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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

What Are the Elements for a More Impactful, Focused School Leadership Team?

By Peter DeWitt — August 17, 2021 11 min read
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Schools often face challenges, but COVID-19 exacerbated those challenges when it comes to issues of equity, student and adult mental health, the effective use of technology, and developing authentic student engagement. Many times, schools can address these issues within their school-based teams, often called shared-decisionmaking teams or instructional-leadership teams.

Unfortunately, these school-based teams are not as impactful as they could be, because there is a lack of focus or direction. Some of this is due to the fact that the team doesn’t fully understand the dynamics within their group and therefore members do not engage in the necessary work to develop collective efficacy.

Tschannen-Moran, M., & Barr, M. (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.” What their research found is that when a group of teachers have a strong belief that they can make a difference together in how their students learn, those teachers are more likely to develop strategies to meet that goal. What this means is that teachers’ collective efforts can positively impact student learning, and deeper student learning can positively impact how the teachers come together collectively.

What About Leaders?

For years, what I find interesting about the research on collective efficacy, much of what was inspired by the efficacy research originated by Albert Bandura beginning in the 1970s, is that many times the school building leader’s role in developing it was relegated to setting up a climate in the school in which teachers felt trust in one another and could engage in deep conversations.

A climate of trust and deep conversation is certainly important, but shouldn’t leaders have a deeper role?

They should do more than just set up the climate; they need to be an active member in the process, which leads to collective leader efficacy. Leithwood and Jantzi (2008. p. 496) found that, “school leaders’ collective efficacy was an important link between district conditions and both the conditions found in schools and their effects on student achievement.”

A few years ago, I began some deep investigation into how we build collective leader efficacy (CLE), because I believe that the school building leader’s job isn’t merely just setting up an environment. As a former school building leader, I feel that a leader’s role is to be an active member in that environment where the team of educators learn together with a focus on student learning.

Hattie, Donohoo, and DeWitt define collective leader efficacy as “the shared conviction that an instructional leadership team makes a significant contribution in raising student achievement.” CLE is best developed when the 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.

However, what we know is that instructional-leadership teams have internal struggles with status because school-based leaders are members of the team, and that often means that teachers around the table do not want to speak up and challenge their supervisors.

To do this often-complicated work, there are two necessary components to the collective leader-efficacy process. The first is to look at how the team comes together through drivers of improvement, and the second is to understand where to focus their collective efforts using a cycle of inquiry.

Driver’s Seat

Fullan (2011) says drivers, “are those policy and strategy levers that have the least and best chance of driving successful reform.” According to Fullan, there are four criteria for successful drivers. Drivers of improvement must:

1. Foster intrinsic motivation of teachers and students

2. Engage educators and students in continuous improvement of instruction and learning

3. Inspire collective or teamwork

4. Affect all teachers and students—100 percent?

In my new book, Collective Leader Efficacy: Strengthening Instructional Leadership Teams (Jointly published by Corwin Press and Learning Forward), I suggest eight drivers. Teams must foster these drivers to strengthen their school team, as well as strengthen their focus on student learning.

To be clear, to do that, the school building leader needs to be a member of the team and not the one who runs the meetings. It is one of the reasons why Fullan’s work on drivers is so important to this process. Those drivers are:

Mindset –Due to issues like COVID, it’s easy for educators to have a deficit mindset where they focus on aspects of student engagement. Too often, the conversations focus on COVID learning loss, which leads to deficit thinking, as opposed to focusing on where students are in the learning process. What this means is that instructional-leadership teams must develop a common language and common understanding around student engagement. Mindsets are fostered through developing that understanding and then finding proactive strategies to help increase engagement.

Well-being – In a joint report (2021), NASSP and EPI found that 42 percent of principals indicated they were considering leaving their position. Teachers are not immune to stress and anxiety, either. In this recent Education Week article, Kurtz cited an Education Week Research Center finding that 92 percent of teachers said “teaching is more stressful now than prior to the pandemic. And most also say it has only grown more challenging over the course of the pandemic: 78 percent of teachers say teaching is a lot or somewhat more stressful today than it was a year ago.”

Teams need to do more than just acknowledge stress and anxiety, but they need to also engage in discussions on well-being in their leadership-team meetings. These discussions must result in actionable steps where they do something about it. One major actionable step that teams can engage in to help alleviate stress, chip away at workload, and focus on well-being is through the deimplementation process. van Bodegom-Vos L et al. (2017) defines deimplementation as the process of “abandoning existing low value practices.”

Ask questions such as:

  • How do we spend our time at meetings?
  • How many initiatives are we engaged in, and do we need them all?
  • What practices can we begin to deimplement, whether that means a partial reduction or a complete reversal?
  • How can deimplementation help us take control and find better work/life balance?

Context beliefs – This is a driver that has long been a part of the dialogue and research when it comes to efficacy. Leithwood et al. (2008. p. 536) “These are beliefs about whether, for example, the working conditions in the school will support teachers’ efforts to instruct in the manner suggested by the school’s improvement initiatives.” The question to ask is, “Do teachers in the school feel as though they are supported when they try new strategies in the classroom? Do they feel they have a voice in the decisionmaking in the school, or do they feel they always need to be compliant?”

What this means is that instructional-leadership teams must intentionally talk about how they support teachers through professional learning and development or resources in their school, so teachers feel supported when they try something innovative. Teams can do this by focusing on three questions:

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

Working conditions – As you can probably tell, all these drivers are interrelated, and working conditions are no different in that relationship. Working conditions means developing a positive school climate, where people feel valued and respected. It is an important driver when it comes to how a team comes together, and it is yet another area where teams can engage in discussions about deimplementation. Wang et al. (2018) says deimplementation comes down to four areas. Those areas are:

  • Partial reduction
  • Complete reversal
  • Substitution with related replacement
  • Substitution with unrelated replacement of existing practice.

By focusing on these areas, instructional-leadership teams can begin to improve the working conditions within their schools because it becomes less about the million things we do during the day and more about focusing on a few important strategies that will allow them to have the greatest impact.

Organizational commitment - Organizational commitment is an important partner to the discussion about working conditions when it comes to developing collective leader efficacy, because when we look at organizational commitment, we must consider it in three different ways:

  • How are teachers committed to the organization?
  • How is the organization committed to teachers?
  • What is the organization, and those who work in it, committed to when it comes to student learning?

Through these three questions, and using a cycle of inquiry, instructional-leadership teams choose an instructional goal that will have a positive impact on student learning.

Professional learning and development - Hargreaves and Fullan (2017) write that “Professional learning is often like student learning—something that is deliberately structured and increasingly accepted because it can (to some) more obviously be linked to measurable outcomes.” They go on to say that “professional development involves many aspects of learning but may also involve developing mindfulness, team building, and team development.”

Instructional-leadership teams can model professional learning and development using flipped meetings where educators can engage in discussions and activities focused on high-impact practices through reading articles or watching videos ahead of time and then bringing evidence showing how they put it into action.

The skills to work in collectives – It is not easy to work in collaboration with others, especially when one of the members of the team is an administrator or the supervisor of everyone else on the team. In fact, Kuhn (2015) found that collaboration does not work any better than if we were to engage in an activity and do it by ourselves.

The reason is that members of a team do not challenge each other’s thinking enough when they are within a collaborative setting. This takes skill to understand how to work in such a dynamic.

The confidence to work in collectives – Through the work defined within the other drivers, each member of the team will develop the confidence to work in collectives. Bandura’s (1997) seminal work on efficacy is important here because the researcher found that there are four experiences that raise the confidence of individuals and the team. Those experiences are:

  • Mastery experiences
  • Vicarious experiences
  • Social persuasion
  • Affective states

Cycle of Inquiry

The second of the necessary components to build collective leader efficacy works simultaneously with that of developing drivers, and that component is the cycle of inquiry that the instructional-leadership team engages in together.

Casey (2014. p. 510) writes, “When we describe learning in terms of inquiry, we are clearly affirming that learning and questioning processes are somehow intertwined.” Through my work, I developed a cycle of inquiry that encompasses six steps, which is pictured below, that instructional-leadership teams can focus on in their work as they come together.

Cycle of Inquiry

Those inquiry steps are:

  • Develop – Develop a focus for improvement. What does the evidence show when it comes to an area of improvement?
  • Explore – As a team, and a whole faculty, explore how you engage students currently? What strategies are already commonplace?
  • Inquire – Formally, as a team, begin to develop a purpose statement focusing on that area of improvement, which then leads to an inquiry question and ultimately a theory of action.
  • Plan – Develop a plan of action where your team considers resources, activities, and a timetable that will help foster improvement.
  • Implement – Begin taking actionable steps that will help teachers and leaders engage in the improvement process.
  • Reflect – Using the evidence during the development stage, discuss how your school has improved.

In the End

Our greatest challenges and potential innovations take hard work and the best thinking of an instructional-leadership team. Those teams can have a powerful impact on their school communities and be a great place to motivate others in a school. What we know is that our issues in school can sometimes be significant, and a good team is worth its weight in gold. However, the practice of engaging with our school leadership teams needs to be guided by research.

Building collective leader efficacy is that research because it focuses on how teams come together and learn from one another, at the same time it focuses on using a cycle of inquiry to have a deeper impact on learning.

By developing a student-centered focus for our instructional-leadership team, understanding the drivers behind whole-team success, and then engaging in an intentional process to do the work is a viable way for school communities to be successful and develop a more positive self-fulfilling prophecy as a team.

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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