Shared and Supportive Leadership

Studies reported by Hord (1997) reveal that principals in professional learning communities accept a collegial relationship with teachers, share power and decision making, and promote and nurture leadership development among the staff.

As Co-Developers began their work in schools, they assessed the leadership capacities of the principals and the staff. The Co-Developer stories about shared and supportive leadership were categorized in four areas:

  1. acknowledging the larger context,
  2. modeling shared and supportive leadership,
  3. introducing the CCCII project to the professional staff, and
  4. organizing for improvement.

Acknowledging the Larger Context

In most cases, Co-Developers made initial contacts with principals to explain the CCCII project and to share some of the professional literature on this subject with them. As they did so, Co-Developers directed considerable attention to assessing principals' perceptions of their leadership role within the larger context. They looked at how principals went about getting approval to join the project from the district and the school staff. They also assessed the degree to which principals were already sharing leadership with others in the school and how they were supporting teachers in carrying out leadership roles. The way principals went about doing this provided information about their ability to share leadership.

In some instances, Co-Developers themselves were working within their schools as the principal or as district-level staff. These Co-Developers began the project with greater awareness of what would be required of themselves and the school staff, as well as the potential benefits of the project for their schools.

The two Co-Developer principals (who selected their own schools as their sites) both recognized the need to consult with the superintendent and inform the school board of their interest in joining the CCCII project. One Co-Developer principal noted:

I had to present to the school board and give them information on what SEDL was and what the project was all about. There were some questions at the board meeting as to who/what [SEDL] was and how reputable they were. Naturally, our Superintendent gave full endorsement to the project and the organization's credentials. This allowed me to proceed with the project. (Co-Developer K)

Some principals, along with their Co-Developers, sought district approval before committing to the partnership and personally informed the school board of the project. In some cases, the response from the superintendent and the school board was enthusiastic; in other cases, it was neutral.

At the following regular board meeting, we were put on the agenda. We had materials provided to the school board members and they were able to take a look at that and voted unanimously that the school would be allowed to accept the invitation to participate in this professional learning community project. (Co-Developer Q)

The Superintendent arrived, listened politely, and asked a few questions about the project. It appeared that he was fulfilling an obligation, with little real interest in the implications of what we might learn. Soon after this meeting, he announced that he would be retiring. (Co-Developer E)

In a few cases, principals made unilateral decisions to join the project, without consulting the district or school staff. A Co-Developer noted an instance in which this occurred:

One key comment when I said that they [the teachers] had chosen to become part of the project came from a teacher who said, "No, she [pointing to the principal] signed us up for this." (Co-Developer O)

In another case the principal advocated participation in the project. Once she had heard about the project, she sought the superintendent's approval to promote her school to be chosen. The principal then talked with the Co-Developer about the reasons her school would be the best choice for the project. The principal asked the Co-Developer to delay her decision about school selection until the Co-Developer could visit the school.

In essence, it appeared that principals who were contacted by the Co-Developers with regard to becoming participants in the CCCII project responded in a variety of ways to the proposal. These responses were dependent upon their previous experiences with shared and supportive leadership, their understanding of their role as leader, and current efforts to build the capacity of others within the school to share leadership. If the principals' previous experiences with shared leadership were positive, they responded well to this dimension. They saw it as fitting their philosophy of leadership and as a way to support its continuance.

Modeling Shared and Supportive Leadership

When Co-Developers approached the principals and, later, the whole staff of these schools, they made a special effort to communicate that joining the project was voluntary. By emphasizing this point, Co-Developers were modeling shared decision making — inform the staff and let them decide.

Because of the hierarchical nature of most school districts, one Co-Developer who was a superintendent described the challenge he faced in convincing the principal of his willingness to develop a collegial relationship in the partnership. He was especially aware of the strong message that his own behavior conveyed about values and commitment to shared leadership.

It is sometimes difficult to convey to the principal and faculty that you truly want their input as a professional and peer rather than as a subordinate. You may sometimes question whether or not the answer you get is one that is directed to you as a colleague or a boss. . . . As Superintendent, I will have to model the behavior which I wish the principal to model for his teachers. That means making decisions that are in the best interest of students. It also means continuously modeling the practice of shared leadership. (Co-Developer A)

In one case, the Co-Developer prepared the principal and the teacher for the board presentation and the subsequent presentation to the staff. The Co-Developer assisted by preparing materials for the principal and teacher to use in presentations. This active support demonstrated the collegial relationship she later wanted to instill at the campus level.

[The principal] and [lead teacher] took responsibility for the board presentation, and I agreed to do the presentation to the staff with their support. We paged through the various pieces of information from our Austin meeting and selected what we thought would be priority items to share at this stage of the project with each group. (Co-Developer F)

Introducing the CCCII Project to the Professional Staff

The way the principals introduced the project to staff and obtained their approval demonstrated the principals' views and capacity to share leadership. Therefore, Co-Developers paid particular attention to the principals' method of doing this.

A large majority of principals consulted the campus leadership team or the whole staff before finalizing agreement to participate. In most cases, the principal asked the Co-Developer to be present and to take the lead or assist in providing information about the project. One Co-Developer principal described the way she introduced the idea to the staff at her school.

I explained that I believe strongly in shared decision making and would like for us to be a team. I could tell this staff would have to be convinced by actions — not words. (Co-Developer B)

Co-Developers who served in district office capacities were particularly attentive to framing the project as an opportunity for the campus and not as a directive from the central office. A number of them chose to have the lead teacher (selected by the principal) for the project assume a major role in sharing project information with colleagues. One Co-Developer who serves as district Curriculum Director described her approach.

It was decided that this information [about the CCCII project] would be brought to the faculty by the [lead teacher]. We did not want this deemed as a project that was being introduced from the Central Office alone nor from the perspective of only the school principal. We believed that the teacher should serve a key role in introducing the concept. (Co-Developer C)

In one case the Co-Developer, principal, and lead teacher first presented the project to the campus leadership team, which then took the responsibility of presenting it to the entire staff.

In schools in which Co-Developers were external facilitators, most principals asked Co-Developers to help them present the project to the whole staff. One Co-Developer described her thoughts about presenting the project to the staff:

The principal suggested that I return during the teacher planning time to share the information with her staff. She would ask the teachers to vote by secret ballot to make the decision on whether or not to participate in a professional learning community. . . . As I began to plan, I struggled with how I might "sell" the faculty on the benefits of participating in this project in the one hour that I had been provided. (Co-Developer D)

Organizing for Improvement

Co-Developers identified organizational structures that supported the staff in shared leadership through decision making at their schools. Most schools had already created a decision-making body that included teacher representatives from all grade levels, the administration, and parent or community members to address schoolwide issues. Some of the schools had teacher input into schoolwide decisions via grade-level teams. In these cases, Co-Developers worked within the framework of the existing organization to continue to develop shared and supportive leadership.

In schools where organizational structures already existed for planning and implementing improvement initiatives, Co-Developers' attention was immediately directed to issues of staff concern. Some of those issues were low achievement scores, state or district mandates, etc.

The school has a very effective process for solving campus problems, identifying needs, and planning strategies for improvement. . . . Areas for improvement are identified using a variety of data and feedback from multiple sources. . . . Once identified, the idea is presented to the total staff and dialogue takes place around the topic. The group decides if existing teams need to address the issues or if a new team needs to be created. Many teams are temporary in that they exist only to develop strategies around a particular issue, then dissolve again to the larger team. (Co-Developer G)

In other schools, these organizational structures were nonexistent or less well developed. Co-Developers at these sites helped principals form such structures and clarify new roles and responsibilities. One Co-Developer described the discussion with the principal and lead teacher on their return trip from a SEDL meeting:

On the way back from Austin, the principal, lead teacher, and I planned in the car. During that time, we established an initial goal of having a leadership team with focus teams in place by the end of the first nine weeks. . . . We were in complete agreement as to who should compose that team. . . . In addition, we brainstormed the purpose and agenda and set a date for a first meeting. Later that week, we met during the lead teacher's planning period to firm up the agenda. (Co-Developer H)

Next Page: Shared Values and Vision

Published in Issues ...about Change Volume 8, Number 1, Launching Professional Learning Communities: Beginning Actions (2000)