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April 20, 2022

Leadership Secrets for Collective Teacher Success

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School Culture
Professional Learning
Credit: Artboard Studio / Unsplash
As a principal, the call to build collective teacher efficacy is persistent. From budgetary constraints to social justice and equity issues to a world pandemic, providing teachers with the support they need to feel capable to do their job and encourage their perception “that the efforts of the faculty as a whole will have a positive effect on students” (Goddard, Hoy, & Hoy, 2000) is critical. Collective efficacy not only increases staff perseverance and resiliency (Gorrell & Capron, 1988), it can be a greater determinant of student achievement than social economic status (Hoy, Sweetland, & Smith, 2002). As we expand our own capacity and beliefs as educators and work to change the trajectory of our most vulnerable students, collective efficacy is a powerful lever in mitigating some of the most challenging obstacles schools face.
I have codified some of the essential elements necessary to build collective teacher efficacy in schools, based on my own experiences.

Recognize the human aspect of being a teacher.

Yes, teaching is a superpower, but teachers also are human, and burnout can develop over time when work becomes unpleasant, unfulfilling, and unrewarding. This overwhelm can make it difficult for teachers to tap into their best thinking and efforts.
Though principals cannot stop all the culprits of burnout, we can mitigate their effects. When teachers have the autonomy to balance their own self-care with the needs of the school community, they are more likely to feel that their efforts will produce tangible changes. Moreover, teachers with strong perceptions of efficacy put more effort into planning lessons, are more open to new ideas, and persevere in the face of new challenges (Jerald, 2007).
Hearing and validating teachers starts with meaningful opportunities to collaborate and solve problems from an inquiry stance, acknowledging teachers as experts in the field and partners in the learning paradigm. Administrators’ charge is to protect sacred planning time, create sustainable collaboration systems, and remove barriers that might prohibit teachers from doing their job effectively. For example, to integrate a new math curriculum, my school’s leadership team created a schedule and provided substitutes so teachers could visit each other’s classrooms during live instruction and synthesize feedback with a consulting partner. Then, we scheduled time to debrief and asked teachers for feedback and suggestions prior to the rollout.
Our school also leveraged common planning time for collaboration. In weekly grade-level team meetings, we have written running agendas, professional readings or resources, and next steps to support shared outcomes. We’ve faced many challenges protecting this sacred time, including staff shortages, unexpected absences, noise distractions with remote video conferencing, and COVID-19 quarantines. To make the meetings work as smoothly as possible, we equipped teachers with additional technology, such as headphones and document cameras. We also hired college tutors to work alongside teachers in classrooms and provided staff with needs assessments throughout the year to share feedback on preferences for in-person or remote professional development. Some of this data included requests for staff opportunities to attend offsite conferences and workshops to gain insight on best practices during the pandemic and to share strategies with educators across other school districts.
Providing these consistent structures for staff to collaborate, reflect, and connect respects their professional development and recognizes their humanity.

Recognize that learning in a safe space is necessary.

Having a safe space—to share ideas, experience failure, and make necessary adjustments—is important. Safe spaces encourage teachers to take risks by exploring innovative teaching practices and encourage the vulnerability needed to ask for support for areas of improvement. Our safe spaces acknowledge the reality that students did not struggle with the challenges of the pandemic alone; our teachers also needed nurturing, encouragement, and validation.
Competitive work environments will erode trust and transparency in the long run. Perfectionism causes procrastination and paralysis. Teachers can more effectively develop their instructional capacity when they have permission to test the boundaries of what is possible for students.  
To encourage safe spaces for staff, administrators in my community establish norms at the beginning of the year during our opening professional development with teachers and utilize them throughout the year in all meeting forums. Some of our norms include assuming best intentions and staying student-focused, coupled with a strong commitment to results and outcomes. We also collectively and individually defined self-care and reviewed our commitment to it. We adjusted and updated group norms throughout the year based on the needs of our meeting or suggestions from staff. And we hold each other accountable for practicing the norms—they are not just read as an exercise before meetings but used as a checks and balance during our reflections and written feedback at the close of our meetings. Another tool we have used to honor equity of voice is the team temperature check template from Elena Aguilar’s book The Art of Coaching (2013), so that participants can reflect on their own experience when they work in groups.
Safe spaces also foster outside-the-box thinking that lead to meaningful learning for students. For example, we’ve brainstormed ways to fundraise and secure grants to support unique field trips. Some of our fundraising efforts included writing proposals for grants, having an “out of uniform” day for a $1 donation, and a free family movie night with a concession stand.  Our students took a field trip to the local skating rink, which was connected to a STEM unit for science, and visited a 55,000-square-foot fieldhouse to do team-building exercises, scavenger hunts, and a cooking project to support our social-and-emotional learning standards.

Start small.

Though it’s great to aim for “100 percent of students meeting their individual growth goals at the end of the year” or “increasing attendance by 4 percentage points by spring,” we must always ask whether lofty schoolwide goals are S.M.A.R.T. In other words, are they specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound? (Doran, 1981).Even if schools were able to meet these targets, the potential stress and anxiety for teachers may offset the veracity of the goals. Starting small may seem counterintuitive, yet sustainable results over longer periods of time support collective efficacy by allowing staff to reflect on the effectiveness of their efforts. 
However, starting small should not be confused with having low expectations; we just need coherent steps to work toward goals, the same way children learn to crawl before they walk. Starting small saves room for incremental feedback and manageable adjustments along the way. According to Bambrick-Santoyo (2018), action steps from feedback need to be “bite-sized” (meaning teachers can start to make these changes in a week) and limited to just one or two areas.
A couple of years ago, our school wanted to collectively improve our overall yearly attendance percentage. Our previous approach was to tackle multiple challenges associated with school attendance at once, including whole-school attendance initiatives, targeting individual students needing support, and setting classroom goals for each grade level—all at the same time. For our second go-around, we integrated one aspect at a time and set up benchmarks to test if that approach worked.
First, we looked closely at the data to determine which specific students struggled with attendance. The administrative team created an attendance team who looked weekly at the attendance report and highlighted the students who were below the threshold of 94 percent attendance, while determining the root causes of those absences. We discovered that some students had issues relating to an illness or were in in the process of moving. For those instances, we closely monitored students’ situations and built relationships with parents and guardians to provide supports where we could. Through nonprofit partnerships, we linked families to jobs, free medical assistance, and individual or group counseling.
Other students had attendance issues more within our locus of control. Our steps with them included goal setting, in which students review their attendance data and collaborate with their guardian and our school attendance team to decrease absenteeism. A goal for one student might include reducing the number of Fridays or Mondays they are gone and determining how the school can support with this effort. Another student might set a goal to wake up earlier in the morning and come to school on time. We also found success scheduling face-to-face meetings with parents, celebrations for incremental improvements, and examining the instructional experience for students.
Once we established a routine to support our most vulnerable students, we added more frequent schoolwide celebrations, including a traveling trophy for the class with the highest attendance average and perfect attendance celebrations. Even if our overall attendance did not go up from week to week, we saw improvements with particular students, especially as we added supports like counseling and transportation for students who continued to struggle. This distinction was an important shift to support collective efficacy and celebrate small wins.

Leverage job-embedded professional development, with an emphasis on student relationships.

It’s well known that professional development must be contextualized to the work that teachers are doing to ensure adequate advancement (Fullan, 2007). In our district, all schools are required to craft a school improvement plan for the website, which sets specific goals for academic outcomes based on collaboration with parents, community representatives, teachers, and students. The staff leadership team has editing rights for updates and includes priorities, action items, roles and responsibilities for each task, and dates for completion.
To further cement commitment to our goals, we attach dollar amounts from the yearly budget for professional development sources that will help fulfill goals. The plan also spells out time for teachers to collaborate, make meaning together of any new initiative, and reflect on their practice. When leaders provide frequent, structured opportunities for teachers to focus on instructional practices, teachers translate this new knowledge into more effective teaching (Brinson & Steiner, 2007).

Make a commitment to collective and transparent celebrations.

Teachers must have opportunities to articulate their practice and share triumphs. The old adage “no news is good news” doesn’t work in schools. Teachers need to know that success is not seen as an isolated event. In other words, how does Ms. Smith’s accomplishment support the work of Ms. Jones or Mr. Johnson’s students? If a PreK teacher is doing a project on plants, how can her approach support the 1st grade teacher with his environmental unit?
So, how do we celebrate areas of success as a community, for the purpose of building momentum? Principals can support perceptions of efficacy—even with limited resources—by increasing the sharing of skills and experiences between teachers (Brinson & Steiner, 2007). Each year, all of our district’s schools send a survey out to students, parents, and staff asking for feedback about their experience of the school year anonymously. The survey results are published, and as a school community, we analyze the survey data, organized by our priority components (effective leadership, ambitious instruction, collaborative teachers, involved families, and supportive environment). This process has helped us to encourage staff to identify areas where they may need more support and to celebrate areas of competency.
In addition, we have used tools to reflect individual competency—including the efficacy scale from Gibson and Dembo (1984), which examines personal as well as general teaching efficacy. The scale contains questions that assess teachers’ beliefs about their own abilities to plan, make adjustments to instruction, and manage their classroom with reflection questions. Scales like these enable teachers to closely examine their beliefs and measure their own progress toward being more efficacious.
When principals can support teachers to collectively believe that a large aspect of determining student outcomes is within their locus of control, both students and teachers will benefit.

Aguilar, E. (2013). The art of coaching: effective strategies for school transformation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Brand.

Bambrick-Santoyo, P. & Lemov, D. (2018). Leverage leadership 2.0: Practical guide to building exceptional schools (2nd ed). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Brinson & Steiner (2007). Building collective efficacy: How leaders inspire teachers to achieve. Issue Brief. The Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement.

Doran, G. T. (1981). There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management’s goals and objectives. Management Review 70, 35-36.

Fullan, M. (2007). Change the terms for teacher learning. Journal of Staff Development, 28(3), 35-36.

Gibson, S., & Dembo, M. (1984). Teacher efficacy: A construct validation. Journal of Educational Psychology, 76, 569-582. 

Goddard, R., Hoy, W., & Hoy, A. (2000). Collective teacher efficacy: Its meaning, measure, and impact on student achievement. American Educational Research Journal 37(2), 479-507.

Gorrell, J. , & Capron, E. W. (1988). Effects of instrumental type and feedback on prospective teachers’ self-efficacy beliefs. Journal of Experimental Education, 56(3), 120-123.

Hoy, W. K., Sweetland, S.R., & Smith, P.A. (2002). Toward organizational model of achievement in high schools: The significance of collective efficacy. Educational Administration Quarterly, 38(1), 77-93.

Jerald, C. D. (2007). Believing and achieving. Washington, D.C.: Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement. 

Maya Sadder is a principal in Chicago Public Schools. She is also co-author with Gabrielle Nidus of The Literacy Coach's Game Plan: Making Teacher Collaboration, Student Learning, and School Improvement a Reality (International Reading Association, 2009).

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