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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.

School & District Management Opinion

4 Questions Every Leadership Team Must Ask

By Peter DeWitt — November 22, 2020 5 min read
4 Questions All School Leadership Teams Should Ask.
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The makeup of school leadership teams are often dependent on the size of the school population. Larger school populations will typically have more administrators on their leadership team because principals, assistant principals, and deans participate, still leaving room for some teachers to join. Other times, in schools with smaller populations, there will be more of a balance among administrators, teachers, and other professionals.

Regardless of the size of the school population or the sheer number of members participating on school leadership teams, there is a conversation all teams must have at their meetings. That conversation revolves around the instructional core (Elmore. 2006) of the school.

According to Elmore, the instructional core of the school includes:

  • Teachers’ knowledge and skill;
  • How students engage in their own learning;
  • Content that is academically challenging.

What school leadership teams need to decide is what role does they play in the process?

From Management to Instruction
If school leadership team meetings focus too much on management, which is always a risk, and not enough on student learning, then the members sitting around the table may lose sight of why they are on the school leadership team in the first place. Teaching and learning need to be a part of our leadership-team conversations. More than that, however, is actually having an impact on teaching and learning, not just talking about it in a meeting.

Principals, assistants, deans, teachers, and everyone else around the table need to engage in student-learning conversations so they can take time to develop a common language and common understanding around words like “student engagement” and define what academically challenging actually means.

These conversations will also help prepare assistant principals and deans for a future building role where they can feel confident as instructional leaders. Kaplan and Owings suggested (1999. p.82) “that as entry-level administrators, assistant principals typically maintain the norms and rules of the school culture, accepting major responsibilities such as student safety, chief disciplinarians, student conflict mediators, and hall patrollers.” Sadly, we know this has not changed too much since 1999.

Instructional leadership is when those in a leadership position focus their efforts on the implementation of practices that will positively impact student learning (DeWitt. 2019). Everyone around the school leadership team table has potential to become better at instructional leadership. If our goal, as Elmore says, is about strengthening the instructional core of the school, then at the same time we strengthen the efficacy of those around the leadership table.

The Role of Efficacy
We often hear a lot about self-efficacy, which is the confidence we have in our actions (Bandura. 1977), and collective teacher efficacy, which focuses on the collective self-perception that teachers can make an educational difference in the lives of their students (Tschannen-Moran, M., & Barr, M. (2004). However, we do not talk enough about collective leader efficacy, and that is exactly what a school leadership team is capable of building every time they meet.

Collective leader efficacy (CLE) happens when a school leadership team collectively works together, understands the complexities of working as a group, has confidence in each other’s ability to improve learning conditions for students, and develops the competence to do so. (DeWitt. 2020).

Self-efficacy is important because it impacts students in a classroom. Collective teacher efficacy is important because it can impact students in a grade level or department, and given the right conditions, may have a positive impact on a school. However, collective leader efficacy has the potential to positively impact students and teachers in a whole school community.

What About Collective Leader Efficacy?
In order to build collective leader efficacy, we need to consider preconditions like well-being (DeWitt), orientation to the job (Leithwood), locus of control (Leithwood), skills to work in collectives (Hattie), and the confidence to work in collectives (Hattie).

However, there is one more important element to building collective leader efficacy, and focusing on learning during school leadership team meetings, and those are the questions we ask while we are together. Too often, in leadership-team meetings, members do not feel comfortable talking or they wait for the school leader to talk first before they do. If trust isn’t present during these leadership- team meetings, then the real important work will not be focused on.

In an effort to help leadership teams focus on learning, which will help build collective leader efficacy, there are four questions that school leadership teams should use as the basis for their discussions.

Those questions are:

  • How are teachers and students working together to create authentic learning experiences? Authentic meaning, content-driven learning from in school and the learning students are doing on their own outside of school. For further clarification, this also means social-emotional learning as well as academic learning (Updated. 11/22/20. 4:06 pm.)
  • How are we supporting teachers in that process? This means the social-emotional and academic support teachers need.
  • How do we engage families in the process?
  • What unbiased evidence do we collect to understand our impact? This is evidence that we are open to learning from regardless of whether it supports our opinions or not (confirmation bias).

In the End
School leadership teams have the potential to have an enormous impact on student learning, which will ultimately strengthen the instructional core of the school community. Before COVID took place, during our time of COVID now, and long after it is over, the social-emotional learning needs of students and teachers should be at the center of what we do. However, during this time we have the opportunity to define our instructional core in school, which may mean looking at our most vital of standards and getting rid of some of what we used to teach because it does not have a place in our curriculum anymore.

In order to have those conversations, and inspire the leadership that may be dormant around the table, we need to dive into questions that will help us keep our focus, and the following four questions can help us do that.

  • How are teachers and students working together to create authentic learning experiences?
  • How are we supporting teachers in that process?
  • How do we engage families in the process?
  • What unbiased evidence do we collect to understand our impact?
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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.

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