Teamwork. Cooperation. Joint effort. We know these are important concepts in education, but in the wake of the pandemic that has forced us apart, what concrete steps can we take to engage in collaborative leadership to improve our schools? To find out, we contacted Jessica Beattie, the 2021 Massachusetts Assistant Principal of the Year and assistant principal of Holliston Middle School in Holliston, MA; Jen Halter, the 2021 Florida Principal of the Year who leads Clay High School in Clay County, FL; and Amy Skirvin, the 2021 Oregon Principal of the Year who leads Waldport Middle and High School in Waldport, OR. Principal Leadership senior editor Christine Savicky moderated the discussion.
What does “collaborative leadership within education” mean to you?
Skirvin: Collaborative leadership within education means that the school culture involves all stakeholders when necessary to make decisions that directly affect students. This could be academics, school culture, community, social-emotional well-being, past traditions, new things you’re starting, any change—it’s really getting the input from all your stakeholders so that you can make a collaborative decision and go from there.
Halter: I feel like all voices of stakeholders need to be heard, especially in major decisions that affect the school, and that’s how I approach things. It’s making sure I have a parent volunteer organization, that I’ve made a student advisory council here at the school. I make sure that I meet with my leadership team, with my teachers; I give surveys a lot, so using the survey data when I’m looking at making different decisions for the school and the community. Unless it’s an immediate safety concern, school leaders don’t really make decisions on their own.
Beattie: I think that including all stakeholders—community members, parents, families, students, and staff—is vital to running a school. Oftentimes, we have certain people that we might lean on more than others, so I’ve really tried hard in my leadership role to get some of either our new staff or our younger staff to use their voice because I think that is equally as powerful in driving the mission and the philosophy and protocols through the building.
How does a collaborative leadership model benefit teachers and students?
Halter: A collaborative leadership model benefits teachers and students in that they have a voice and a choice in what’s going on at school. They’re just as important as the leader of the school. It helps them not only to share their view of what’s going on, but also to listen to the views of others, and to listen to what the students are thinking. And they also feel like a choice or decision is not being done to them—they are part of the decision-making process. I remember being a teacher and wanting to be part of the decision-making. I wanted to just be in the room to understand what decisions were being made for the school and why they were being made. I wanted to voice my concerns from a teacher’s standpoint. As a school leader, I love having students tell me what they’re thinking; it’s a different lens. We don’t see our students’ day-to-day lives unless we’re walking in their shoes, so it’s important to understand where they are coming from while we’re making decisions.
Beattie: One of the things we often talk about in our building is collective efficacy and really getting our staff and our students to know that they need to be part of making the school great. I believe we all are in this profession for very similar reasons and that collaborative leadership—involving teachers in that process and giving them a voice—allows me to know what’s happening on the front line. I tell my teachers and our paraprofessionals, “You’re the front line. You’re in it.” I can’t be everywhere, so getting the faculty’s input is paramount to the school’s success. And then when we add that student voice in, it helps me create the whole picture.
Skirvin: I would add that collaborative leadership also builds ownership and trust. We talk a lot about how we’re a family here, and having that buy-in. I think of simple things. For example, this year we dispensed of the bell system. We thought it was a good idea, but the students started talking about how they wanted bells, so they wrote letters. The teachers then talked about it, and I took it over to our PBIS Tier 1 committee. They had ownership of the whole process. We have also had some issues with vandalizing the bathrooms. So, the teachers met together about having escorts to go to the bathrooms. When a decision is made and someone feels that they have been a part of that decision-making, that they have a say, then they work together to make the change and make it successful.
How have you, as a school leader, collaborated with teachers and students to create instructional models that engage and empower students?
Beattie: What came to mind when I thought about this question was pre-pandemic—which feels so long ago. Our staff, students, and administration team came up with “Personal. Local. Global.”—PLG—for our school. It was something that we could easily remember and helped guide our mission of where we wanted our building to go. We wanted kids to feel like they were connected to the things they were learning, both personally and then on a local level, and then what we can do globally to help the world. That was something we came up with collaboratively. Then, we embedded project-based learning into that as something we really thought was beneficial for kids to keep them engaged in learning. It really knocked the doors off our building. We did lots of amazing things and a lot of team-building and problem-solving together. We created activities for the community. Engaging all stakeholders to come up with this motto has really taken us in a great direction.
Shifting to where we are now, students have recently voiced concerns around biases and social justice and topics of that nature. Like Amy was talking about, vandalism in the bathrooms, we thought, “How do we address this on a larger scale?” If we look at it through our PLG lens, how can we connect with it personally and in our community? Our school leaders and faculty have worked really hard to create lessons that are viewed through the lens of students first to see what they think and then all of our staff. We stop what we are doing in the individual classrooms and our whole staff implements those lessons. Every child gets that lesson in the same ways around racism or antisemitism, empathy, those types of things. It has worked really well.
Skirvin: I think about the instructional model that we’ve been working on since last January. It’s based on findings and protocols from the Center for Educational Leadership from the University of Washington. All the administrators at Lincoln County School District have been going through this training around instructional practices and strategies and how to help teachers evolve their own practices. We started with observing ourselves teach online. I’d have teachers record their Zoom sessions and then reflect. That evolved into small groups of two or three teachers watching each other and giving feedback. Then, this year, when we came back full time in person, my assistant principal and I went with each teacher to observe two or three other teachers and then identified different strategies being used in the classroom. They could be behavioral strategies; it could be academic; it could be strategies that pertained directly to whatever it was that they wanted to focus on for their own instruction.
We’ve also moved from a teacher-directed classroom to two-way communication between teacher and students. Students are feeling empowered to have communications with our teachers based on these reflections and feedback that the teachers are giving each other. Now we’re seeing the transition to student-to-student [communication], so it’s more student-driven instruction and learning versus teacher-directed instruction. Our next step now is to create, as a staff—again, that collaborative leadership piece—a student vision so that we have a model. What is our students’ vision for learning? How do students learn?
In addition to that, one of my teachers has taken on proficiency-based teaching and learning on her own, and now she’s teaching the other faculty members how to do that. So, now I have this buy-in from teachers who understand that it’s about what the students know, not when they know it, but how you’re going to help them get there. One of my teachers said it best: “I always knew who was an A kid or a B kid or a C kid, but I couldn’t really tell you why they were considered an A, B, or C other than their scores on tests. But now I can actually tell you what standards they’ve met, what they’re proficient at, and what they need help with.” It’s really changed our process and our thoughts regarding the education of our students.
Halter: I love the professional learning community (PLC) model of looking at what kids know and what they need to know. How do we know if they know it? What do we do if they don’t? We use PLCs here, where the teachers collaborate. They meet weekly and look at common assessments, how students are doing, and share best practices. Administrators are all included in those meetings. An administrator works with each group of teachers.
The other thing we do is that we collaborate with the students on their own success. When they get a test back, what is it telling them? What do they need to keep working on? What did they do well? So, we do goal setting here. Teachers do goal setting for themselves and their students, and students set their own goals. Each quarter, the teachers meet with their students to reflect. They ask them questions: How are you doing? How are your grades? What do you need to do? Are you working toward your goals? Did you accomplish them? Do you need to make new goals? It’s really important that we model that goal setting for our kids, along with talking to them and collaborating with them. Was the goal too high? Was it too low? What do we need to do? So, we conduct a lot of data chats and counseling with students.
We also do social-emotional learning time at our school. It’s dedicated every day, and once a week they fill out a survey that goes to their guidance counselor and school counselor. This check-in allows the adults to know how the students are doing, if they need some supports, if our school counselors need to meet with the students, and if they need some help whether it’s academic or social-emotional help. (Editor’s note: For more on goal setting, see the article on page 48 of this issue.)
What’s a piece of advice that you would give another school leader regarding collaborative leadership?
Skirvin: “Be vulnerable.” It’s OK to admit fault and that you don’t know. You want your staff and students to feel that you haven’t already made a decision, that you’re actually seeking their input, and you value their input. And then you have to support the decision that they make. Even if you don’t necessarily agree with it, they have to be able to trust you. And it’s OK to fail. I think it’s good as administrators and teachers that you’re showing the kids that it’s OK to fail, and you learn from that, and you keep going.
Halter: Along the same lines of what Amy said, your idea may not be the best one. Listen to other people. We have lots of great ideas when we’re just by ourselves, but then you must listen to each other because you’ll come up with something better as a group.
Beattie: I’ve never been that proponent of top-down management and believe I have always been a true team player. We don’t necessarily have the best ideas; we’re not out there in every classroom and knowing exactly what the best move is. So, let’s use our collaborative teams to help drive those decisions. And if they don’t work, they don’t work, and we change our course. That’s something I always say to staff: Take the risk. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, but I would never fault anyone for trying something that’s best for the kids.
How has collaborative leadership helped during the pandemic?
Halter: Collaborative leadership during the pandemic has allowed us to feel connected to each other and to help share what the school community’s needs are. It helps, especially when you involve parents. They feel heard, and they feel supported because the needs of one group may not be the needs of another. It’s helped to see what we need to work on as a group and really helped widen the lens of serving the whole community and where all of our kids and families are.
Beattie: During the pandemic, collaborative leadership helped because the entire school community trusted us because we have always been such an open and collaborative team, whether that’s just in our building or with our families. We’ve been pretty transparent, and that’s the leadership team that we run. They trusted us, so every time we had to pivot or change or say, “We’ve got this, we promise you …” they trusted us, and they did. Our staff trusted that we knew they were working their tails off and doing the best for kids, always.
Skirvin: I would definitely agree with Jessica—having that trust already made things a lot smoother. Running the school through the pandemic was still rocky, but, as I’ve said, I hope as educators that we take what we have learned from the pandemic and use it to enhance our learning and instruction and not just go back to the way it was pre-pandemic. We have all learned a lot through this process, as Jen said, with connecting with each other, and that trust is huge.
I led a fireside chat with parents based off the Distance Learning Playbook for Parents by Rosalind Wiseman, Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, and John Hattie. I did a book study with the teachers, and then I did a book study with parents. I sat in front of my fireplace at home and had Zoom on. What’s funny about it is, we’re from a really small town. People would talk about the fireside chat at the supermarket even if they never even attended, but they knew it was happening, and they knew they could join us if they wanted to. So, just having that two-way communication is huge. Parents just want to know what’s going on, and they want to trust you. And if they do, it’s much easier to communicate.
Is there anyone left to collaborate with, or has everyone become so focused on their own agenda that they aren’t necessarily willing to work for the common good?
Beattie: We’re in an interesting place in education where people are tired and frustrated, and they just want to get back to where we were. I continue to have open conversations with staff and meet them where they are. Certainly, I think I tend to lean on some of our more veteran teachers to be the leaders and collaborators, and the pandemic has forced us all to really open up and include more voices, and include different types of staff, students, and families so that we do have new, fresh ideas. Sometimes we just get to a place where we think, “I have nothing else to give.” But we’re all in this for a very similar reason, and when we all put our heads together, we all want to make good change. We all want to see kids be successful. So, I do feel like while people are tired, there’s still opportunity for new ideas and new growth through collaborative leadership, which is what we’re looking for.
Skirvin: I have to give a shout-out to my teaching staff and my support staff here at Waldport Middle and High School. I truly believe I have the best. They completely support each other and then ultimately support the students. The district office has been really good about understanding our social-emotional needs. We’re still moving forward—don’t get me wrong—with education and what we call “pushing the rock up the hill.” We’re still doing that, but they understand that it’s different times now, and they’ve allowed that grace, which has been huge.
I think the group we’re having trouble collaborating with is our state Department of Education. We need to really understand what’s really happening in the buildings, and not just listen to the loudest cries out there. We invite them to come in and collaborate with our building administrators, meet our kids, and see what’s happening. That is the piece that I feel that I don’t have. I don’t have that collaboration at the state level, and that would be something I would like to see.
Halter: I just came back from advocating at the state level for the last couple days. I feel like, even though people have agendas, that it is focused on all levels, including the state level, that we want our students to be successful and we’re trying to find ways to—even though we are still in a pandemic—move forward. Our state department has been very open with us coming together, voicing our concerns, and sharing what’s going on in the schools. We have seen our state department in the schools, too. They do a lot of visits. They have also reached out and said, “Come sit on this panel. Come do this work, come write these standards. What’s going on? What do our kids need?” And I really value that. I believe that maybe we do have our own agendas but that we’re all focused on the same thing—it’s just sometimes we go about it in different ways. As long as we reach out to each other and continue to collaborate, collectively we’ll move in the right direction.