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Transforming a school into a high performing, challenging and compelling environment for students and staff alike takes more than a village. It takes a new model.

There is no question that too many schools struggle, despite a wealth of smart, dedicated people committed to improving student outcomes. Schools have access to more data than ever, but most are unable to implement actionable insights data provides.

Teachers feel isolated and unsupported. They’re held responsible for student outcomes that they have no authority to control. School principals are swamped too – responsible for everything from the physical safety of students to instructional design, teacher quality, and budget management.

New Look at Leadership

Like corporations before them, a school’s organizational hierarchy lends itself more to silos than collaboration. The layers of bureaucracy work against the need for change. Everyone knows that more leaders are needed in the trenches, but proof of concept is one thing – building a workable model that a school can afford is another.

Maybe in another time, a single authority figure was sufficient but isn’t that part of the problem? Many of our schools still try to produce quality outcomes for students in the 21st century using models from the mid-20th century.

Transformative Models

Leadership is always the buzz word schools believe in – but the investment has been in individuals, not models. While there are some extraordinary leaders who can drive transformational change, they are not the norm.

The expectations placed on school principals border on impossible. They’re responsible for managing administrative staff, evaluation, and oversight for teachers. He or she is responsible for the safety of every student in the building. Crafting policy and instructional guidance are requirements too. A principal will be held to account if success metrics (set by the school board or district or federal government) are not met.

Oh, and in your spare time, can you please create transformative change that improves the quality of teaching and learning at your school?
What if instead of looking expecting a miracle, the school invested in the leaders already on staff. Smart, ambitious people who want to have an impact. Recruiting a team of leaders with experience who are savvy about the difficulties that contribute to poor performance is the best way to build capacity and amplify the message of positive change.

What is Distributed Leadership?

It’s exactly what it sounds like. Instead of a single leader at the top of the pyramid, leadership roles and responsibilities are distributed to teachers and staff. Schools can stop looking for that one-in-a-million candidate who does it all and starts developing and supporting the leaders they currently have.
Distributed leadership means shared authority, a big change for anyone who has worked their way up through the school system. Teachers who want to expand their role may have natural leadership abilities, but there will be a learning curve. There will be challenges to overcome as adjustments are made.

This is where the leadership of a principal can be focused – how to support transformation in a system that overvalues the familiar. The ability to articulate the value of change, then place leaders in positions to demonstrate the value will create momentum, even excitement.

Note that momentum and consensus are two different things. Don’t expect a mass onboarding – teachers and staff in many schools are dispirited and wary. If that’s your baseline, look for the low-hanging fruit. Give people a win and see how quickly attitudes and energy begin to improve.

Distributed leadership needs an implementation model – a path for people to follow. Expectations need to be realistic but measurable. Expect to hit snags and pitfalls that are inevitably part of transformative change.

1. Design Your Model

What does distributed leadership look like in your school or even your school district? If a program is designed to improve the quality of teaching and learning, surely it should be designed to address existing obstacles to that goal.

If teacher retention is a problem – what are the core issues? Why are college admissions are below average? How strong are the relationships between teachers and administrators?

When you prepare by identifying key obstacles that are either systemic or stem from a lack of resources, the next step is to prioritize where and how to create change. Successful models use these three components:

A. Identify new leaders based on desired outcomes

B. Map the structure of how leaders are deployed

C. Establish success metrics and ongoing evaluation of model and outcomes

Recognize that you won’t fix everything (even things you’d love to change) and some things may not be within the school’s control. A model needs to be realistic or risk getting lip service and eye rolls.

As you move forward, structured communications keep everyone in the loop, including teachers who aren’t taking leadership roles. If you don’t share the vision, rumors of impending change will drive the messaging.

Models that have the greatest success are focused on building leadership capacity that will improve the quality of teaching and learning. The central question is where to allocate scarce resources.

2. Strengthen Overall Capacity

In the process of designing the best quality environment for students, teachers, and staff, it’s necessary to look at what’s not working. That’s your baseline, and it’s part of the motivation for change.

The current obstacles help to build the structure of your model. If for example, teachers rarely get any face time for feedback or evaluation, it may make sense to bring on additional Assistant Principals to pick up some of the load.

Other schools have found it makes more sense to empower Teacher Leaders. In a Denver School district, teachers in a team leader role are released from classroom duty for extended periods to coach, support, and brainstorm with other teachers on his or her team.

Make sure your model has support for the newly designated leaders. They may need mentoring of their own. Create a culture where it’s okay to ask questions or need help. Put in place opportunities (either as a group or one-on-one) to listen to their feedback about what’s working and what’s not.

Teachers fight the good fight every day for a relatively meager salary and not much affirmation. Honor their efforts and provide the support they need to excel – your school has great leadership model.

3. Focus on High Impact Wins

Though there are periodic discussions about teacher salaries or retention, there’s not a lot of discussion about their feelings or emotions. No real talk about the intense pressure they’re under to improve student outcomes or how emotionally draining the job can be.

Responsibilities keep getting loaded on their plates while more and more students come to class with inherent challenges. Hunger, home life, English as a second language, difficulty with social skills, anger management – how does one-person deal with all of that every day of the week?

A distributed leadership program can be a vehicle to provide teachers with much needed support and advocacy. Coaching programs, peer support, professional development initiatives can all add to teacher confidence, self-esteem and job satisfaction.

And as noted above, don’t forget your teacher leaders may need some of the same mentoring and coaching from you.

4. Build Teams

Teams are the strongest asset a good leader has, yet in a typical school culture, everyone flies solo. Each teacher has “their” classroom or subject. They spend the whole day behind a shut door with a roomful of kids. No collaboration with their peers, no chance to discuss ideas or issues.

In a recent study, teachers reported having only four hours a month to collaborate with other teachers. It’s no wonder they’re isolated and stressed.
Successful distributed leadership programs embed leaders in teams of like-minded teachers. Some school’s designate teams by grade levels, others by coursework. It doesn’t matter how the teams are organized as long as they provide mentoring and peer-to-peer support that fosters a commitment to their profession, their students, and the school.

5. Supply the Time & Authority

People toss the word empowerment around so often that it’s lost much of its impact. But in a distributive leadership model, empowerment is essential. Without it, your model will produce fewer outcomes and more resentment.

Empowerment is the “authority or power given to someone to do something.” Leaders must be authorized to evaluate systems, processes and access reasonable resources.

In this case, we empower by creating time for the activities required. A teacher leader can’t spend their entire day in a classroom. There must be time to collaborate or coach or mentor.

As a principal, it is up to you to champion this requirement. Each leader’s original role and workload will require evaluation. New priorities must be identified, and other responsibilities shifted. Change always requires an evaluation of the status quo – expect that adjustments will be needed.

Distributed leadership isn’t the latest fad to “reform education.” It is proven investment in the quality of teaching and learning that’s being applied with great success in schools around the country.