high level of transparency and honesty, and have a high level of performance because stakeholders feel as though they have a voice in the process. Collaborative leaders use social media as one way to communicate with parents, and they utilize technology in ways that will maximize impact.

The Negotiator is at least interested in the collaborative process, and with some guidance could turn into a true Collaborator, which is obviously what we dream of for all leaders. Collaborative leaders walk into group settings with one idea but they are open to walking out of the stakeholder session with a stronger, much more informed and collaborative action.

What types of actions can we take to become a Collaborative leader?

The next blog posted this week will offer suggestions of how to engage in collaborative inquiry by collaborative inquiry experts Jenni Donohoo and Moses Velasco.

Creative Commons photo courtesy of John Hain.

Connect with Lisa Lande and Peter DeWitt 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.


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