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Friday, June 15, 2018

Improving the Way We Teach and Serve Students: Distributive Leadership

I am a fan of distributive leadership in schools rather than hierarchical leadership.

Modern leadership seems to be moving more towards distributive leadership, a type of leadership that fosters greater teamwork rather than a top-down hierarchical approach. I am in favor of this for schools and have written about what this might look like at the elementary school

In the system where I work there is still evidence of top-down hierarchical leadership mindsets as well as distributive leadership mindsets. I think that there will always be a blend, but I believe we need to move more towards a team approach and teacher leadership to move schools forward.

I have been learning about this for years and discussing this with both colleagues and administrators in my system. There are a lot of thoughts about this, and I am happy that so many are willing to discuss leadership models with an open mind towards positive change. Of course some are unwilling to discuss this, but those are only a few compared to the many who are reading the research and embracing this new way of thinking of schools, a way that my research shows will build collective genius, teacher leadership, and our collective capacity to serve students well.

Fortunately we have many good structures in place to build greater distributive leadership including the following:
  • Professional Learning Communities (PLCs)
  • Shared Google Calendars
  • Some structures for regular inclusive communication such as the Friday Memo that the principal sends out
  • Faculty Meetings
  • A Team Teaching Approach at most grade-levels
  • RTI: Response to Intervention
  • Shared Planning Time
  • Regular Student Service Meetings
  • Student Transition Meetings
  • Parent-Student-Educator Conferences
We also have ready access to technology and grant funding that also supports the distributive leadership work we are able to do.

This week I experienced a directive that made me feel much like the cartoon on top to the left. I missed the original directive due to the fact that I didn't clearly understand the mandate, and then was reminded of the mandate late into the year. What probably would have made that clear for me would have been more straightforward and regular communication. I experienced a similar disconnect once as a parent in the school system and missed an important event related to my son's education--that's why I am committed to our grade-level's weekly newsletter that invites families into all information and decisions related to the classroom events. Good two-way communication matters when it comes to apt distributive leadership. In the best of circumstances, communication includes the following:
  • Regularity: to coach teams forward, I recommend a weekly newsletter
  • Connections: I recommend adding links, images, and other information to help a team develop common language, focus, and interest
  • Invitation to Share: Share from all stakeholders should be fostered and there should be an easy to access vehicle for this. I recommend a table at the bottom of the weekly newsletter that inspires team members to share a link to a project, problem, question, idea, or information that others may be interested in. 
  • Questioning: As teams, we should keep the important questions up front--what are we trying to solve, do, get better at, and know more of, and why have we arrived at these questions--what data demonstrates this need? 
  • Conversation: Distributive leadership promotes an ongoing conversation related to betterment and doing the job well rather than a list of directives. With distributive leadership, the team works with autonomy, mastery, and purpose to move the whole team forward.
  • Honesty, Trust, and Transparency: Distributive leadership does not bury the problems or lead with secrets. Instead this type of leadership uses an empathetic and empowering approach that recognizes that no one on the team knows all yet everyone profits from positive, open, and timely share of data, information, and goals. 
Further, good distributive leadership uses formal and informal data to pinpoint team goals and objectives. Our grade-level team does this in the following way:
  1. We continually discuss our overall team goal which is to teach the expected curriculum to all students so that students are engaged, empowered, enthusiastic, successful, and happy. 
  2. We carefully analyze and discuss all data points and discuss how we might teach together better.
  3. We communicate with all stakeholders weekly via our weekly newsletter that includes all the information students, families, colleagues, and administrators need to know about the team focus and events. We try to share all initiatives with families ahead of time in case they would like to suggest changes or ask questions. We consider all stakeholders to be valuable members of our team and embrace a servant-leadership model with regard to working with families and students.
  4. We created and continually update a grade-level website that has links and information to all of the grade-level information, initiatives, dates, and efforts. 
  5. We think ahead and keep a running Google doc where we share ideas, questions, links, and other important information with each other.
  6. We meet once a week as a team to review the Google doc questions, publish the newsletter, and discuss plans for the weeks ahead.
  7. We meet during the summer and review the curriculum map and make plans for the year ahead.
  8. We create shared goals based on data analysis and other informal and formal assessments including reactions we've received from families, students, and others related to our program efforts.
  9. We continually look for ways to build greater capacity to teach all students well. We study and research regularly too.
All in all our grade-level team approach has been successful. 

Now we are looking for ways to grow our teaming with the broader team including special educators, specialists, therapists, counselors, coaches, and others. While there has been good intent here and some great collaborative efforts related to projects such as the Global Changemakers Project, we feel that with better communication and scheduling, more targeted goals, and better process at PLCs and other shared meetings we can do better. 

This summer we've committed to doing a deep dive into students' goals, services, and data to prepare for a conversation about how we might schedule and work better to reach the students' learning needs that we prioritize. We will learn a lot about the upcoming students before the start of school in order to foster this good collaboration.

I am also thinking with administrators and teachers about how we might elevate process at PLCs. PLCs are sometimes directed and led by coaches, specialists, and administrators who have not taken the time to think deeply with us about what we need and what we can do. At times, the focus and process is layered and led by people distanced from the team--people who don't know our students and don't know us well. There's a lot of projection about who we are and what's important with little true understanding or analysis about where we can get better. There's also a lot of conjecture about what we need or might do without any real evidence to back that up. This is not true for all, but it is true for some PLCs. 

I think our PLCs can be improved in the following ways.
  1. Use a modern approach such as hosting conversations to come up with a team goal (similar to the goal setting that administrators and others presented at school committee meetings this spring)
  2. Using Hattie's bright research, use an apt design plan to organize the goal by working backwards with the following steps: identify the goal, create a learning path including roles and efforts, begin the path, assess regularly, and revise as needed. (see image below)
  3. Work deeply and purposely together to reach the goal to teach and serve students better. 


Distributive leadership holds great potential for working smarter, working better, and serving students and families well. I look forward to the collaborative efforts and process ahead.