Leading Together / Power to the People - ASCD
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April 1, 2021

Leading Together / Power to the People

True empowerment comes from helping others tap the power in themselves.

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Leadership generates influence, and influence occurs through interaction. From a distributed leadership perspective, all educators within a school have the power to influence the quality of each other's work. Today's teachers want to make a difference beyond their classrooms: The challenge for principals isn't to empower teachers to do this, per se, but to help teachers tap the power they already have and to do so together as a team.

Principals can make key moves to ensure that teachers have the collective autonomy and resources they need to achieve shared goals—while elevating teachers' and students' joy. This is a tall order, but well worth the work. In the following example, Monakatellia Ford Walker, former principal of Winship Elementary School in Boston, describes her role in creating conditions for teachers to take collective action in service of stronger student learning.

A Win for All

In 2015, academic performance at Winship Elementary School was ranked among the bottom four percent of public schools in Massachusetts. It was a reckoning that inspired the faculty to rethink long-standing traditions shaping teaching and learning. As the school's new principal, Monakatellia Ford Walker (coauthor of this column) took time to learn about teachers' many strengths and recognized the need for a shared vision to galvanize these strengths in service of students. The school's shared vision became student-centered learning.

Why student-centered learning? As teacher leaders and school and district administrators conducted school walkthroughs, they observed a common trend: In each classroom, teachers were talking more than their students. This led to a shared commitment by staff to shift to practices that encouraged students to be at the center of learning. Tapping research and each other's teaching experiences, the faculty committed to providing students with a broader variety of engaging learning experiences, approaches, and strategies, including project-based learning, experiential learning, and critical-thinking challenges.

Ford Walker also introduced a teacher leadership structure that involved tapping teachers as team leaders at each grade level and meeting with them regularly as an Instructional Leadership Team. Partnerships with district offices helped to equip this team with the necessary tools to develop their leadership skills. With this support, they engaged in the Data Wise Improvement Process 1 and became increasingly skilled at utilizing conversations about student data to inform both their schoolwide decisions and teachers' practice. Teacher leaders planned, co-led, and debriefed their weekly common planning meetings with the principal, each other, and a coach.

Teacher leaders opened their classrooms to peers for observation and feedback, ensured that plans for professional learning were aligned to meet teachers' needs across the building, and made instructional leadership decisions that embedded student-centered learning throughout the curriculum.

With this structure of support and a shared vision, teachers were able to help each other put new ideas into practice. They developed routines to collect and examine data from a variety of sources, including formal assessments, conferences with students about their learning experiences, and family interviews asking families about their children's interests. They then used that data to create student learning profiles that helped them leverage students' interests to develop organic, rigorous, standards-aligned learning experiences. Having the collective autonomy to create such responsive, exciting, and academically challenging experiences gave teachers a renewed sense of joy.

In one instance, students engaging in word work with the ESL teacher in the school's outdoor classroom were suddenly interrupted by a bright red bird. A student from Mumbai had never seen such a bird and asked the teacher about it. The teacher responded by having students draw what they saw and used their drawings as part of a descriptive language lesson that drew upon their home languages and helped them identify the bird. Recognizing the interest this sparked, the teacher embarked on a new learning journey that connected to standards across the curriculum. Students put ideas about empathy from their social-emotional learning curriculum into action as they made a bird house and bird feeders; they studied state birds which ignited curiosity about content within the social studies curriculum; and they practiced academic vocabulary and oral skills as they presented key ideas from their bird study unit to other students and staff.

Over time, authentic experiences like this allowed the school to realize steady academic improvement, increased student engagement, closer family involvement, expanded enrollment, and higher teacher satisfaction. In 2018 and 2019, the Winship School received a Massachusetts School of Recognition designation, and in 2020, the school earned Boston's prestigious School on the Move prize.

Key Leadership Moves

Today, students at the Winship School do the heavy lifting of learning, questioning, and engaging in the work. Their empowerment is the result of their teachers' empowerment, which is the result of their principal's ability to see her team as the people equipped to bring about that change. This chain was set off by the decision to bring the faculty together around a shared vision and was supported by leadership moves that created conditions for teachers' superpowers to activate and align.

Trust in the team: Creating a student-centered learning environment required moving away from business as usual and replacing rigid structures such as traditional curricula, schedules, and assessments with approaches that cater more directly to the needs of individual students. It required a culture of trust. By trusting teams to use their knowledge of students to make decisions together, Ford Walker challenged educators to hold each other to high standards in cocreating rigorous and relevant learning experiences for students.

Provide provisions: As team members collaborated to blaze new trails, they needed resources to help them do so effectively and efficiently. Ford Walker provided professional learning opportunities, instructional materials, access to articles and experts in the field, and built-in time to collaborate.

Secure all-hands-on-deck: By bringing the faculty together around a shared vision, each staff member took ownership of their unique and specific role in creating an environment to achieve it. Ford Walker ensured that everyone—from the cafeteria workers to the office staff to community partners to the whole instructional faculty—recognized their role in transforming the school into a hive of student-centered learning.

Crucial decisions at Winship School around teaching and learning were now being made with students at the center. There are few greater joys than using one's leadership influence to create conditions that support others so that their superpowers can not just shine, but combine—in service of students.

End Notes

1 Boudett, K. P., City, E. A., & Murnane, R. J. (Eds.). (2013). Data wise, revised and expanded edition: A step-by-step guide to using assessment results to improve teaching and learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

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