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Are You Ready? Taking on Collaborative Leadership to Make Change

I am standing in front of the seventh grade with one of my favorite co-teachers--Corey, our Spanish teacher. "Are you ready? Are you nervous? Can you do this?" I ask him with exaggerated big eyes. We giggle along with the seventh graders. I look at them. "Are YOU Ready?"

 Corey and I are about to start a new research project that has, over the past three years, transformed from one where students created a brochure with a list of facts that answered pre-determined questions into a project where students self-generated their research questions and put together a high-quality presentation with an audience that has a real purpose.

This project has morphed into something exciting and authentic because of many levels of collaboration, in and out of the building, and we have spent hours over the past few years talking about what works, what doesn't, and what we want to see. Each time we immerse students in this experience, it gets better, thanks to the meaningful conversations driven by our own inquiry.

 This is teacher-led collaborative leadership.

There are slews of conversations currently taking place about how teachers can become leaders within our existing structures. And there is a great deal of speculation on what this even means? Or how we can shift structural constraints to develop new possibilities?  But when examining the potential of leveraging teachers as leaders, we need to remember that one of the most effective ways to grow and empower educators is simply to break away from our preconceived notions of hierarchal structures and increase the level of collaboration.

An educational leader's role is to guide a school through meaningful pathways that improve student learning. There is no more effective way to ensure that we are on those pathways than leading alongside one another through collaboration. Collaborative endeavors improve our abilities to build morale and make change while we capitalize on the beautiful momentum of innovative ideas and develop a shared vision of outcomes.

Benefits to teacher collaborative leadership:

It is difficult to talk anecdotally about the power of collaboration without sounding a little evangelical: It will change your approach! It will build connections! It will offer you support! It will infuse passion into your classroom! But the reality is, there is a growing body of evidence that supports all of this--when teachers collaborate, their practices improve and their knowledge base expands. Each time I work closely alongside another teacher, I watch his or her practice transform, and not only remember why I love to teach, but I learn more about myself as an educator, too. Every time I collaborate I become a better teacher.

I am typically a bulldozer kind of leader. I get excited about change and I march on ahead, plowing through resistance and doubt. One administrator reminded me once that if I look back and nobody's with me, I'm not leading. What I have learned through collaborative leadership is that when I meet teachers where they are at and move forward from there, I become a more deliberate, thoughtful, patient leader who better understands flexibility and perspective. I now understand that there is a difference between running a project and working with others to implement one.

Ultimately, by committing ourselves to collaborative leadership in schools, we remove the silos of education that we often find ourselves trapped in and take the trajectory of our schools into our own hands. We don't let the Negative Nellies or the Punitive Principals set morale in a building--we are the ones to build it. And we don't wait for formal leadership roles to be assigned or designated to us, but rather we build informal leadership roles. We remember that in this sense, everyone can be a leader.

 Overcoming the "buts"

I often hear from teachers who start their sentences with, "But..."  "But, my administrator won't give us time" or "But other teachers won't work with me" or "But I have a set curriculum." We need to remember that we are the ones allowing ourselves to be constrained by boxes. If setting out to collaborate, we need to think outside our boxes and not let perceived restrictions interfere with our long term goals for our students. Here are some basic things to keep in mind:

  •  Ask questions. Lots of them.
  • Develop shared goals with your coworkers.
  • Use data--bring evidence to the table.
  • Stay positive and optimistic!
  • Be patient. Not everybody feels safe collaborating.
  • And on that note, remember there are some who just won't. It's okay.
  • Be comfortable with starting small--big change takes lots of little change.
  • Keep the mindset that everyone can change.
  • Listen carefully. Hear what your colleagues have to say.
  • Take risks. Lots of them.
  • Bring energy and passion to your meetings.
  • Be vulnerable--admit your own struggles and failures.
  • Expand your network beyond your 4 walls through social media and professional organizations.
  • Be willing to give up the time for conversations--the payoff is worth the investment.
  • Capitalize on the different strengths of those around you. Who is creative? Who is organized? Who has connections outside the building?    
  •   Get rid of your ego--be willing to share knowledge, power, and credit!

So go out, dear colleague, and put your eye on some kind of change you would like to make--in your classroom, within your department or grade level, or within your entire school, and create your own leadership role by reaching out to another educator. Don't wait for somebody else to identify the problem. Instead, lead the way. Be brave. Collaborate. Are you ready? Are you nervous? Can you do this? I hope, yes!

Angie Miller is the 2011 New Hampshire Teacher of the Year. After 13 years as a middle school English teacher, she sought out a collaborative leadership role by becoming a high school librarian in Meredith, NH. She is the co-founder of the Let the Librarians Lead Initiative and writes for her own blog, The Contrarian Librarian. You can follow her on Twitter @angiecmiller74.

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