No matter your school’s vision, if you want to achieve it, you must empower others. After all, real change in schools only happens through collective efficacy. Sounds big? It is, but with some intentional moves you and your team can make the change you seek as soon as tomorrow.

Although it takes time to be intentional, as education leaders, we have no other choice. However, time is finite, so we have organized this article by priority—that is, if you only have enough time and bandwidth to do one thing, read the first section. If you think that is manageable and you have room for more, keep reading.

Coach More, Tell Less

Leadership Coach Thomas Van Soelen, left, and Principal Rebecca Williams. PHOTO COURTESY OF THOMAS VAN SOELEN

If you only have the capacity to make one change in your building to build collective efficacy, start with how you interact with your faculty members and students when they approach you with a problem. These daily exchanges when a teacher asks on your way to supervise the cafeteria, “Do you have a minute?” are your chance to build momentum. Rather than solve every issue that comes your way, find a set of questions that allows others to become empowered.

As the principal of Webb Bridge Middle School in Alpharetta, GA, I (Rebecca) had sensed that staff members felt they couldn’t make decisions on their own. Seven years ago, I reached out to Thomas, an external coach and professional developer I had known for the past decade, and the perfect gift was available: Thomas had just become certified as an Inside-Out Coaching trainer. This research-based coaching made a difference for our school, but there are many other programs available. The leadership lift is to stop yourself from giving advice and start pulling out the capacity of others through questions, hence working from the inside out.

This strategy is goal-agnostic—that is, it works in many different circumstances. Once people realize they have the capacity to solve their problems, they move to schoolwide issues. Now, when I am stopped in the hallways, I usually am asked to listen to a new idea or to be a thought partner. Most of the changes made for the 2023–24 school year have come from our staff and students. Our academic achievement and our vision of inclusivity are both on the rise because I stopped being the CPS (chief problem solver) and became the CEP (chief empowerment provider).

Focus on Meeting Outcomes

If you have the margin to make two changes, start using infinitive agendas, which I (Thomas) discuss in my book, Meeting Goals: Protocols for Leading Effective, Purpose-Driven Discussions in Schools for all meetings. This may sound too much like elementary school sentence diagramming but keep reading.

Infinitives are small phrases which start with “to” immediately followed by a verb:

  • To refine a parent engagement plan
  • To manage a dilemma in the cafeteria
  • To generate ideas for curriculum night

Here’s how they work with an agenda: Instead of handing out an agenda with topics, such as parent engagement plan, cafeteria behavior, and curriculum night, each item must be assigned an infinitive, that is, an outcome for its inclusion on the agenda. With infinitive agendas, gone are the “why are we talking about this?” texts during a meeting or a complaint-fest in the parking lot following a meeting. If an infinitive can’t be determined, the item doesn’t go on
the agenda.

The diligence and discipline to create infinitive agendas are worth it. They provide necessary accountability to assure the most important resource for educators (time) is well spent.

Not only do infinitive agendas make meetings more effective and efficient, they also enable staff members to see that the agenda was thoughtfully created—not a laundry list. These agendas result in a feeling of respect, which then breeds empowerment. This clarity boosts the building energy through transparency and ownership; people know when a decision has already been made and when their ideas are needed. In fact, at Webb Bridge Middle School, it is now an expectation from teachers that their time is well spent in meetings, so every meeting uses infinitives.

Divide Your Leadership Team

Do you have more capacity for change? Broaden your school leadership team into smaller groups with a single mission. In 2021, we broke our leadership team up into three units. Our Instruction and Intervention Team is composed of those who lead teaching and learning and any intervention program, like content chairs and response to intervention (RtI) chair. This group discusses academic data and anything related to student or adult learning.

Our Organization and Routines Team is comprised of all people who spend time creating and/or implementing processes and procedures in our building. The main members include grade-level chairs and safety team members. This team focuses on how we do things in our building and makes decisions about changes to school practices.

Lastly, our Culture and Relationships Team focuses on our overall school culture and includes members like our Positive Behavioral and Intervention Supports (PBIS) chair and our bilingual community liaison. This group plans and gives feedback on our inclusion efforts for our entire school community. Although all teams were involved, this team assumed the largest share of our National School of Character application, for which we received an award in 2023.

If you only have the capacity to make one change in your building to build collective efficacy, start with how you interact with your faculty members and students when they approach you with a problem.

Creating more teams allows us to focus on our goals and ensure equity in making decisions. For instance, a school leadership group can be heavily weighted with members from one grade level or content area, but when the larger group is broken apart, the voices considering a topic become equal and invested. Furthermore, we added voices by including more people. Our bilingual liaison, critical to our school culture, was not part of our Leadership Team before, and neither was the in-school suspension supervisor, who implements interventions with students but never had a seat at the table. Opening these meetings to more stakeholders widened ownership within our school, and the differentiated agendas have allowed us to delve deeply into equally important topics. Both changes have sped up our efforts to attain our goals.

Lastly, our minutes from each of these meetings are shared with the entire staff through our staff newsletter, so truly everyone is in the know and can weigh in on ideas. Isn’t the purpose of these teams to make decisions and not constantly ask for feedback? If that question intrigues you, keep reading to the last suggestion.

Invite and Capitalize on Ongoing Feedback

If you still have bandwidth to add change, create an ongoing staff survey. We believe feedback is a gift and everyone’s voice matters; thus, in every weekly staff newsletter and on every grade level agenda, a feedback link is presented to teachers and staff. It is not hidden away; the same link is given to them twice a week—all they need to do is click on it. The goal is easy access.

The form is simple. There are only two questions:

  • What do you want to share?
  • If this is a problem, what is your idea or solution?

While there are times when anonymous feedback is appropriate, this is not one of them. It is a Microsoft form, so the faculty member’s name is recorded, and staff members know that is the case. The form is not anonymous for three reasons: One, I (Rebecca) need to understand the problem, which means there are usually additional questions. Anonymous issues stifle any further inquiry. Secondly, since a response is provided for every piece of feedback, the feedback source is necessary. Finally, and most importantly, I want to partner with the faculty member on their proposed solution.

Each Sunday night, I open the feedback and either send follow-up questions to the person who submitted the entry, set up a meeting with the person to discuss it (if it is a complex issue), send the response if it is something simple, or copy and paste the feedback and possible fix on our administrative team agenda for Monday morning. We begin our meeting each week with considering feedback from staff, students, and parents.

After the administrative team meeting, I respond to the faculty member with the outcome. If it is a schoolwide issue, it generates into an item at the monthly faculty meeting. There is always a “to respond to feedback” slide where a process or change is brought about by a faculty member’s reflection. Some of our best tweaks have come from our staff noticing a process that could be improved and offering a solution to make it better.

This simple survey helps keep our pulse on problems and look for trends. Since the survey is truly available to all, it builds equity in access and idea-generating. This empowerment piece is powerful and has created our strong culture. Yes, staff could visit my office or email me with their thoughts, and they do, but this survey is my way of promoting continuous feedback. Simply stating, “My door is always open,” or, “Email me,” is not enough. Having an intentional process and procedure for receiving and reflecting on feedback and seeking solutions takes faculty voice to another level.

Now What?

You read to the end—thus, you believe you have the capacity to make several significant changes. These intentional shifts all matter; otherwise, they wouldn’t have made our list. Although we could provide plenty of data about the impact this approach has had on student academic learning, student sense of belonging, parent confidence in schools, etc., this one question made the most difference for us: When anonymously asked last spring, “Would you recommend this school as a place for your friends or family to work?” 100% of our staff said yes. That’s collective efficacy to make real change in schools. 

Rebecca Williams is the principal of Webb Bridge Middle School in Alpharetta, GA. Thomas Van Soelen, PhD, is a professional development trainer and leadership coach.