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December 6, 2022
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5 Ways to Build Staff Leadership in Your School

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Don't do the heavy lifting alone.
Leadership
5 Ways to Build Staff Leadership in Your School
Credit: W.bass / Shutterstock
We’re emerging from a pandemic, and yet schools still feel fragile and in flux. There is a teacher shortage, a renewed belief that social-emotional learning is the way to engage students, and a laser-like refocus on academic goals and progress. With so much to do, administrators and staff are under intense pressure to create positive change in schools.
As a leader, you may feel like you are doing most of the heavy lifting alone, or with a small group of teachers. But it doesn’t have to be this way. How can principals work with their staff to create more opportunities for leadership and more buy-in from teachers and staff to lead? Consider these five ways to shift the leadership culture in your school.

1. Prioritize: Do a few things well

As leaders, we often find ourselves compelled to set many goals at the start of a new school year or throw additional goals into the mix when the school year starts flowing and we determine that there are more problems to solve. While making real-time, data-informed decisions and changing course might be necessary in some cases, streamlining your focus to three to five (no more than five!) major goals is important to maintain the integrity of how you and your staff collectively pursue improvement. Obviously, goals are dependent upon your school’s context, and every school’s levers differ. A great place to start in goal setting could be equity-based goals: a social-emotional learning goal, an attendance goal, and an academic goal.
Examples might include: Every student will be able to identify an adult in the building they trust (social-emotional); average daily attendance will be at least 75 percent of students attending 95 percent of days or more (attendance); 85 percent of 9th graders will be “on track” to a four-year graduation by the end of their first year of high school (academic).  Do a few things well instead of many things mediocrely. When a leader is clear and intentional about change and progress, staff members have a better understanding of what is needed from them and how they can help support the mission.

2. Communicate: Do it always, and in all ways

The goals you’ve prioritized might have come from a series of data dives; conversations with staff, students, parents; work done in professional learning communities; or are even district mandates. However, all are opportunities for leaders to communicate with the school community about the path to improvement and what it might look like in their school’s context. Communicate why these are the goals and how you as a school community hope to reach them. Describe what progress would look like, sound like, feel like. Create informal and formal opportunities to talk with staff about the goals and in what ways they can contribute to pursuing them. Offer a “school district business day:” arrange substitute coverage for a department or a team and treat those teachers and staff to the gift of time to work together in pursuit of the goal.
Clear, consistent, and concise communication about progress can come in many forms: a weekly staff email, weekly professional learning community meetings, quarterly “state of the school” report outs. Consider using upbeat and encouraging visuals and language in hallways, student town halls, and in student and parent communications.

3. Trust: Relinquish some control and build relationships

Some of the most well-intentioned, hard-working leaders can also be those who like to hold on to control. These leaders believe that unless they are doing the task personally, it won’t be done well, which can ultimately lead to leader burnout and rushed projects. Instead of shouldering every heavy load, look beyond your teachers for support. Teacher-adjacent staff—like office and climate personnel, special education, food service, and facilities team members—can be in tandem with teachers to create an environment where everyone feels included, seen, and united in common purpose.

When a leader is clear and intentional about change and progress, staff members have a better understanding of how they can help support the mission.

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Our climate staff (adults in charge of assisting and monitoring students during lunch and recreation periods), for example, loved being co-advisors with our teachers during advisory, especially during virtual instruction. They enjoyed forging relationships with students and staff, and appreciated feeling seen and heard; when we returned to in person learning, students knew them as supportive allies. Our office staff assisted in our school’s drive to call and check in on every family during the course of virtual learning so that our community stayed intact. When we returned to the building, office staff continued to call home as part of our attendance initiative, making sure that we communicated with families around lateness and absences and the importance of being back in school.
That said, relinquishing control is useless if a leader hasn’t earned trust. Some staff might not step up because they think you “have it under control” or might fear that they won’t do it the way you want it done. In these situations, relationship building is a non-negotiable for leaders. Relationship building is at the heart of trust. After all, we are working with human beings, not automatons! As a leader, you have a unique opportunity to know your staff and ascertain what makes them tick. Staff members have to feel and know that their leader trusts them with task implementation and completion—communicating via emails, connecting with teachers at the copier or in the staff room, and dropping into classrooms are ways that leaders can let staff know they are invested in them and in what they do. Staff also need to know that leaders do not expect perfection; progress and growth toward the goals are paramount. When educators feel they are trusted by their leader, they are freer to bring new ideas to the table, have greater interest in leading initiatives, and are more confident in themselves to affect schoolwide change.

4. Collaborate: Be better, together

Momentum is built when people work together toward a common goal or set of goals. Teams are effective in problem solving, division of labor, and ultimately task completion. Goals become the responsibility of the group, and the group is held accountable by all members.
Create teams of at least two or more people so that educators have a thought partner and can shoulder projects together. Refrain from creating teams that are too big (more than six people), as this can dim the team’s intentionality and focus. Without micromanaging, leaders can choose to be part of these groups and circulate among them to listen, help push thinking, and be part of the planning and execution processes. Leaders can communicate frequently, schedule team check-ins to troubleshoot, revise, and encourage. Through such actions, leaders can show they trust their staff to get the job done and create structures and systems to help teams to stay connected to the bigger picture and larger goals.

5. Celebrate: Acknowledge frequently and freely

Leaders can celebrate the impactful work of their staff in many ways. The main idea is to offer praise that is genuine, frequent, and varied. Some people love being publicly acknowledged for their work and their accomplishments, while others would prefer more private recognition.
Consider weekly staff email blast shout-outs that are specific and detailed. Create space for staff to highlight other staff they appreciate. Consider breakfast treats and coffee to celebrate progress toward a goal. Short, handwritten gratitude notes dropped in mailboxes or on teachers’ desks is a more personal option. A sticky note placed atop a computer or passed in the hallway that says “You’re rocking, ____! Keep it up!” even carries verve. You might organize student notes or videos to show staff that they matter and that their hard work is appreciated. The power of meaningful, targeted praise carries far beyond the goal setting and attainment itself; it sets up the conditions for staff to step into leadership roles more willingly.
Schools are works in progress. Leaders might find that trying one or some of these ideas can be time-consuming at the start. However, when woven into the fabric of how we lead, the work of staff leadership feels like more of a culture shift that can stick. This slowly starts to make the necessary, powerful, transformative work we do in schools sustainable for us and those we serve.

Alexa Dunn has been an educator since 2000. Prior to becoming a principal, she served as a teacher, founding faculty member of Science Leadership Academy (SLA), academic coach, professional learning specialist, and adjunct faculty at University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education’s Urban Teaching Program. She is the founder and lead consultant of North Star Collaborative.

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