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Update: Collaborative leadership–6 influences that matter most

Last week, former principal and education thought leader Peter DeWitt announced that he is retiring his regular Education Week blog Finding Common Ground.

While DeWitt will still maintain a monthly column in Education Week, his regular posts will be missed in the K-12 blogosphere. A member of our inaugural TrustED 20, DeWitt has been a strong voice on innovate school leadership and community engagement in schools.

To commemorate his contributions, we thought we’d reshare a popular post DeWitt wrote for TrustED about how K12 school leaders can master the art of collaborative leadership.

Wishing Peter the best of luck in his new endeavors!

What about a collaborative mindset?

We hear so much these days about collaboration. We want our students and teachers to work together, and the word collaboration is part of the 4 Cs in those 21st century skills we have all been focusing on for well over a decade.

For school leaders, a collaborative mindset is necessary if we are truly going to work with teachers and students.

Unfortunately, unless we have a deep understanding of collaboration, we can fool ourselves into thinking that we are collaborating when in reality we’re trying to push our own agenda. A criticism of any mindset is that we often want the people around us to subscribe to our approach, without exploring whether we are doing it ourselves. When leaders do this they put themselves, and their initiatives, at risk of failure.

So what should we work on? Often, I turn to the work of John Hattie, who I work with as a Visible Learning trainer. Hattie conducted perhaps the largest meta-analysis ever done in education, involving more than 300 million students over 20 years.

In his research, Hattie found 195 influences on learning. Some of those influences have negative effects on student learning, others have enormous positive effects.

In my research and training I have concluded that school leaders should focus primarily on six of Hattie’s many influences. They are:

1. Instructional Leadership

Instructional leadership seems to mean everything that goes on within the school building, and there is plenty leaders can do to take the structures they already have in place and use them as a format to focus on learning and teaching.

Instructional leadership is important, but collaborative leadership addresses bringing all the stakeholders in the school community together.

2. Collective Teacher Efficacy

We have learned a lot over the years about low levels of teacher self-efficacy, which means that we have adults in the school who do not believe they can make a positive impact on students.

We also know that quality teacher-student relationships can play a big role in student success.

Collective teacher efficacy is when we bring teachers together to focus on learning so they can all maximize that teacher-student relationship influence that matters so much.

3. Professional Development

We have gone from a time when teachers could attend the professional development they wanted to a time when every hour of PD is about some new initiative.

We have plenty of opportunities to co-construct PD with staff and use some of our existing structures, such as faculty meetings, to focus on a co-established goal to help make PD more effective. We need to take advantage of these opportunities.

4. Feedback

There has been a lot of research done around the power of effective feedback, and although some leaders are getting better at it, most don’t give it their all, and we have teacher observation results to prove that.

In his research, Hattie identifies three levels of feedback teachers can use with students. We can take these lessons learned and apply them to teacher feedback too. We need teacher observations and walkthroughs to be more powerful than they are, and it takes effective feedback to get us there.

5. Assessment Capable Learners

Hattie has changed the language around assessment capable learners a few times. It started as “student expectations” and then evolved into this notion of “assessment capable learners.” Some schools call these students self-directed learners.

The bottom line is that no matter the ability level of our students, we need to help them understand where they are, how they got there, and where they’re going next so that they know what to do when they get there.

6. Family Engagement

What makes collaborative leadership a bit more effective is that parents are included in the dialogue around school, and feel as though they can work in partnership with school leaders and the school community at large.

Too often, we send parents the message that we want them to have after a decision has already been made. We have to do a better job of bringing parents in and giving them opportunities to share.

The big picture

Collaboration is important because it can elevate teachers with a low level of self-efficacy and help build a sense of collective teacher efficacy, something Hattie’s research has determined as critically important.

As leaders, we need to stop thinking that collaboration is about teachers and students working together, or that it means that stakeholders must comply with our goals.

Collaboration is deeper than that—and it begins with a unified definition of what collaboration means. Start with these six areas and leverage your existing structure to get the conversation going.

Excerpts from this article originally appeared in Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most which was published in the School Administrator’s Association of New York State’s (SAANYS) Vanguard Magazine.