Shared Leadership and Communities of Learning
Focusing our energy on creating a stronger sense of mission
by Mac Bogert
We educators are bombarded with data—test scores, graduation rates, GPA’s, drop-out percentages, college enrollment numbers, class size, remediation rates and more.
These numbers are not meaningless. Like the reading on a thermometer, they indicate that something needs attention. We can lower our fever—a number—with aspirin, though changing that number may not treat the condition that caused it. And there are lots of ways (some more fitting than others) to affect numbers like graduation rates. Perhaps schools have taken too much from the industrial mindset—schools as assembly lines— and lost sight of schools as communities. Assembly lines aim for numbers. Communities build on relationships.
What if we focused our energy on creating a stronger sense of mission, centered on the shared value of learning? People rather than numbers. Better health rather than lower fevers, as it were.
Our first public school, the Boston Latin School, opened in 1635. For most of our history, public schools were small. They often mixed ages together and taught all kinds of things from religion to ‘rithmetic. Schools served as a primary location for students to interact socially, to establish a sense of community together. Standardized curriculum? Graduation percentages? Funding indexed to test scores? Not for many, many years.
“I believe that the school must represent present life - life as real and vital to the child as that which he carries on in the home, in the neighborhood, or on the play-ground.I believe that under existing conditions far too much of the stimulus and control proceeds from the teacher, because of neglect of the idea of the school as a form of social life.I believe that the teacher's place and work in the school is to be interpreted from this same basis. The teacher is not in the school to impose certain ideas or to form certain habits in the child, but is there as a member of the community to select the influences which shall affect the child and to assist him in properly responding to these influences.”1
I’m not suggesting we go back to a one-room building heated by a coal stove with a single blackboard. Yet as all our access to data and learning tools—via technology— expands the horizon of information, what about creating a sense that we’re all working together on creating connection, insight and application?
We know that learning and teaching both gain meaning as well as staying power when they occur in a web of relationship. Not only does learning thrive when we interact with other perspectives, we develop the skills of emotional intelligence and learn to see our differences as resources. The more we can create a sense of shared discovery—community—the more learning becomes a value rather than just a series of lessons.
For that community to grow, we can start by examining what we mean by leadership. Do we view it as exclusive—only for a select group like administrators or department chairs? Do we limit student leadership to athletic teams, clubs and the student council? Community comes from the same root word as common (I’m a recovering English teacher). So the more leading becomes common rather than exclusive, we have access to a wonderful truth: the more leadership we share, the more leadership there is. The more we can spread responsibility, decision-making, and open communication throughout our school, the stronger the sense of community.
Most of our current schools have three barriers that block sharing leadership:
First, faculty, administrators and staff don’t have a vehicle to develop a vision for collaboration or steps to implement that vision.
Second, students don’t participate in curriculum, instruction and governance.
Third, all the members of the school community do not collaborate on developing and measuring success.
We can take simple, concrete steps to address these roadblocks, understanding that structural change takes time and trust—
Why not set aside some in-service time to allow school staff to develop their collaborative skills and build greater understanding? Give them space (and power) to share leadership in developing goals, making budgetary decisions, involving the community, brainstorming learning projects. As leadership becomes less concentrated and more mutual, we know from research as well as from experience that organizations become more agile, innovative, and energized.
“The fact is, the knowledge of how to improve schools has grown a great deal in the last 20 years, and the educators who have put that knowledge to work in their schools and districts hold important lessons for the rest of us. If I had to put into one sentence what the key lesson they hold is, it would be that they focus on improving the knowledge and skill of the adults in schools and give them the time and space to collaborate about what kids need to learn and how to teach it.”2
For the students, we can bypass the artificial separation of grade levels and trust their often-underestimated capacity to manage the classroom. Share power with them about lessons, projects, class norms, setting goals, every aspect that affects their development. Even better, we can work with other teachers to establish and support mentoring, coaching, and across-grade-level projects. After all, how much of our post-school life is spent working only with people of the same age? Teachers can become fellow learners, their greater knowledge and experience a resource rather than an authority. This shift creates an atmosphere of interdependence—community. Learning geometry, language and computer science while practicing leadership is not a bad habit.
Finally, we can start to collaborate on developing a vision for the school’s success. Some of this vision will have to correlate with external standards like statewide testing. Building a community of learning works best as a practical vision—to succeed we need to consider the surrounding realities. Those realities do not negate the idea of agreeing on, for instance, a mentoring requirement for graduation, building student participation into curriculum development, developing alternative paths to achieving recognition (including grades) and giving students more responsibility in developing their own benchmarks for achievement.
I’ve worked in a factory. Swing shift. Two fifteen-minute breaks, ½ hour for lunch. It was soul-numbing. I’ve also worked for most of my teaching life as part of several learning communities – teams (including the students) who share leadership, learn continuously, challenge each other and see our differences as a powerful resource, regardless of position or experience. The tedium of the first helped me realize the power of the second.
If we can see the continuum of education as the assembly line on one end, a community of learning on the other, we can develop plans and programs that help us lead, together, forward and leave the factory behind.