School Climate & Safety Opinion

Tennessee District’s Distributed Leadership Model Fosters Innovation, Entrepreneurship

By Emily Douglas-McNab — December 12, 2013 2 min read
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Kingsport City Schools in Tennessee has embedded a multi-level leadership strategy to help foster professional learning, innovation, and entrepreneurship. I recently asked Kingsport Superintendent Dr. Lyle Ailshie to share more about this innovative leadership approach and its impact on the district.

Leadership is not a zero-sum commodity. This is even truer in today’s information age, which makes it nearly impossible for one person to have all the knowledge needed to propel a dynamic organization with many moving parts.

In Kingsport City Schools-- a district of just over 7,000 K-12 students (51 percent free/reduced price lunch) in northeast Tennessee--we have adopted a distributed leadership model to help foster an environment of empowerment and entrepreneurship, as well as personal and organizational learning. Distributed leadership can provide a more agile approach that is often needed to be truly proactive.

Our multi-level leadership strategy includes many leadership positions typically found in school systems, but also goes well beyond the norm, particularly at the school level where effective leaders are most needed. In addition to principals and assistant principals, we also have associate principals. These individuals are paid as teachers, but receive on-the-job training and mentoring from their principal, who tailors experiences and professional learning to their performance and career goals. The school system meets regularly with associate principals as a cohort for training and support.

Every school also has teacher-leaders for literacy and math who provide job-embedded professional learning and mentoring as exemplary role models. They work across grades and schools to develop curriculum and common assessments for benchmarking.

Teacher-leaders and associate principals participate in district leadership team meetings on a rotating basis not only to enhance their professional growth, but gather their feedback as system initiatives are developed and evaluated. Teacher-leaders are identified for other school- and system-level roles, including serving on committees, focus groups, and task forces to ensure that multiple leadership roles are integrated into all decisions.

Kingsport’s distributed leadership model has helped create a culture that values and supports innovation and educational entrepreneurship. Leadership embedded at all levels and throughout the system serves to embrace ideas that might otherwise be overlooked or not make it to a school or system leader. Ideas that are promoted validate the work of the “owner” and demonstrate a commitment to listening. After all, the best ideas often come from those who are charged with implementing the work!

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