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October 1, 2022
Vol. 80
No. 2

The Power of Inclusive Leadership

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Research shows that collaborative leadership fuels workplace satisfaction, a key predictor of whether teachers stay in the classroom.

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LeadershipSchool Culture
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The past three years of schooling have pummeled the teaching profession. It's no surprise that, after so much distress and ever-changing, often contradictory, requirements, many teachers packed up their classrooms and retired early or left for other jobs.
Principals now face growing pressure to recruit and hire teachers from a shrinking pool of candidates. Some policymakers advocate short-term workarounds, such as waiving licensing requirements, adopting a four-day school week, relying on for-profit companies to provide virtual teachers, or luring candidates with signing bonuses. However, taking steps to cover classes with short-term fixes reinforces a custodial, rather than a professional, conception of teaching. This will ultimately undermine students' learning and stifle schools' development.
So what can principals do to strengthen their schools while rebuilding their faculties? Over the past two decades, my colleagues and I at the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers have studied why teachers enter the profession, why they stay, and why they leave. We've investigated schools where teachers are discouraged and students are alienated, as well as schools where both teachers and students thrive. The lessons we've learned offer sound guidance for school leaders as they work to restore and revitalize their schools.

Why Teachers Enter and Stay in the Profession

For decades, teachers have reported that they chose their career for its personal, "psychic" rewards (Johnson, 1990; Lortie, 1975). Teachers want to help young people learn and grow. They hope to instill an understanding of a subject they love. They seek to contribute or "give back" to society or their community. Assuming teachers' paychecks make their work affordable, teachers are inclined to stay where they can achieve those rewards.
In 1998, we began following 50 new teachers in a wide range of public schools (Johnson & The Project on the Next Generation of Teachers, 2004). When we concluded our study four years later, only one-third of our participants were still in their original schools, while the rest had transferred to other schools or left teaching. It became clear from our interviews with these educators that, while many levels of the education system affect teachers, it's their school as a workplace that truly matters most to them—especially if they're new to the profession (Johnson & Birkeland, 2003).

How School Context Matters

To understand the school-based conditions that affect teachers' work more broadly, we analyzed how over 15,000 teachers responded to a survey about their school's work environment (Johnson, Kraft, & Papay, 2012). Many factors proved to be important, but three stood out:
  1. Effective leadership by the principal.
  2. Having capable and collaborative colleagues.
  3. Working in a school culture that is purposeful, orderly, and supportive.
The importance of these factors also held up across school demographic differences, suggesting that it's the work environment that causes teachers to leave their jobs, not the diversity or income level of their students (Simon & Johnson, 2013).
We also learned that, based on state test results, students progressed more in schools that teachers rated highly as work environments, again controlling for demographic differences. In part this is because teachers are more likely to improve their instruction in schools that are highly rated as work environments (Papay & Kraft, 2016). This tells us that making a sound investment in the teachers' work environment also supports students' learning, whoever those students might be.

The Role of Leaders

So, what determines the quality of the teachers' workplace? Research has repeatedly shown that the principal's leadership is the most important factor in the quality of a school environment. This may seem obvious given principals' influence in schools, but we found that the type of leadership a principal demonstrates also matters a great deal.

Teachers who have inclusive leaders are far more likely to have the support they need to do better work.

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Based on our studies of teachers' work and career decisions in many schools and districts, we've found that principals who are responsive, inclusive leaders create the conditions for teachers to lead (Johnson et al., 2014). Rather than adopting a master plan and monitoring its implementation, these leaders engage teachers as partners in diagnosing their school's needs and devising strategies to address them. In such schools, teachers have genuine opportunities to use not only their professional expertise, but also their insider's knowledge of the school's students and families to shape its policies and practices. They are the agents, not the objects, of change.

School Systems for Inclusive Leadership

Building inclusive leadership that increases teachers' workplace satisfaction can succeed in any school, regardless of its socioeconomic status. To learn more about how that process works in schools that serve low-income communities, we studied six elementary and middle schools—three district and three charter schools—in a single, large city (Johnson, 2019). We deliberately chose schools that successfully served large proportions of historically underserved students. Each school had achieved the state's highest accountability rating, based on improving performance on state tests and reducing achievement gaps among sub-groups of students.
In each school, principals and teachers had developed schoolwide systems for doing their work together. These systems were tailored to their school's mission and needs and guided the school's educators as they hired new colleagues, collaborated in their work, chose curriculum, improved instruction, and established rules, norms, and supports for students. For teachers, the payoff of these systems was that they could achieve their goals with others' support. For example, since teachers had participated in developing and refining their school's expectations for students' behavior, they could count on their colleagues to maintain order in a consistent manner throughout the school.
These were not bureaucratic systems imposed from outside or even adopted internally by the principal. They were social systems that the school's educators had worked on together to make their own. Because these systems were jointly implemented and endorsed by educators within the school, they reduced teachers' isolation and uncertainty about what to do both inside and outside their classrooms. Together, these systems became the professional culture of the school, or what teachers sometimes called "the way we do things here." When they worked well, these systems established coherence throughout the school for both teachers and students.

How Collaborative Systems Work

What do these social systems look like in practice? Given current demands for hiring and retaining teachers, let's look at two types of systems that addressed those needs.

Making a Match in Hiring

All six schools we studied chose their own teachers—in some cases entirely on their own and in others with help and oversight from the district office or charter management organization. School leaders and staff recruited teachers by attending job fairs and advertising in local newspapers or on websites, such as craigslist. They sought out promising candidates through connections with churches and local nonprofit organizations. They maintained what several principals called their "farm team" of promising candidates, such as student teachers or long-term subs who had already proven their worth. Current teachers were often their school's best recruiters, having identified promising colleagues in other schools whose interests and skills aligned with their school's mission, practices, and goals. Taken together, these ongoing efforts generated demographically diverse pools of strong candidates.
Each school also had a multi-step hiring process that promoted a rich exchange of information between the candidate and the school's educators about what they were looking for and could offer one another. Importantly, current teachers at the school—potentially the candidate's future colleagues—participated actively in the hiring process. In addition to reviewing and screening applications, principals and teachers met with candidates, which allowed both the school and the candidate to judge whether they would be a good match for the school's mission, policies, and practices. All the schools made it clear that anyone who joined their staff would be expected to work closely with colleagues. Notably, all finalists conducted demonstration lessons with students, usually followed by a debrief with the principal. Several school leaders said they found the debrief even more informative than the lesson itself because it revealed a prospective teacher's openness to feedback and commitment to ongoing improvement.
Each school's recruitment and hiring process was demanding and time-intensive, but teachers and administrators agreed that it was worth it. Once new teachers arrived, colleagues who had participated in hiring them had a stake in their success. And as one school leader explained, "If you hire well and are explicit beforehand, you don't need to fire people."

Collaborating in Teams

Five of the schools formally organized teacher teams for collaboration. The principals built schedules that included daily planning time by grade level, with at least one block each week devoted to team meetings. Teams in several schools met daily. During separate meetings, the teams focused on the content of their work (choosing and developing curriculum, planning and assessing their own instruction, and reviewing students' performance) or their cohort of students (focusing on their well-being and behavior, for example).
Because the principal had built team time into the schedule, it was not considered an add-on that could be pre-empted by other activities. Instead, educators fiercely protected it from interruption. Teachers understood why they were meeting and what they wanted to accomplish. In three of the schools, teacher leaders were trained, supervised, and compensated for facilitating their team's work. Principals remained engaged and informed about the teams' progress, but they did not micromanage their work.
Notably, new teachers' induction also was grounded in teams. They knew from the hiring process that they would be expected to work closely with colleagues and improve their instruction. Rather than waiting to meet with an assigned mentor, who might not teach the same grade or subject, they quickly were engaged with experienced team members in deciding what and how to teach their students.

Even in the most centralized, restrictive school district, principals have far-reaching influence on who applies and chooses to teach in their school.

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As in hiring, administrators agreed on the benefits of investing precious time in teamwork. One instructional leader called teams the teacher's "first line of defense." A principal attributed her school's rapid progress in the state's accountability system to teams. When I asked a teacher where she went for support, she quickly replied, "My team members …. Every day, many times."

Preventing Turnover and Lost Learning

Clearly, some school leaders have more autonomy than others to make key decisions for their school. However, even in the most centralized, restrictive school district, principals have far-reaching influence on who applies and chooses to teach in their school, whether those teachers feel supported, and whether they find success in their work.
When principals are inclusive leaders who encourage and rely on teachers' participation, they can better understand teachers' work environment. As a result, teachers are far more likely to have the support they need to do better work, experience more professional satisfaction, and stay. Without such efforts, schools will continue to play catch-up as teachers repeatedly come and go, while their schools incur the high costs of teacher turnover—not only in dollars, but also in students' lost learning.
References

Johnson, S. M. (1990). Teachers at work: Achieving success in our schools. Basic Books.

Johnson, S. M. (2019). Where teachers thrive: Organizing schools for success. Harvard Education Press.

Johnson, S. M., & Birkeland, S. E. (2003). Pursuing a "sense of success": New teachers explain their career decisions. American Educational Research Journal40(3), 581–617.

Johnson, S. M., & The Project on the Next Generation of Teachers. (2004). Finders and keepers: Helping new teachers survive and thrive in our schools. Jossey-Bass.

Johnson, S. M., Kraft, M. A., & Papay, J. P. (2012). How context matters in high-need schools: The effects of teachers' working conditions on their professional satisfaction and their students' achievement. Teachers College Record114(10), 1–39.

Johnson, S. M, Reinhorn, S. K., Charner-Laird, M., Kraft, M. A., & Papay, J. P. (2014). Ready to lead, but how? Teachers' experiences in high-poverty, urban schools. Teachers College Record116(10), 1–50.

Lortie, D. C. (1975). Schoolteacher: A sociological study. University of Chicago Press.

Papay, J. P., & Kraft, M. A. (2016). The myth of the performance plateau. Educational Leadership73(8), 36–42.

Simon, N. S., & Johnson, S. M. (2013). Teacher turnover in high-poverty schools: What we know and can do. Teachers College Record117(3), 1–36.

Susan Moore Johnson is Jerome T. Murphy Research Professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education and author of many books, most recently Where Teachers Thrive: Organizing Schools for Success (Harvard ­Education Press, 2019).

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