When I became an administrator, one of the first things I noticed was the solitude of the position. Throughout my years as a teacher and a coach, I spent little time alone. I was coaching, collaborating, and socializing. I had an array of co-workers to lean on, run ideas by, and vent to regarding the perils of the job.
It didn’t take long to realize that the role of a principal was a much lonelier position than being a classroom teacher. In my first three years as an administrator, I essentially performed my job alone. I worked hard to do what I thought was best, as I had learned from education classes or practical experience under former principals. Foolishly, I strived to be the best I could be without utilizing the resources of my co-workers right under my nose. I had somehow created the notion that the role of a principal was to lead staff with all the answers and knowledge readily available in their back pocket.
But I didn’t have all the answers.
Starting From the Bottom
At a staff meeting in mid-October 2018, I proudly announced to my teachers and staff that I had heard we received a “commendable” rating in the first year of the Illinois State Board of Education’s (ISBE) newly created school accountability system. I was proud, as I thought of this rating as a direct representation of my abilities to lead effectively. That confidence did not last long. The next morning, my superintendent called with our official rating: “needs improvement.” I had jumped the gun in telling my staff that we had a “commendable” rating. I was shocked and devastated. While I agreed we had room for growth, understanding that we were now ranked in the bottom 10% of schools in the state was truly unbelievable. Personally, I held the blame. My skills were lacking. My abilities failed. I faltered and was unsure of where to turn.
Searching for Answers
In the next few weeks, I had many meetings with our Regional Office of Education liaison Michaela Fray. Her role was to be our learning partner as we navigated through the school improvement process and the facilitator to guide our school toward a more desirable outcome. I quickly realized that my solitude in administration was not working to raise our school, Winchester Grade School (WGS), to its fullest potential. Michaela suggested the development of a Building Leadership Team (BLT) to help WGS through this process. When selecting members for the WGS BLT, we looked for three main criteria:
- One member from each part of the building—one teacher from Pre-K–second grade, one teacher from third–fifth grade, and one teacher from sixth–eighth grade—to ensure equal representation.
- Each member must be willing to work hard and set aside personal differences for the betterment of the team and school.
- Each member must demonstrate a growth mindset. This process would create vulnerability and there was no room—or time—for judgment or fixed opinions.
On Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019, we held the initial BLT meeting at WGS. We had our work cut out for us. That day, we spent seven straight hours creating expectations, norms, requirements, and an overall plan to use data to refocus on our students’ needs. That day, I realized that the resources I had needed and missed all those years of working alone as an administrator were right within our school’s walls. The members of this team were passionate, dedicated, and determined to bring our school back to the high standards we all knew we could achieve.
Building the Foundation
Our BLT team dug deep and got right to work. In a few short months, this team spent hundreds of hours working to identify the best ways to reach and support our students and help them grow. We met weekly, often spending additional time after normal school hours. We planned and organized a buildingwide, two-day professional development (PD) conference for early June 2019. Over 90% of our staff members attended.
This PD was the turning point for WGS morale. Personally, I was able to model vulnerability. I shared my own weaknesses and expressed my need for the staff’s input and help. We shared perspectives, discussed different viewpoints, and brought down some walls. For the first time, my staff felt they could share personal and professional opinions without fear of negative repercussions. Now, with open minds, we worked toward one of our main goals for the conference: the development of professional learning communities (PLCs). The creation of these PLCs allowed even more opportunity for shared leadership and collaboration within grade levels, with a consistent, structured focus.
But we didn’t stop there. To further our leadership skills, the BLT also attended Brené Brown’s “Dare to Lead” two-day training and the National Institute for School Leadership program. These trainings bonded us, strengthened our “team first” mentality, and bolstered our growth mindset. We were able to analyze our student data with open eyes and open hearts, and build confidence in collaborating to improve teaching and learning at WGS.
Celebrating the Fruits of Our Labor
The shift to shared leadership had a ripple effect. The visions and goals of our school were now aligned. Staff buy-in was overwhelming, and our mantra of “stronger together” led us forward toward success. One year later, leading up to the time when we would receive our latest rating, we were understandably nervous. Was all of that time and work enough?
In October 2019, ISBE’s rating of our school went from “under-performing” to “commendable.” Finally, the efforts of our dedicated staff led to a ranking more representative of our students’ true abilities. Even more, this success was not limited to just one year; we have maintained our “commendable” rating each year since, and our student achievement continues to rise.
Shared leadership created sustainable, measurable growth and change for our school. Additionally, these successes led to further opportunities for our team. We were selected to present our success story of shared leadership at the 2020 Illinois Principals Conference. The knowledge and experiences of our team could now help educators beyond our school and district. If shared leadership worked for us, it could work for other schools as well. Our efforts were further rewarded when I was selected as the 2020 Illinois Middle School Principal of the Year. Additionally, I was chosen as the 2021 Illinois Principal of the Year. These awards may be in my name, but the leadership team, the teachers, and staff made it possible. Shared leadership created a snowball effect of successes for our school. As our mantra goes, we are, in fact, stronger together.
Creating Next Steps
Our Building Leadership Team has grown by three members over the last three years. Now, our plan is to extend an invitation to a student and community member to join the team. While COVID-19 and related protocols have made meeting in person more difficult, we have made a concerted effort to include PD time for our team. We changed the overall district calendar to include weekly Wednesday “early-out” days for these meetings. Additionally, in order to further the goal of shared leadership, members of our BLT cannot also be the leaders of our PLC teams. We intend to create more leaders and experts throughout our school, sharing the knowledge and efforts buildingwide.
Reflecting on the Value
As administrators, we often feel pressure to have all the answers. It took an unfavorable experience to force me out of my comfort zone and to seek the assistance of others. The addition of a BLT will allow your school to achieve greater success. It will create a shared leadership style, allowing for the consideration and viewpoints of all those invested in the greater good of your school. With shared visions and goals, work will be focused and intentional. Positive intentions will lead to positive outcomes. Additionally, this team will free you from that lonely island many administrators find themselves on. It will help you maintain a better pulse on your building, open the lines of communication for everyone, and allow for optimal collaboration. Most importantly, shared leadership will create higher student successes, as we recognize we are all “stronger together.”
Andy Stumpf is the principal of Winchester Grade School K–8 in Winchester, IL, the 2021 Middle School Principal of the Year, and NASSP’s 2021 Illinois Principal of the Year.