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Principals Who Learn

by Barbara Kohm and Beverly Nance

Table of Contents

Chapter 10. Developing a Collaborative Culture: From Command and Control to Collaborative Responsibility

by Barbara Kohm

When minds change, cultures change automatically.
Daniel Quinn

In one school, teachers work together to achieve common goals. In another, it's “every man for himself.” In one school, teachers assume responsibility for every student's success. In another, they blame parents and administrators for student failure. In one school, teachers say what they think directly to one another. In another, they are polite face-to-face, but reserve what they truly think for private conversations with like-minded colleagues.

Good people work in all these schools, as do people who want students to be successful, but some are more effective than others. The difference is culture (see Figure 10.1). Teachers who work in strong, collaborative cultures behave differently from those who depend on administrators to create the conditions of their work. In collaborative cultures, teachers' individual and collective behavior enables them to maintain a consistent focus on student learning and exercise the flexibility they need to grow and change.

Figure 10.1. Collaborative Versus Top-Down School Culture

In Collaborative Cultures

In Top-Down Cultures

Teachers support one another's efforts to improve instruction.

Teachers discourage challenges to the status quo.

Teachers take responsibility for solving problems and accept the consequences of their decisions.

Teachers are dependent on principals to solve problems, blame others for their difficulties, and complain about the consequences of decisions.

Ideas are shared, and as one person builds on another's ideas, a new synergy develops.

Ideas and pet projects belong to individual teachers; as a result, development is limited.

New ideas are evaluated in the light of shared goals that focus on student learning.

Ideas are limited to the “tried and true”—what has been done in the past.

When superintendents, principals, and teachers are under pressure to improve test scores, there's a tendency to abandon collaboration in favor of more direct, top-down edicts. Collaborative cultures seem like a luxury that schools can no longer afford. Administrators often think it's more efficient and effective just to tell teachers what to do. This attitude is a mistake. Rising expectations for teachers and students call for more collaboration, not less.

Increased student learning, as reflected in rising test scores, is no longer negotiable, and plans for achieving these results are often dictated from the central office. But how plans are implemented and their ultimate success still depends on the behavior of teachers in classrooms. And that behavior is strongly affected by school culture. Principals who need to raise test scores and are interested in school reform are “driving with the brakes on” unless they work with their faculties to build cultural norms that support their instructional efforts.

When top-down edicts identify problems and dictate solutions, teachers see these problems as somebody else's fault and solutions as somebody else's responsibility. As a result, they tend to waste time and energy complaining and blaming rather than investing in improved student learning. By engaging the thinking of every staff member in school reform, principals reduce the nonproductive behaviors that erode teachers' time, energy, and optimism. Reform should be something that's done with teachers, not to them.

Schools are filled with intelligent and experienced teachers. Yet this abundant source of ideas and energy is often stifled by a top-down culture. When teachers are regular participants in decisions that affect their students and have many opportunities to collaborate with colleagues, their energy levels, capacity for creative thinking, efficiency, and goodwill increase. At the same time, the cynicism, foot dragging, and defensiveness that hamper change efforts decrease. When principals shift from command-and-control leadership to building a culture of collaborative responsibility, they unleash stores of bottled-up enthusiasm, intelligence, and optimism that become available for improving instruction. Collaborative cultures take the brakes off, release new energy, and accelerate a staff's capacity to improve instruction.

In this chapter, I discuss tools that a principal can use to develop a culture in which continual learning and improvement are the norm, the best thinking of all staff members is available to improve instruction, and time and energy are focused on instructional goals. The following areas will be examined:

  • How information is disseminated
  • How resources are allocated
  • How problems are solved
  • How goals are developed

How Information is Disseminated

Information is the lifeblood of any organization. Principals working to build a culture that supports school reform need to pay attention to the ways official and unofficial information circulates through their schools. Official information includes policies, procedures, schedules, budgets, and so on. It's often initiated by the central office or the principal. Unofficial information includes rumors, gossip, and the ways teachers translate official policy into classroom practice. It's often initiated by teachers and parents. Both kinds of information are important, and both have a profound effect on the culture of a school. In collaborative cultures, official and unofficial information are similar and reinforce each other. In top-down cultures, they are often dissimilar and at odds with each other.

The more information teachers have, the more effective they become. Principals in collaborative schools disseminate as much information as possible to as many people as possible. They treat staff members as adults and don't see a need to protect them. In these schools, the principal's responsibility shifts from distributing information on a need-to-know basis to sharing what he or she knows with the entire staff. The principal also moves from a producer of knowledge to a facilitator who provides the conditions for teachers to develop their own knowledge. This shift is based on the belief that the combined experience and thinking of all staff members yields better decisions than any one person (including the principal) could make alone.

Instead of censoring information, these principals work to make it easily available. This means outlining, formatting, and highlighting information in ways that make it accessible and focus attention on what is most immediate and important. Simply copying reams of material without any thought of how it will be used is counterproductive. After a while, no one reads anything. A principal's challenge is to disseminate information in forms that are user friendly to busy teachers.

In taking on this challenge, I started with my own writing. I had to learn to write in clear, succinct ways. I read Zinsser's On Writing Well (1998) and learned to edit and re-edit my work. I was surprised to learn how much more effective my words were when there were fewer of them. When I began to get verbose, I reminded myself of a letter that Mark Twain wrote to a friend: he apologized because the letter was so long but said he didn't have time to write a shorter one.

In addition, I learned to use bold type and format information in ways that made it more readable. I tried to make material current, relevant, and as succinct as possible without sacrificing the truth. When I found an interesting article, I mentioned it at a staff meeting or in a Monday Morning Memo and asked those who were interested to sign up for a copy. In this way, we avoided making many copies that nobody looked at. Even more important, I wasn't “teaching” staff to ignore what I wrote because there was simply too much. In other words, I tried to do exactly what we were teaching students to do in their writers' workshops—to be aware of your audience and look at what you write from the reader's point of view.

At Captain we had a variety of venues for disseminating information. These included a weekly staff memo that we published online and on paper, e-mail, announcements at staff meetings, notes in teachers' mailboxes, and postings in the office or teachers' lounge. We developed the guidelines in Figure 10.2 to help us decide which venue to use for which information.

Figure 10.2. Guidelines for Disseminating Information



If you want to make an announcement . . .

Put the announcement in the weekly memo, e-mail, mailboxes, or postings.

If you want to ask for feedback . . .

Put it in the weekly memo with a feedback sheet, a posting with a feedback sheet, or an e-mail with request for feedback.

If you want discussion on a topic . . .

Put the topic on a staff meeting agenda with ample time for discussion.

Information About Pedagogy

Teachers often know little about what their colleagues are doing and have few opportunities to learn from one another. Individual teachers' expertise and problems are “locked” in their individual classrooms. Following are examples of ways principals have overcome the “information isolation” that hampers the development of many teachers.

Knowledge Creation in a Large Faculty

In order to include all 80 members of her staff, principal Lynne Glickert developed a two-tier system to disseminate information and provide opportunities for teachers to learn together. She told teachers that once a month she would join their weekly grade-level meetings. Most of the time, she chose articles for them to read in advance and discuss at the meeting. These meetings gave teachers the opportunity to meet regularly with the principal and teammates, to share information, and to put together the knowledge they needed to improve instruction.

Lynne also reorganized the seating and agendas for the once-a-week all-staff meetings. Instead of random seating, she assigned teachers to tables of eight. At each table were teachers from primary and intermediate grades as well as specialists. Teachers stayed in these discussion groups all year. This practice gave every staff member the opportunity to actively participate in the dissemination of information and knowledge creation, which fueled their efforts to improve instruction and raise test scores. When a topic on the staff meeting agenda needed to be discussed by the whole staff, it was first discussed in the groups at each table. Comments, questions, and opinions were recorded on chart paper. Lynne collected, compiled, and reported the chart paper information to the staff in the next staff memo. Lynne says, “The cumulative effect of these meetings was powerful.” Because her staff had regular opportunities to share information with colleagues, create new knowledge, and make improvement plans together, they were able to set substantial instructional goals and make appropriate action plans to meet them.

Sharing Ideas

Vicki Hardy, principal of Maplewood-Richmond Heights Elementary School in Maple Wood, Missouri, also wanted to help teachers overcome their isolation and learn from one another. As she walked around her school, she saw many examples of good teaching that supported the curricular and instructional initiatives her district had undertaken. At the same time, she realized that this important information was available only to her. Teachers were cut off from the information most vital to their classroom practice— the example of colleagues. If she could find ways to make this information accessible to everyone, she was sure she could improve instruction throughout the school.

She began including four or five good teaching strategies she'd observed during the previous week in her weekly staff memo, titled “Friday Focus.” At first, teachers were leery about being included in the memo. No one likes to be the teacher's pet. However, because she made a point of including everyone in her comments at some time in the school year, teachers no longer felt singled out and were eager to learn from one another. Vicki's focus on good classroom practice and learning from one another shifted teachers' emphasis from their own egos to the quality of student learning in their classrooms. They also no longer saw sharing ideas as stealing from one another but rather as ways to improve instruction throughout the school. Vicki was delighted when she saw a strategy she'd highlighted in the Friday Focus spread to other classrooms.

In addition to her comments in the Friday Focus, Vicki also required teachers to observe in one another's classrooms. These sessions focused on ways the observed teacher enacted school goals in the classroom. Vicki asked teachers to write up their notes and share them with the observed teacher. Thus, Vicki found two means of disseminating information about good pedagogy in an intimate, meaningful way—important information that is often unavailable to teachers.

How Resources are Allocated

Decisions in collaborative cultures are guided by three important concepts:

  • Transparency, which means as little as possible is done behind closed doors.
  • People affected by a decision are given a voice in the decision-making process.
  • Improved student learning is the desired outcome of all decisions.
When these principles are applied to the allocation of resources, they become powerful tools for transforming school cultures. Our experience at Captain School illustrates this point.

An Epiphany

In March 1993, my husband and I were on a seven-hour flight to Europe to visit our daughter, who was studying in Scotland. It had been a rocky school year at Captain School. We'd made sweeping changes in the way we taught reading and writing. Parents were confused, and many were angry with teachers. Teachers who had been parental favorites had lost their “star status” overnight. They were angry with me. I had seven hours to think about what went wrong and how we could keep moving forward. I knew I had to deal with parents' and teachers' angry feelings and the conditions that caused them, but I wasn't sure where to begin.

I did as I always do when I feel stuck. I went back to basics. I asked myself what I knew for sure. I knew that the citizens of our community had established a school and entrusted us with the responsibility of educating their children. They had given us many resources to accomplish this task and expected us to allocate them in ways that would result in an excellent educational experience for their children.

I asked myself what those resources were. I decided they were time (six hours a day, five days a week, nine months a year), space (a newly renovated open-space building), money (each school was given a per-pupil allotment of discretionary funds), and people (principals interviewed candidates and recommended one candidate per position to the superintendent).

I also knew for sure that we were asking a good deal more from teachers than we had in the past. Even though they liked the curricular and instructional changes we were making, teachers were feeling confused and overburdened. What they needed, I thought, was more control over the circumstances of their work. That's when my ideas about resource allocation and teacher autonomy began to merge. We were setting higher standards for student learning and giving students a larger role in their own learning. Perhaps teachers needed the same thing. We had studied Margaret Wheatley, who said that patterns of behavior organize cultures, just as patterns organize nature. Perhaps one of our patterns should be more control and more responsibility at every level.

When it was time for our plane to land and for me to begin my vacation, I tucked my notes away, feeling I had done some thinking that might serve me well when the faculty convened again in April.

At our first staff meeting after spring break, I proposed that we set up a series of ad hoc committees to make decisions about allocation of resources for the next school year. There would be a Time Committee to develop the schedule, a Space Committee to decide where classes and activities would be held, and a Money Committee to put together a budget. I also wanted to involve teachers in the hiring, interview, and evaluation processes, but I wasn't yet sure how to do that. I put aside the idea of a People Committee for later development.

These committees would be open to any teachers who wished to serve on them. They would meet one time in May and make recommendations to the staff as a whole for their approval. In the end, I believe establishing these committees was the single most important thing I did to move the Captain culture from dependence to collaboration—a change that dramatically increased our ability to set and meet higher standards of academic excellence for ourselves and our students.


The Time Committee met first. Almost everyone on the staff came. Those who could not attend made certain there was someone at the meeting to represent their interests. First, we reviewed our academic goals for the coming year. Then we brainstormed ways the schedule could support these goals. Finally, we added any other things we wanted to accomplish with the schedule. We used dot voting (see Figure 3.1) to set priorities, because we knew it was impossible to accomplish all the things on our list. The item that received the most votes was larger blocks of time for literacy instruction. Next was time for teachers to meet to plan instruction. These were followed by such things as specialists' desire to have the same grade level back-to-back so they wouldn't have to reorganize materials between classes, and the desire of classroom teachers to have specialists' classes in the afternoon so students could have academic classes in the morning when they were freshest.

We took out our schedules and got down to business. It wasn't easy. Some of us were better than others at visualizing schedules. These people became leaders. Interestingly, they weren't necessarily the same people who took leadership roles in other areas. First, we made certain that every class had at least one hour of uninterrupted time for literacy instruction. Most classes had 90 minutes or more. Some people argued that kindergarten and 1st grade students didn't need such large blocks of time, because their students had short attention spans. The kindergarten and 1st grade teachers countered that even young children developed long attention spans if they were actively engaged in meaningful projects and expected to work on them for longer periods. They argued that cause and effect were sometimes confused. We caused children to have short attention spans when we divided their schedules into short periods. If we wanted to teach them to sustain attention for longer periods, we needed to begin in kindergarten. This argument prevailed.

Once we achieved our first objective (large blocks of time for literacy instruction), the schedule became less flexible, and meeting other goals got more difficult. We were, however, able to give some grade-level teams common planning time. After meeting this objective, the schedule was so locked in that it was impossible to achieve our other goals. This constraint meant that we were unable to arrange back-to-back classes for specialists or arrange specialist classes for everyone in the afternoon. However, everyone present at the meeting understood the trade-offs we made and why we made them. There was no more grumbling that some people received more favorable consideration than others.

Our first meeting took five hours. We ordered pizza and worked from 3:30, when school was out, until after 8:00 p.m. But we didn't have to meet again. We presented the schedule that we developed to the staff as a whole at our next staff meeting and explained our reasons for various decisions. They approved it. Over the next several years, we became more efficient. Our meetings became shorter, and teachers learned to use them to accomplish instructional goals. The art teacher, for example, wanted to start an art studio program. Instead of the 50-minute, once-a-week art classes we had been scheduling, she proposed that any grade level that was interested schedule a two-hour art studio every other week. She felt that she could teach art in greater depth in two-hour blocks. The 4th and 5th grade teachers decided to give her suggestion a try. They, too, thought the two-hour block would be better for their students. It would also give them a larger block of time with students every other week and an extra hour of meeting time with their colleagues. Our once-a-year meeting of the Time Committee enabled the art teacher to make her case directly to her colleagues without the need for administrative authority, which might have left a trail of resentment.

Because the people who lived by these schedules were an important part of their creation, the schedules took into consideration the many subtleties that made them workable on a day-to-day basis. Also, because teachers felt responsible for the schedule's creation, they engaged in the many small adjustments that made it work. In addition to developing a more realistic schedule that was clearly focused on student learning, this process helped to build the trust and sense of responsibility on which our collaborative culture was built.

Some of the principals I've mentored were cautious about giving this much power and responsibility to teachers. When I asked why, they said that teachers don't have a view of the whole school, so they look out for their own interests only. I agreed that teachers often don't have a view of the whole school, but the reason they don't see the school as a whole is because they aren't privy to all school information and don't have opportunities to make all-school decisions. When principals trust teachers to make important decisions, the teachers behave in a trustworthy manner. I don't think it's possible to build the trust first and then allow teachers to participate in scheduling decisions. They have to be done simultaneously. This seems risky only because we fail to assess the risk of not allowing teachers a meaningful role in making these decisions. We assume the risk is all on the side of giving teachers too much control over the circumstances of their work, rather than not enough.

At Captain, we built trust and helped teachers develop a broader view by working on these decisions together. At first, our conversations were inefficient, cautious, and sometimes fractious. However, in time, we became increasingly skilled at stating our opinions clearly and succinctly, respecting one another's viewpoints, and keeping our focus on mutually agreed-on goals. We also learned that there was no perfect schedule, and we stopped complaining about minor imperfections. When scheduling issues arose, we put them on the agenda for the next meeting of the Time Committee so we could address them when we sat down to create the next year's schedule. In that way, we turned complaints into feedback that helped us grow.

Sometimes teachers don't trust their colleagues to make scheduling decisions. Because they don't have the opportunity to hear their colleagues' thinking, they categorize those who disagree with them as “bad guys.” And because resources aren't clearly aligned with school goals, allocation seems arbitrary and personal. By giving everyone a voice in scheduling decisions and aligning resources with mutually agreed-on goals, we built trust in one another and the decision-making process we'd developed. We began to think of the schedule as a resource for enhancing student learning and achieving our school goals. The schedule had moved from an administrative detail to an engine of reform.

Principals with whom I've worked handled scheduling in a variety of ways. Some do the complete schedule themselves, others ask for teachers' written preferences and then try to honor those requests, and some work with leadership teams. Although these methods may produce reasonable schedules, they don't have the power to transform a culture.


Next, the Space Committee met one time in May. Anyone interested was invited to attend, and the results of our work were reported to the whole staff for final approval. We had an open-space school and a fluctuating student body. One year we needed three 1st grade classes; the next year we needed only two. One year the 4th grade classes had 27 students each; the next there were only 18. This fluctuation created a dilemma. Meeting the needs of students meant shifting spaces; meeting the needs of teachers meant staying in place.

We began by brainstorming what we wanted to accomplish with the space that the community had given us. First, we decided that our primary goal was to organize space to facilitate the grade-level team concept. This goal meant placing all 1st grades in as close proximity to one another as we could. Second, because we had a strong emphasis on reading and research, we thought all classrooms should be as close to the library as possible to allow a free flow back and forth to classrooms. With these two criteria in mind, we were able to transcend individual preferences that conflicted with our goals and organize space to maximize student learning.

Not everyone was happy with our decisions, but everyone understood that we made them to enhance student learning throughout the school. An unanticipated bonus arose from this process. Because committee members “owned” the decisions they made, they took responsibility for them and became articulate in explaining the reasons for the committee's decisions to their colleagues. Gone were the grumbling in the parking lot and the rumors of favoritism. They were replaced by a sense of empowerment and responsibility.


We then asked anyone who was interested to come to a one-time Money Committee meeting. Prior to this meeting, I gave the entire faculty copies of the budget that the school district sent me. It included suggested grade-level allotments, fixed expenditures, and discretionary items. Once again, we started by brainstorming and prioritizing what we wanted to accomplish with the budget. One year we wanted to beef up our school library, so we took money from the per-pupil allotments that the district had suggested for individual classrooms and gave it to the librarian. She worked with classroom teachers to build the school library to enhance students' class work. Another year we focused on technology and gave extra funds to the technology teacher. Our goal was to develop a budget that supported our academic goals.

We wanted to make certain we maintained the flexibility to move money from one line item to another. I noticed that once money was allocated to a particular project, it became “set in stone” and was hard to remove, even when there were greater needs elsewhere. We wanted the flexibility to respond to changing conditions and the opportunity to correct mistakes so that we could, for example, fund an expansion of the library collection one year and technology the next. Continually focusing on all-school goals proved an effective way to help us maintain this flexibility. By giving everyone access to the whole school budget, the entire staff deepened their understanding of how budgets work. Our total allotment of funds was fixed. If we decided to spend in one area, we had to take away from another. Understanding this concept had a sobering effect on us. Blaming and complaining diminished as the entire faculty took responsibility for the trade-offs necessary to meet our goals.


The fourth resource that we identified was people. This resource was the most important and challenging one to share. The ad hoc May committee meetings that worked so well for time, space, and money weren't useful here. People issues arose throughout the year, and often privacy was a factor. At the same time, people were our most important resource. In order to build a truly collaborative culture, I thought it was important to involve teachers in the selection and professional development of their colleagues.

Interviewing Teacher Candidates

We began by forming teams to interview and evaluate candidates for teaching positions. Members of these teams included other members of the grade-level team where we had a vacancy and one or two specialists. If we were interviewing for a specialist position, we formed a team of upper- and lower-grade classroom teachers and other specialists.

When these teams met, our first order of business was to brainstorm and prioritize the qualities that we were looking for in the person who would fill this position. We then discussed what kinds of questions would enable us to discern if the candidate had these qualities. We wanted to get as much information as possible in the short time allotted to us. Our rule of thumb was to allow the candidate to do at least three-quarters of the talking. Our job was to ask questions that brought out pertinent information. We tried to refrain from asking leading questions. And we agreed that if someone else asked a question that revealed the same information we were looking for, it wasn't necessary to ask that question again. Time was too precious, and hiring decisions were too important.

After the candidate left, we individually evaluated him or her on the criteria we had established at the beginning of our session, before we had an opportunity to influence one another's thinking. Then we talked. It usually didn't take us long to reach consensus. In fact, I was amazed at how little disagreement we had. I think it was because we had agreed on criteria before the interview. A principal with whom I worked some years ago did everything we did except brainstorming and prioritizing the qualities they were looking for at the beginning of the session. As a result, the group failed to consider some criteria that the principal thought were essential—so essential that in the end she overruled their choice. What she had hoped would be a collaborative process that promoted goodwill ended as a debacle that eroded rather than built trust. A 10-minute meeting to establish criteria before the interview would have prevented this.

Evaluating Teachers

I also wanted teachers to take part in the faculty evaluation process. I knew they had valuable information to share with one another that would strengthen their colleagues' teaching. We did two things to move in this direction. First, I required teachers who were being evaluated to observe at least one other teacher's class and to have at least one other teacher observe them. I asked observing teachers to write a brief report on effective teaching strategies that they saw. My goal was to get teachers in one another's classrooms and to start conversations about the concrete events that made up their pedagogy. Second, Linda Henke, the assistant superintendent, began a program to train and pay a few experienced teachers to do evaluation observations of their colleagues. This program gave teachers feedback from experienced colleagues, in addition to my observation reports. When teachers feel responsible for their own and their colleagues' professional growth, teaching and learning begin to grow exponentially (Lambert, 2003).

Many principals fear losing power if they collaborate with teachers on the allocation of resources. I found the opposite to be true. Because the decisions we made were more nuanced, and because we no longer experienced the drag of complaining and blaming, my voice was stronger and my power was greater than before. Power, we found, was not a zero-sum game. It actually multiplied as we collaborated.

How Problems are Solved

During my first few years as a principal, teachers brought problems to me, and I worked hard to solve them. I tried to be thoughtful and sensitive to their needs. These conversations were satisfying for me and seemingly beneficial for teachers. I felt productive and important. Teachers felt listened to and cared for. More and more people brought more and more problems to me.

In a short time, I was overwhelmed and had less time and energy to spend on the planning that might have prevented many of these problems. Solutions to problems were limited by my experience, and teachers' ability to access their own skills and knowledge atrophied. The more adept I became at solving problems, the weaker the school became. I was inadvertently allowing teachers to shift responsibility from themselves to me. In the process, they lost authority and I lost the benefit of their thinking. Also, because they were kind people who noticed that I was overwhelmed, they tended to wait until problems were large (and harder to solve) before they brought them to me. We needed to develop the structures and attitudes that would allow problems to bubble up to the surface while they were still small and bring the best thinking of everyone involved to bear on the solution.

Discipline problems are endemic in schools. How they are handled tells a great deal about the school culture. In some schools, teachers don't send discipline problems to the principal because they don't want him or her to think they can't handle problems themselves. Because they see problems as indications of failure, they discuss them only with a few like-minded colleagues. These private conversations tend to deteriorate into complaining and blaming sessions: “If only the parents, the principal, or last year's teachers had been more consistent, I wouldn't have these problems.”

In other schools, teachers frequently send students with discipline problems to the principal. They believe, as a teacher once told me, “My job is to teach; yours is to handle discipline problems.” They shift responsibility for students to someone else, and in the process diminish their authority and lose important opportunities to build productive relationships with them. Because they assume little responsibility themselves, they also indulge in the complaining and blaming that poison school cultures.

In still other schools, teachers rarely send discipline problems to the principal. They know that handling discipline problems themselves strengthens their authority, builds positive relationships with their students, and is most likely to be effective. They also know they are not alone. Their actions are guided by a discipline plan that the entire staff has been instrumental in developing. This plan spells out the responsibilities of students, parents, teachers, and principal. Problems become learning opportunities, and colleagues use one another as resources. Discipline issues are discussed openly at team and staff meetings. Teachers accept responsibility for solving problems and often read and study together, so their discussions and problem-solving sessions are infused with new information.

At Captain, we were like all of these schools at one time or another. To shift from a culture where problems were hidden and blaming and complaining were rampant to a culture in which problems were discussed openly and colleagues helped one another learn and grow, we did the following:

  • We worked together to develop a student responsibility/discipline plan called Captain Kids Care.
  • We encouraged teachers to put issues on the staff meeting agenda for general discussion rather than discussing them with a few like-minded colleagues or individually with me.
  • We created a sense of safety by learning to use dialogue to avoid being judgmental when we explored sensitive issues.
  • We learned to trust the process we had developed for solving problems.

In a collaborative culture, the thinking and perspectives of many people are available. As a result, members solve problems quickly and efficiently. Because the people who are responsible for implementing the decision are part of the decision-making process, they tend to make many small adjustments that smooth the path to success.

Solving Problems Collaboratively

Every May, the Thomas Jefferson Elementary School in St. Louis, Missouri, held a Track and Field Day at the high school track. Several buses were required to take students back and forth from the high school field. Because there weren't many buses available, this process took a lot of coordination. During the spring, it often rained or threatened rain. When this happened, the principal had to decide whether to go ahead with the day as planned, relocate the events on the school grounds, or reschedule for another date.

Over time, he handled this situation in different ways. Sometimes he called the staff together for a five-minute emergency meeting to decide as a group what they should do. When plans were changed at the last minute, there were almost always glitches. But they were easily overcome, and at the end of the day everyone was always pleased. Whatever the teachers decided together seemed to work fine.

However, when time was short and the principal thought he had all the information he needed, he made the decision himself. When this happened, adjusted bus schedules never worked right, and relocated events ran into problems. Whatever the principal decided alone seemed to be problematic.

Why the difference? First, when the knowledge, thinking, and perspectives of many people were brought to bear on the problem, the staff as a whole tended to make more nuanced decisions. Second, when teachers were responsible for the decisions, they felt responsible for making them work. As a result, they made many small adjustments that made the day a success. When the principal made the decision alone, he often failed to take into account all the details involved in transporting young children. Because it was his call, teachers felt no need to make the adjustments necessary for success. The five-minute meeting the principal had with staff expanded the energy and time that teachers were willing to invest in Track and Field Day.

A similar scenario happens with more serious academic issues. When schools reorganize to make certain that all of their students meet high academic standards, there are always problems. These problems are the inevitable growing pains of a school that is moving forward. When teachers, students, and parents have legitimate forums for bringing up problems, when problems are viewed as opportunities for growth, and when the people involved are given a voice in the solution, a collaborative culture develops—a culture that enhances and supports school improvement efforts.

How Goals are Developed

In some schools, writing annual school goals is an empty exercise that teachers plod through every spring and don't look at again until the following spring, when someone in the district office asks for them. In other schools, goals provide guidelines for making decisions and help a faculty stay focused on carefully considered objectives. In the first case, writing school goals wastes time and breeds cynicism. In the second, goals become a focal point around which a new synergy develops.

Goals are road maps that identify desirable destinations and establish routes for reaching them. When principals and teachers develop goals together, the faculty becomes stronger and student learning accelerates. Federal and state regulations are challenging educators to make certain that all students reach high standards of excellence. This task is difficult and complex. Teachers working in isolation will never accomplish it. They need to be growing together and building on one another's work and ideas. An outstanding 3rd grade teacher has far greater influence on student learning when the 2nd and 4th grade teachers are moving in the same direction and when all three teachers are thinking, learning, and planning together.

I often ask principals whom I mentor what their school goals are, how they were developed, and how they are used. Their answers tell me a great deal about their leadership styles and school cultures. Some say they use the district goals as their school goals; others report that they have the same goals they had last year. New principals often say they inherited goals from their predecessor. Others have worked with teachers to develop a process for setting annual goals that includes teachers, parents, and students. They understand that unless stakeholders have a role in developing goals, they don't have the energy and commitment it takes to reach them. Because these principals are working to develop collaborative cultures, they see their job shifting from the person who sets the goals to the person who sets up the conditions that allow others to establish their own goals.

The following tasks facilitate conditions conducive to establishing collaborative goals:

  • Gather relevant data and make them accessible to teachers and parents.
  • Convene groups of teachers and parents and organize meetings to make certain every voice is heard.
  • Ensure that meetings result in clear, specific, written goals and action plans for achieving them.
  • Keep the goals alive throughout the year by continually measuring progress toward them.

Gathering Data

Technology has made information that was once available to only a few people at the top of organizations available to everyone. In the past, top executives and central office personnel had information that told the “big picture” of past performance, present productivity, and future trends. The people who actually did the work (in our case, teachers) had information about the day-to-day operations of the organization. This divide often put the central office personnel and teachers at odds. Instead of working together, they pulled against one another.

Because technology now provides everyone with easy access to big picture data, these two kinds of information can be combined. Principals used to rely on the central office personnel to gather, interpret, and present data for them. They can now access, select, and format data themselves, which is a great help in setting up the conditions for meaningful goal setting. When principals make these big picture data accessible to teachers, and teachers combine these data with their day-to-day knowledge of classroom operations, goals are more realistic and more likely to be met.

Using Data to Tell a Story

Lynne Glickert and Lee Ann Lyons are principals in school communities that have traditionally thought of themselves as flagships in their districts. They are located in their districts' wealthier areas and have enjoyed reputations in their communities as the best schools to attend. Because they saw themselves as already excellent, their faculties weren't motivated to go through the difficulties that reform requires. The faculties' thinking changed when Lynne and Lee Ann gathered data from the Missouri State Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Web site and translated them into clear charts and graphs that were relevant and meaningful to their faculties.

Lynne created a chart of all the elementary school reading test scores in her district for the past five years. Teachers were surprised to find that schools they considered inferior actually had surpassed them in moving students out of lower categories into the “proficient” or higher categories in reading and mathematics. Hidden in the school's average scores, which were high due to the large number of students who came from advantaged homes, was a larger-than-expected number of students who remained below the “proficient” reading level throughout their elementary school years. By disaggregating data, Lynne gave them a clearer picture of what was happening in their school and their district. Armed with this new knowledge, teachers in her school were eager to set goals that helped them reach these forgotten students.

Lee Ann had a similar problem. For a number of years, her school's test scores had been the highest in their district. Her predecessor had worked hard to make sure teachers were reaching all their students, and their test scores reflected this concern. Their formula appeared to be working, so they saw no need to change. However, when Lee Ann collected data from the Missouri State Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Web site, she found that schools in her district with twice as many students on free and reduced-priced lunch were making larger gains than her students were—in some cases, surpassing them. Lynne and Lee Ann used test data to help teachers see a bigger picture of their school and school district. By organizing data to tell a clear and compelling story, Lee Ann motivated her faculty to examine and adjust their practice, thus putting them in a position to set the kinds of goals that enabled the school to reach high standards of excellence for all their students.

Other Kinds of Data

Test scores aren't the only useful data. At Captain, we collected data from parents in preparation for our annual goal setting. The PTO hosted an annual Parent Forum that met just before the staff goal-setting meeting. They invited all parents to attend, but to make certain there was a good representation of parents from all grade levels, they issued special invitations to “room parents.” When parents arrived, they divided them into groups of 10 to 12. Each group sat in a circle with a flip chart. They selected a facilitator and a recorder. Then they answered two questions: “What makes Captain a good school?” and “What would make it even better?” Parent recorders wrote on the flip charts, which were later put on the walls of the teachers' workroom in preparation for faculty goal-setting discussions. To make certain that every interested parent had an opportunity to participate, PTO members also put a survey in the weekly parent newsletter that asked the same questions. As a result, all interested parents had a voice in our deliberations. The faculty used data from the Parent Forum to prepare for their annual goal-setting meeting.

Many of the principals with whom I work gather data on discipline for their annual goal-setting meetings. These data can take many forms (e.g., number of office referrals, when and where infractions occurred, how many repeat offenders). Other data that principals collect include attendance and tardy records, survey results from various stakeholders, and data from other schools and school districts. School district goals are always important data. Individual school goals should be more specific and focused versions of district goals. If a district has a goal of improving reading instruction, school goals should describe exactly how this is going to be done in each class at each grade level. As a faculty matures, it's a good idea to ask them what data they need for their annual goal-setting session. When teachers have a say in what data they want collected, and principals put the data in easily readable form, the data become the foundation for setting goals that actually make things better rather than just preserving the status quo.

Convening Meetings

Once data are collected and put in formats that are easily accessible to teachers and parents, the principal's job is to convene meetings with interested stakeholders. It's important to organize meetings so that everyone has an opportunity to express opinions. Deliberations should result in clear, specific written goals and action plans for achieving them. Meetings in collaborative schools are carefully planned events that result in teacher learning and produce plans that make real improvements in classrooms. The principal's role shifts from writing goals to organizing the kinds of meetings that enable the faculty to work together to establish their own goals.

Keeping Goals Alive

The best goals in the world are meaningless unless they're used. Goals are unlikely to be used under the following conditions:

  • They're so general and abstract that they provide little guidance for instruction or decision making.
  • They fail to include action plans or assign responsibility for the completion of tasks.
  • The standards they set are unrealistically high or unmotivatingly low.
  • The people charged with meeting the goals had little or no say in crafting them.

If goals are specific, include realistic action plans, and involve stakeholders in the planning process, they become useful tools for a principal to use throughout the school year. The goals should be discussed and evaluated frequently at staff meetings; published in handbooks, newsletters, agendas, and so on; and referred to as a basis for making decisions.


More than ever, greater demands are being placed on schools. This pressure makes it seem as if it's easier and more efficient to strengthen command-and-control cultures—tell teachers what to do and check to make certain they do it. In this chapter, I argue that moving away from command and control and toward more collaborative cultures gives teachers the tools, learning opportunities, optimism, and energy they need to meet these new demands. Collaborative cultures reduce the resistance that frequently hampers reform efforts, and such cultures make it more likely that reform efforts will be sustained over time.

Developing a collaborative culture requires attention to how information is disseminated, how problems are solved, how resources are allocated, and how goals are developed and used. When these activities are structured to give teachers a voice in their development, responsibility is shared with teachers, whose everyday work in classrooms is the only thing that truly improves instruction. And when goals are seen as road maps to desired destinations, they build institutional capacity for improvement by focusing resources and energy on challenging academic goals.

Reflection Questions

  1. Have you worked with your faculty to purposefully design systems for information flow, problem solving, resources allocation, and goal setting to build a collaborative culture?
  2. Are you making efficient use of all the resources at your disposal to improve student learning?
  3. Do you use school goals to drive school reform efforts?
  4. Have you developed a culture that capitalizes on teachers' knowledge, optimism, and energy?


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