Lead by Helping Others Lead

-by Jack M. Jose

Getting suggestions has never been a problem for a school administrator. When I transitioned from being a teacher to being a principal, I noticed a significant change in how people started sentences when they spoke to me. Instead of offering me congratulations or encouragement, parents and friends were offering me … advice. Suddenly “You should …” became a common conversational opening. When I was a teacher I did not field many suggestions about what to do in my classroom. But now that I had completed 15 years of teaching, and my second post-Bachelor’s degree, and had been selected by a group of teachers, community members, and others to lead a school, I was clearly always in need of one more unsolicited idea. Principals, apparently, exude the impression that they are grasping for suggestions, and need input on every step, from the most mundane idea to ideas that would completely transform the nature of the school. Among suggestions I received: “You should paint that curb yellow,” “You should secretly rank your students and report that to colleges,” “You should do away with the bell schedule,” and “You should require everyone to get two credits of home economics.” Often suggestions are helpfully couched with evidence of dubious merit, usually stated “Like they did in my high school.”

Lead by Helping Others Lead

Of course, I am exaggerating the nature of the suggestions and (somewhat less so) their frequency. In fact, deftly handling suggestions is an important part of the work of any leader. The best leaders involve a wide array of individuals in the act of molding all aspects of the school, and find ways to let others lead.

More than a decade ago, prior to moving to Gamble, I was involved in discussions surrounding the reorganization of a public school in Cincinnati with an eye toward creating a teacher-led school. The goal was to create a system whereby teachers would collectively make the key decisions about the school – program structure, schedule, disciplinary decisions – and the administrator would serve largely to assist in making those decisions happen using his (my newly-acquired) administrative status. (Only now does it occur to me to have been something of a backhanded compliment. On the one hand, perhaps I was seen to be collaborative; on the other hand, perhaps I was perceived as potentially a weak administrator. I choose to go with the first understanding.) I know that when I was a teacher working daily with other trusted, hard-working teachers, constantly acting with the best interests of the students in mind, this seemed a logical conclusion in the evolution of schools. Who better to make the decisions than those of us closest to the “front lines”?

Well, the pie-in-the-sky hope did not come to fruition. And since then, time and again, the structure in CPS schools – and almost everywhere else – has remained largely static and hierarchical. There is a principal, one individual making the final call on the entire range of decisions; size and budget permitting, there may be one or more assistant principals; finally, there are teacher leaders, both in name and stipend, and in energy and spirit.

Though that particular effort to create a teacher-led school was unsuccessful, the concept itself is not misguided or even ill-fated. In fact, any school can be a teacher-led school, provided the administrator is willing to let it happen. Below are suggestions for a controlled, thoughtful way that an administrator can share authority with teachers. These are all strategies that have been applied regularly, albeit imperfectly, at Gamble Montessori. The first hurdle in utilizing these suggestions is having an administrator who wishes to involve teachers directly in the process of decision-making and responsibility-taking.

Sharing responsibility and decision-making with teachers, parents, and students is not a novel concept in education. Nor is it a new thought in any business model to involve front-line employees in making the most important decisions. Stephen Covey in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People discusses this sharing of the work and decision-making as the difference between mere management and true leadership. Benjamin and Rosamund Zander, in The Art of Possibility, call it “Leading from any Chair,” and describe this as the most important aspect of leadership. In the end, it creates not just a better product, but a shared sense of accomplishment and ownership.

Listening to suggestions:

First, a leader must find an intentional way to elicit input from others involved in the task. Listening to suggestions is best exemplified by Zander’s own example, wherein he encourages the musicians in his orchestra to provide suggestions on how the music should be played. Those who are closest to the situation are in the best position to understand the problems and the changes that need to be made to affect the best outcome.

This does not mean taking every suggestion and implementing it, or even promising to implement it. It does mean that you have to develop facility for handling suggestions in a way that ensures they get fair treatment. Sometimes this means allowing a teacher to take leadership on an initiative that they have championed, and sometimes this means referring the idea to a relevant committee that is in position to make the suggested change.

Sharing responsibility:

To be most effective, a manager must not only listen to suggestions, but must create structures to implement important ideas and changes in a regular manner. At Gamble Montessori, there are few aspects of the structure and daily running of the school that have happened without the tacit approval, and sometimes the explicit approval, of a majority of the staff. This can be accomplished anywhere with a couple simple steps.

First, create committees to achieve certain goals or accomplish work that needs to be done during the school year. Though not an exhaustive list, three examples of this at Gamble, and at many schools, are:

  • Graduation committee, created to plan and implement the annual commencement ceremony;
  • Positive school culture committee, responsible for overseeing instruction around fair implementation of the school’s rules and policies for students, and the effectiveness of a particular approach;
  • Communications committee, responsible for maintaining the school’s website and social media presence.

Second, create a governing structure where the principal is a critical component, but not the only one. An example of this is an instructional leadership team (ILT). In Cincinnati Public Schools an ILT has a defined composition and roles that require a certain percentage of teachers, parent membership, and the presence of the principal to create a quorum. Such a structure similar to an ILT at any school could be used to make a wide variety of decisions. The wider the changes they are empowered to make within boundaries, the better. These should not be minor decisions; this committee is not best used to decide when the school play should happen (that is a job for a sub-committee). The ILT should be used to make substantial decisions such as setting the focus of annual improvement efforts, and monitoring the success of teams and individuals in achieving the goals that were decided upon.

However, the simple creation of a governing structure is not the goal. A leader must commit to giving those structures the space they need to do their work effectively. That means allowing the committee to structure the work that comes out of it – including the Principal’s work. I occasionally lament that our ILT exists to create my to-do list, but it is an empty complaint. I understand that to lead by example, I have to be willing to allow the decisions of the group to become my work. I must also enforce decisions when they become the work of the group.

Establishing priorities:

One replicable way that we have become transparently teacher-led is in collectively establishing priorities for key decisions. There are many “hidden decisions” that get made in the daily process of running a school, or any business. Every phone call handled by a secretary or returned by a teacher helps set a tone for the school (ask Zappos or Wondermade Marshmallows about the importance of good customer service.) Grading decisions made daily by individual teachers have large impacts on student success and outward signs of student success like grade point averages, which in turn affect college acceptances. Even though these decisions are powerful for individuals and their sense of connection to the school, they are made away from the public eye, in the privacy of our classrooms or dining rooms. These are the kinds of actions for which there must be a framework that establishes priorities. Not everything on a teacher’s to-do list can be the most important thing.

Another example of hidden decision-making comes when we schedule students. With only 7 classes in a school day, over two semesters, a course choice in high school has ripple effects for everything that happens afterward. I became aware of this early on, when the school was small enough that I did the scheduling by hand each July. Where a class fell in the school day impacted the ability of the student to take (or not take) other elective classes, or determined whether a team could have common planning time during the day. Several years ago I listed the factors that drove course selection and decision-making during scheduling, and I challenged our ILT to prioritize these factors. Earlier this year we revisited the process.

We used our leadership structure to involve everyone in determining our scheduling priorities by defining key terms, and taking an initial list back to our constituencies. We came back together with questions and suggestions for all of the scheduling factors. An example of the items that might run up against each other during scheduling, are “expanded elective choices,” “reduce class sizes,” and “access to remediation.” We then decided on a voting structure, created ballots, and voted as a staff, creating a final prioritized list. This list will guide those of us who schedule students as we make decisions, allowing us to do it independently and in a way that is consistent with the wishes of the school.

This process is time-consuming. It took us a couple of weeks. However, the result is well worth it. Ultimately everyone got to weigh in on our school’s scheduling priorities, and collectively we made a decision that will guide many behind-the-scenes decisions made by administrative staff while scheduling individual students and classes.

When you become a leader, you are going to get suggestions. Creating a shared responsibility system for handling suggestions is going to help everyone feel empowered and supported in making everyday decisions, and it will determine whether you are successful.