For the record, I am proud to say I am a classroom teacher. But I am an incredibly passionate classroom teacher who sees the big picture of education, not just the things that happen in my classroom or things that affect just my students. I don’t just live in the teacher silo. I am like a nomad, visiting and spending time in other silos. I love getting out and connecting with educators of all levels and positions to discuss education.
Recently, I had an opportunity to “crash” the National Principals Conference in Philadelphia. I met up with some incredible education heroes, among them Sean Gaillard, Neil Gupta, Jay Billy, Brad Currie, and Dave Burgess. Since this was a principals conference, most of the educators in attendance are currently in the role of principal, but that did not stop us from inspiring, creating, debating, and discussing very important educational topics with one another. We left our silos, took off our title hats, and collaborated as professionals; it was exhilarating! From my perspective, this happens far too infrequently.
Leadership in most organizations tends to be reduced to two very opposing models: a top-down model with a chain of command directing protocol and accountability to staff, or a collaborative-style, bottom-up leader, who embraces a holacracy, promoting a team approach that seeks input and action from staff. The leader assumes the role of facilitating. Neither singular approach capitalizes on the strengths of all staff to create a culture of collaborative investment in which everyone is perceived as a leader.
Great Leadership Uses Both Models
Great leadership can—and should—have both. The best schools operate with a lead-up-style approach, giving everyone a voice and important purpose, but with a clear top-down vision and facilitators who help to execute that vision. The benefits are numerous. The overall satisfaction of staff is positive. When people enjoy coming to work, they are more likely to participate and attend events, and are more apt to assist with or lead extracurricular activities and work collaboratively as a team.
The positive culture is palpable; it is every administrator’s dream come true! In contrast, if staff members don’t believe their opinion matters or the work they do is appreciated, that culture is also palpable and can greatly influence the climate of a school. In education, good administrators set the culture of a harmonious work environment in which staff are deeply invested in the success and failure of their school.
The sad truth is that many schools haven’t mastered the perfect formula for successful leadership that creates a culture in which everyone can have ideas and feel valued. They are still more comfortable with the traditional top-down style of management and don’t know how to begin to transition to the hybrid model of leadership that yields the best results of a dedicated and driven staff working collectively to reach for excellence. Administrators are the gatekeepers to changing the design of management. Success is possible with key systematic changes.
Give People a Voice
Begin with buy-in. Include all stakeholders in all important decisions. Seek feedback and input before final decisions are made. The biggest mistake a leader can make is not giving people a voice in matters that concern them. Time can restrict seeking input; therefore, it is critical to design a variety of ways to gather feedback or seek input. Encourage positive conversations by using tools such as a suggestion drop box, surveys, Google Forms or Docs, or email communications. Consider asking for face-to-face meetings or virtual meetings to solicit feedback. Once open communication procedures and trust have been established, people are more likely to open up and participate in meaningful dialog.
Then, make sure to follow up and follow through. It is part of our human nature that we need to feel valued. If people are asked to participate in the process of change, they want to know that their ideas were considered. Don’t drop the ball; keep them in the loop. Communicate the outcome while validating the different ideas and approaches. People understand that their idea may not come to fruition, but they’ll love that you considered it.
It’s also important to give credit where credit is due! Be sure to thank people who have devoted their time, talent, and energy to the school in any way. Celebrate them both publicly and privately. Thank-you notes go a long way toward keeping staff wanting to be part of the team. Eliminate the word “I” and replace it with “we.”
Next, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and jump in. Nothing says “team” like getting actively involved with the great initiatives in your school. People greatly respect a leader who walks the walk, not just talks the talk. Don’t ask others to do anything that you wouldn’t be willing to do yourself. Volunteer to serve in any capacity; it will go a long way!
Do You Really Know Your Staff?
Establish a relationship with your staff members. Know all of their names and what their role is in your school or district. If this is impossible in immense districts, focus on your school. The people whom you encounter every day should sense that you know who they are and feel a connection to you as an administrator. This single concept will yield more positive results than any other—it all begins with a positive relationship. Be accessible and responsive to your staff; make sure to respond to communication and requests in a timely manner.
This also includes engaging in professional development alongside staff—as a participant, not as a leader. Better yet, have staff lead professional development. Attend Edcamp and conferences with members of your staff who share your passion as an educator. Participate in professional learning networks. If you want your staff to be leader learners, you must also be one.
As part of being a good leader, try to say yes as often as possible. If you want to encourage more leaders in your school, you need to create opportunities to lead, and that hinges upon you saying yes to new ideas and initiatives. Set up a system to pitch new ideas and discuss the merits and flaws of engaging in a new initiative for your school. Support it in every capacity possible.
At the end of the day, we all put our pants on the same way-one leg at a time. Recognize that no one person is better or more valuable than another. The idea that everyone matters and feels valued will create a community where people are beating down the door to get in. What are you waiting for? One team, one dream. Let everyone lead up!
Michele Hill is a teacher at Delsea Regional High School in Franklinville, NJ.