What can school leaders do to drive change in their schools?

Ravenscroft School in Raleigh, NC, and the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) in Greensboro, NC, have been collaborating for the past six years to answer this question. Through our research-driven approach to leadership development, we have found that a successful and transformative culture shift requires an interdependent leadership model. At the core of the culture shift is Ravenscroft’s Lead From Here initiative, which guides a systemic approach to teaching leadership skills to the entire school community. Through this unique partnership, we are establishing best practices that have wide application in many educational environments.

Changing the Mindset on Leadership

Providing a systemic approach to leadership development creates a culture in which everyone is taught and makes use of the skills, practices, and behaviors of successful leaders. Every school can do this by placing an emphasis on leadership development for all of its faculty, staff, and students—and by supporting each member of the school community by teaching relationship-building best practices. We’ve found this fosters an interdependent leadership culture and energized environment, which effective school leaders can leverage to drive change.

How to Change

CCL defines leadership as “shared direction, alignment, and commitment (DAC).” This relationship-driven concept suits educational institutions where multiple stakeholders must continually balance competing priorities.

Focusing on shared DAC provides a powerful anchor for conversations about priorities, goals, and outcomes. It helps everyone understand important concepts, including the school’s direction, whether or not everyone is on board, and the shared commitment to do the work needed.

DAC is most successful when it is established and embraced by everyone in the organization, rather than being a directive handed down by one leader. This is the ethos of interdependent leadership.

Deciding Where to Go: Direction

Ravenscroft wanted to enhance the school’s already strong educational programming by adding new elements to the curriculum to develop well-rounded citizen leaders who are prepared for success in the modern world. The result was Lead From Here, Ravenscroft’s approach to interdependent leadership culture. This initiative is based on the understanding that everyone will lead right from where they are, no matter their role or position in the school. Traditional leader/follower definitions are dismantled, and everyone contributes to the social process of leadership at the school.

This approach equips everyone with the skills to adopt a leadership mindset in every endeavor, whether they are leading by themselves in the moment, leading with others in collaboration, or working collectively to make a change in their school or classroom. We knew that implementing these new teaching and learning principles would require a culture shift—all faculty, staff, students, and parents needed to be involved. We also knew this effort was going to take more than a single year of professional development.

Coordinating the Effort: Alignment

Ravenscroft started with consensus-building among the entire administration, board of trustees, and governance staff. This process not only supported implementation of Lead From Here, but enhanced leadership development for these stakeholders, which helped them develop and model the skills that the rest of the school would use.

We implemented this programming during the first year as we worked together to develop the school’s “Citizen Leader Framework.” Consisting of 15 citizen-leadership concepts, the framework is organized around three fundamental leadership areas: Leading Self, Leading With Others, and Changing Your World. Subsequent years have focused on ensuring all faculty, staff, board members, administrators, and students received experiential education and training in the framework content.

The next phase of alignment focused on professional development and teacher practice. From 2016 to 2018, all faculty participated in a program that consisted of workshops on facilitative teaching practices, interim booster sessions, peer observation and feedback, and asynchronous reflection. We designed these sessions to amplify prior leadership development training by making it directly relevant to their pedagogy.

Staying Engaged and Accountable: Commitment

Through our alignment efforts, we created a shared language and set of shared practices that, combined, built a leadership culture. These practices include transparency, the creation of a feedback-rich culture, and a desire for shared leadership across the school.

Culture shifts are challenging. Leadership development provides skills to help stakeholders sustain commitment and navigate these challenges, which are much easier when everyone is working from shared language and practices. Faculty who started seeing and sharing the value they realized in the trainings helped their peers move into active use of the new skills. We reinforced this change through structural commitments, such as integrating aspects of the citizen leader framework into report cards and adding leadership and facilitative skills into faculty growth plans.

Interdependent Leadership Energizes Teaching and Learning

The focus on shared direction, alignment, and commitment provides a framework for understanding the key elements of leadership development and how an interdependent culture can be nurtured. For schools, interdependence looks like shared leadership. Decision making is distributed across groups and is transparent, feedback is continually sought, and adjustments are made when needed. As a result, collaborative relationships flourish between teachers. Supportive working relationships engage faculty and students, and shared decision making helps everyone understand the ability to contribute to excellent teaching and learning. Our latest evidence indicates that teachers are applying the interdependent leadership lens and facilitative training to their own classes, and even students are noticing the shift.

Interdependence Translates to Successful Student Outcomes

When we asked our teachers what education would look like if teachers were able to achieve shared direction, alignment, and commitment in their facilitative practices, they were clear in their responses: Student learning and outcomes would be transformed. Supported by the underlying framework of Lead From Here, teachers now focus intently on facilitative teaching, transforming the classroom experience for learners. As a direct result of the investment in leadership development for everyone, teachers and students have the core skills to capitalize on facilitative teaching. Students are more engaged and productive when they’re given an opportunity to be leaders in their own learning experiences. Our most recent data show that student engagement is increasing and teacher-student relationships continue to improve. These key ingredients for student success are fostered through our shared leadership culture.

Valerie Ehrlich, PhD, is a senior research scientist and evaluation manager for Societal Advancement at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, NC. Doreen Kelly is the head of school and certified executive coach at Ravenscroft School in Raleigh, NC.