Collaborative Leadership

Remember group projects in school? Even if you were apprehensive, your instructors would say, “You’ll need this skill one day!” Well, that day has come. On-the-job, collaborative leadership is a dynamic and empowering type of management that incorporates the voice of administration, teachers, staff, students, and community. To learn a bit more, we enlisted the help of Karen Andrews, special education department chair of the Whaley School in Anchorage, AK; Erika Huck, resource counselor and head of the counseling office at Thomas W. Pyle Middle School in Bethesda, MD; and Bill Ziegler, principal of Pottsgrove High School in Pottstown, PA. Principal Leadership’s senior editor, Christine Savicky, moderated the discussion.

Savicky: How was the collaborative leadership model implemented in your school?

Huck: I have been at Thomas Pyle for 20 years, and we have always had a collaborative model in place. My counseling team sits in on administrative meetings, which is really helpful to have a voice from the counseling office on that team for counseling decisions. We also have a lot of parent involvement from the school community. We have a counseling advisory committee that helps us decide on programming and acts as a voice to let us know the needs of the community. We also have team meetings to talk about students with staff. We have student focus groups, where administrators meet with students to get a pulse on how they’re feeling about the school and the programs and the teachers—everything basically involved in the school.

Andrews: At Whaley School, we have had the collaborative leadership model [since] the 2013–14 school year. We are a separate day school for students with behavior challenges. We have created a leadership team that includes our administration, our counselors, and our teachers on all three levels. The team also includes our life-skills teachers, a representative from our paraprofessionals, and a representative from our intervention coaches. In those meetings, we share our concerns and work together to understand and address concerns as a whole. We also use that time to listen to problem areas, work together to find solutions, and create strategies that help us achieve our vision at Whaley. We prioritize by best seeing how to keep a positive culture going in our school.

Ziegler: We have had the collaborative model at Pottsgrove High School for five years. We work really hard to [put] structures in place—to create opportunities to collaborate. First, the principal team meets regularly and collaboratively every day and throughout the day. But we also have our leadership team—a member of each department—that drives many decisions. We meet with them regularly to review anything that’s going on in the building and get their feedback. We are working hard to get more teacher leaders involved around collaboration, so we’ve developed teacher teams. We have a community outreach team, we have a focus team for each grade, we have a mental health team. These teams work and collaborate around “How can we improve as a school? What can we do to get better? How can we do it, and what can we implement?”

We also work really hard to listen to the students and collaborate with them on change. One way we do that is with “Falcon Feedback Friday.” We meet with four randomly selected students from each grade on Friday, and we ask them four questions: What does our school do great? How can our school improve? What do you dream our school can be? What can you personally do to make our school a better place? Collaborating with those kids has really made our school a better place. We’ve taken their advice: We got additional microwaves, a salad bar, and hot sauce in the cafeteria, and we allow them to come in late on snow days.

Savicky: Was the move to collaborative leadership a conscious decision, or something that just evolved?

Huck: We’ve had a collaborative approach for as long as I’ve been here, but I don’t know if that means it’s all been smooth. For example, sometimes we’ve tried to add new components, and we’re always trying to grow and add more collaborative features. About 10 years ago, we tried to have more collaboration among the content-alike curriculum. For example, we wanted all the math teachers to plan together and align their curriculum. However, the idea was unevenly implemented and not received well by staff because some teachers felt like it was more work. Ultimately, we got a lot of stakeholders for whom it was working, and they highlighted the ideas that really helped for the others. Having the stakeholders talk about how good collaborative leadership was, rather than the administration, really helped.

Andrews: For Whaley School, it was a conscious decision to move toward the collaborative model. The part that we struggled with in the beginning was the number of meetings that we have, when those meetings take place, and getting into a routine of when we meet. But overall, the response to having those collaborative meetings has been very positive. Everyone from teachers [to] TAs, intervention, and coaches feels that they have a voice. Even the students feel they have a voice in decisions that affect our school. Now that we have our routine, it’s been very positive because everyone knows that they have a voice in decisions.

Ziegler: It was intentional. We felt that if we didn’t make it intentional, and we’re not consistently putting it out there as a mindset and a goal, then it would be too easy to slip away from that model. We have triggers in place to keep us accountable to that, such as our leadership team. We schedule the collaboration to make sure that it takes place. In the beginning there was some pushback because the staff was working a lot harder. People were highly involved, and this took up their time, but now the feedback has been great. We do what’s called the “My Voice” survey, which is a survey on school culture with the staff. One of the pieces is on collaboration, and with that, we assess our collaboration each quarter.

Savicky: Time and energy are always in short supply in schools, so how do you get past the mentality that collaboration just means more work?

Huck: We really looked for the groups that were working well and highlighted them at staff meetings. The dissenting staff started to see how excited the teachers were about working with each other and how, when they reach a certain point, they actually work less. Even student focus groups take time for administrators and counselors to facilitate and organize. We order pizza—all those things take time. When you’re working together, some of the workload feels lighter. Another huge benefit of collaborating and getting the buy-in is when there really is a big problem in a school—which is bound to happen. The community and students have a lot more trust in the school when the school has been soliciting their input all along.

Andrews: We get buy-in through our persistence in showing the data, and when the teachers and staff are able to see the changes in behaviors. Again, we are a behavior school. When they can see the changes that are coming about because of collaboration in the behavior of students, see the progress that students are making, and especially when we are able to transition students back to a traditional school, the stakeholders see the benefits of being able to come together, collaborate, and problem-solve.

Ziegler: I believe that when people have input and value in something, they’re more likely to contribute in a way that they are passionate about. So, I listen to teacher voice and student voice and implement what I hear and see. If we’re just collaborating and just listening and do not act on what we hear, we fall short of our goals. That’s how we get some breakdowns in collaboration. Whereas if a teacher comes up with a great idea and we implement it, we have their buy-in for a very long time. They then can be turnkeys and say to the staff, “Listen, it’s worth it. Look what I did, and look what we did together.” You can see the success.

Another piece of collaboration is celebrating. You’ve got to take time to celebrate the collaboration, celebrate the work, celebrate the achievements. We structure time in to make this happen.

Savicky: What difficulties have you experienced with this model?

Huck: When we’re sitting in collaborative meetings—like our instructional leadership team—we get frustrated at certain points and think, “Will someone just make a decision? Will someone just tell us what to do?” or “This is hard. Do we all have to have a say in this if we can’t come to an agreement?” I think that is probably the biggest difficulty—being able to know when we need to move out of that role sometimes and someone needs to make a decision.

Andrews: Another difficulty is when we have two stakeholders with two strong opinions that are on opposite sides of an issue. We want to create a positive solution that works for everyone, but sometimes not everyone is happy with the solution. We also have a lot of brand-new teachers who come in with the passion and excitement of being that first- [or] second-year teacher, working with teachers who have been around for 20-plus years who’ve always done things a certain way. We have some difficulty being able to mesh together new ideas, new technology, that new passion and excitement with those who are steering toward retirement. We just ask how we can help mold those together into an agreeable solution.

Ziegler: One thing that’s easy to fall prey to is listening to the veteran voice over the rookie voice. Whether you’re a two-year teacher or a 22-year teacher, you have the same amount of input and value on what you say and do in this school. Some people believe that rookie teachers need to earn their stripes, that they shouldn’t have a voice until they have valid experience. We are working hard to honor every single voice. That’s one piece. The other piece is, collaborative leadership does not necessarily come naturally. You have to teach it and model it. I know when I started doing this, I expected that people would do it. Some didn’t know how. I had to walk them through some ways to do it.

Savicky: How has the collaborative leadership model impacted you in your particular role in the school?

Huck: This model makes me feel invested in my school. I feel like my voice has been heard and that I’m a key player in the school. I feel encouraged to not only work in and build this really cool school, but it has also improved my leadership within the counseling department. In the counseling office, we’re incredibly collaborative. We do everything as a team, and we try to be very in step with what each other is doing and work to each others’ strengths. I’ve seen improved leadership throughout the entire school because when one area is collaborative and confident with a decision, the other departments and teams also feel the confidence. When a group decision is made, one of the steps that I take is to walk other stakeholders through the decision-making process. Doing so really helps people understand the situation, even if they don’t really like how something is being handled or implemented.

Andrews: My role as the special education department chair at Whaley has really brought together all the teachers and the teams that work with students, especially for their IEP meetings and decisions that are made based upon data for our students. But my role has also included input from the parents, other community members that work with our students, and the students themselves. I explain to them all the different collaboration efforts that happened to make the decisions and the data that we used to make those decisions for students’ educations and well-being. It’s also shown me—for wanting to move forward to become a principal—what strategies and what type of leadership and team-building things I would like to implement in the future.

Ziegler: It has transformed my leadership style in the sense that I slow things down a bit to allow time for everyone to talk and to hear other viewpoints. It also requires me to trust more people. As a young leader, I remember thinking, “I’m just going to make the decision and move forward with it.” Now I realize that I need to be patient. I need to be reflective and I need to include more voices. I think it’s been a great joy to work in this environment. It’s fun collaborating, sitting at a table and thinking with people about how we can make our school better. I get energized by hearing other people’s viewpoints. It has required me to be less about me and more about others. I think that’s really been productive in moving our school forward.

Savicky: How has this leadership model affected students?

Huck: It makes them feel positive about our school and invested to be here and really feel like there are a lot of leadership opportunities and people who care about what they think. We routinely have teachers poll kids about how they’re feeling about their classes, which is a very respectful, helpful tool. We have done that sometimes quarterly, sometimes per semester, and then we let kids know what we’re going to do with that feedback. Teachers say, “This is what I heard, and this is what I’m going to do.” Counselors do quarterly character education lessons. Before we distribute those lessons, we have a group of students who preview the lesson, and we ask for their feedback. We feel really good about putting that lesson out when we know students have said, “This is something we would be interested in.”

Andrews: Students can fill out a request to meet with administration or counselors at any time. They can bring questions; they can bring concerns. We meet with them individually or as a group of students. They understand that they will get results based on their concerns. We also invite our students to participate in different meetings with us. We invite them to bring their families and participate in different activities at the school. The students and families have a say in what is planned, what is discussed, what programs will be presented.

Ziegler: Students are such a critical piece of collaborative leadership, and I think it’s one thing that many school leaders fail to include. They think, “If I’m including the staff and am working with the staff, that’s good enough.” I believe, as principals, we need to listen to student voices. We need to make sure that we’re constantly soliciting feedback from students and then making strategic change accordingly.

One thing that we do in our school is at the end of November, we give out a pulse survey to all students. The pulse survey is really a survey on our school culture, but there’s a piece in there around collaboration, and as a staff we really try to work to see how we can improve. At the end of the year we take the survey again and see if we’ve grown in that area. Implementing student voice and getting students to the table of collaboration is key and instrumental to moving a school forward.

Savicky: How do you involve the parents, and what benefit does that bring?

Huck: In Montgomery County Public Schools—a very large school district outside Washington, D.C.—we have a lot of great county collaborations. The county involves parents by having them fill out yearly surveys on the district. We receive all the data so we can compare the results from year to year. We also have really good participation at our school improvement meetings—planning meetings over the summer—with the instructional leadership teams. Parents attend. They look at our data and help us brainstorm about our school.

We do the same for our counseling department. Parents attend meetings to advise about what kinds of programming would be helpful for students, and what topics might be helpful for parents. We also have a super-active PTA. The benefit is that parents feel invested. And when incidents occur, parents are able to say, “You know what? I’m sure this was an anomaly because this school is doing A, B, and C, and I know they’re working on things. I know that because they’re communicating with us and they’re getting our input.”

Andrews: I think we involve the parents quite often. We recently established a PTA that we didn’t have before. We also encourage our staff—during their team meetings each week—to call and communicate with parents. Some of our teachers email parents on a daily basis for their child, so how they communicate with parents is [unique] to each parent. We also plan what we call “Parent Universities.” We poll [parents] at the beginning of the school year, ask what they would like to learn and what they are interested in. Then we have our Parent Universities—one every couple of months—where we serve dinner and have training and information for them. Training is available here for them, or we provide them with assistance with their different needs: how to get outside agency help or how to apply for guardianship. We find out from the parents what they need, and we work as a team here to try and find ways to provide them with meeting those needs.

Ziegler: We work really hard to engage parents and to leverage their resources and their voice in our school. Anytime you hear people’s voices and give them an opportunity to design, create, publish, and be part of something, it increases the value of it and the experience. Collaborative leadership provides schools an opportunity to hear people’s voices, act on people’s voices, and be more diverse in their thinking and practice. It provides a sense of ownership for people when they have input and they’re collaboratively involved and engaged. They’re more likely to value what they do and take it more seriously. It raises the level of commitment and passion and desire for success in that school—both with students, teachers, and parents—at all levels. When you have a true collaborative model, it’s reflected.

Savicky: Has it helped you tap into any undiscovered skills of your staff?

Huck: Absolutely. We have many different levels of leadership here, and I think when you are continually involving staff in decisions and asking for ideas and asking for input, you have a really good sense of who might be a good future leader. We’ve really encouraged staff to become team leaders and department chairs based on what we’ve seen in terms of soliciting their input.

Andrews: We’ve seen that in our building also. We’ve grown many leaders in our building moving from one union group to another. We’ve had teachers who have gone on to become administrators. We have intervention coaches who’ve gone through teaching programs [who] are now teachers, and also teacher assistants who have become intervention coaches. So, we’ve seen definite changes in people becoming leaders in our building and [sharing] their passions for different things such as bike riding, movies, music. We’ve seen them bring those different passions into the classroom to share with our students and others, and it’s just really opened them up to share in that collaboration piece.

Ziegler: Anytime you empower people’s voices and collaborate and work together, you’ve learned new things about them, new skill sets that you can really use to move your school forward. I think that’s one of the things I love about it—it gives you an opportunity to really strengthen the partnerships and use the skill sets of people in a way that strengthens the school and builds up students and staff members.

Savicky: Can you name one or two new ideas or approaches that grew out of the collaborative effort that you had not previously had in place?

Huck: One student idea that came from our focus groups was they felt like they didn’t know many of the students, and that some students didn’t appreciate the diverse population or those who didn’t speak English. With the administration’s blessing, they established a Culture Lunch. Every other Friday, a parent comes in that represents a different culture, and the room turns into Spain or Israel or Brazil. The students gather, eat, and learn from a parent of a student who has come from that country to our school. They taste food from that culture and hear about the government and different places to visit. That’s a wonderful program that grew out of a student idea.

Another example is when parents told us through our counseling advisory committee that their students lacked study skills. As a school, we now have our “Study Skills for Success” night. We have different breakout sessions. The parents and students come together and learn how to study for a math test. They learn how to approach a writing assignment or study for a world language test. They go together to build those skills. That idea came right from stakeholder feedback. Once you have the collaborative leadership model, you don’t want to go back to any other way of leading. It feeds itself, in a way.

Andrews: Developing our professional learning communities has grown from our collaborative efforts. Additionally, our principal has put together some classes that our staff can take for credit through the University of Alaska. They’re able to use the credits that they earned for advancement, salary advancement, or toward renewing their certifications. We also have Ed Camps that we do as part of our professional development days. We find out what staff is interested in learning, and then the leadership team develops a class that’s about 30 minutes long. During the Ed Camp, the staff goes from 30-minute class to another 30-minute class to get a snapshot of the requested topics. We’re able to address the professional development in that way.

Ziegler: Recently one of our teachers suggested that we need a system to track students’ comings and goings to class because the old hall pass feature no longer worked. We investigated some software programs, and we ended up going with e-​HallPass. It was really a collaborative focus, because we gave teachers an opportunity to pilot it, then we listened to their feedback. We really allowed the teachers to make that decision. Collaborative leadership is refreshing. It’s energizing, and it’s empowering.