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April 1, 2010

When Teachers Run the School

In a high school in Greece, teachers assume all administrative roles, freeing up the principal to take school governance to the next level.

Today, it has become nearly impossible for a single individual to properly administer and lead a school. School leaders must assume responsibilities in an ever-wider range of areas: instruction, school culture, management, strategic development, micropolitics, human resources, and external development (Portin, 2004). Any one principal will have difficulty successfully managing all these areas on his or her own.

One alternative approach to school governance has great potential for success—the democratic and distributed leadership model. This model secures staff members' full participation in the school's decision-making processes, promotes meaningful collaboration and harmonious work relations, generates passion for accomplishing goals, and boosts student and teacher productivity.

Beyond Distributed Leadership

The democratic and distributed leadership model is similar in some ways to the distributed leadership model, which involves distributing responsibility on all administrative levels, working through teams, and engendering collective responsibility (Ritchie & Woods, 2007). In the distributed leadership model, the principal shares authority and power; teachers take leading roles, assume responsibility, and act independently as individuals or groups. However, the distributed leadership modeldoes not necessarily imply that the entire faculty controls decisions related to the school. Rather, principals create leadership positions that allow capable and willing teachers to work in a more focused leadership capacity. (Loeser, 2008, p. 3)

For example, teachers with expertise in one area of instruction who want to share with colleagues may assume the role of coaches; alternatively, a school leader may select a few teachers to lead decision-making groups.

Unlike the distributed leadership model, the democratic and distributed leadership model promotes the staff's full participation in key decision-making and implementation processes and also makes them accountable. The model requires the principal to serve as both chief coordinator and evaluator of processes and results.

Two Defining Characteristics

During the 2008–09 school year, while doing fieldwork for her doctoral dissertation, one of the coauthors observed this model of leadership at Ellinikon, a large high school in Greece. Ellinikon is located in one of the most impoverished areas of Athens. In the observation year, the school served 600 students of low socioeconomic status, 35–40 percent of whom were of non-Greek descent.

The democratic and distributed model is not unique to this school. In fact, it is the model of administration common to all Greek schools—but not all schools implement it as rigorously as Ellinikon does. As in the distributed leadership model, shared responsibility is rooted in the structure and culture of the school. The staff is autonomous, change is internal and bottom up, and the principal's role is dispensable. Two characteristics, however, make the model as practiced at Ellinikon distinct from the distributed leadership model.

Minimal Structural and Functional Differentiation

Teachers at Ellinikon have a contractual responsibility to collectively administer the school; there is no separation between teaching and administration as we know it. Appointed by the Greek Ministry of Education, the principal—a teacher—typically serves a four-year term, which may or may not be renewed. His or her main duty is to coordinate the teachers' decisions and actions.

All teachers must have a leadership function in the school because, if not, they are unable to fulfill their contractual obligations. The principal, by law, is not supposed to make important decisions on his or her own. That is the role of the Teacher Assembly. Participation in all assembly meetings is mandatory for all faculty members in the school because in a democratic model of school governance, it is considered a duty to participate, become informed, advance the school's education and administrative agendas, and vote for the common good. The decision-making process is entirely transparent.

Democratic and Full Participation

During the first Teacher Assembly meeting of every school year, faculty members distribute all administrative duties, either through consensus or by vote in case of disagreement. The criteria of the distribution, to borrow MacBeath, Oduro, and Waterhouse's (2004) terminology, may beformal (with a job description); pragmatic (indicated by necessity); strategic (when an individual's expertise is needed); opportunistic (based on people's preferences); incremental(based on previous performance); orcultural (when it promotes school culture).

For example, the position of the assistant principal was a formal assignment: Staff members nominated four teachers; one got the most votes. The selection of the leader of the electronics laboratory was strategic: This person's expertise was crucial for promoting this subject area; staff members elected him unanimously. The selection of the payroll administrator was incremental: She had done an excellent job the previous year as a member of the budget group. The selection of the members of the information technology administration team was opportunistic: This was a prerequisite for their working on a larger district project.

Every year, the leadership roles get reassigned. Ideally, all faculty members have the opportunity to assume each of the administrative duties. These include organizing the administration and scoring of schoolwide and national exams, ordering and distributing textbooks, planning teachers' schedules, keeping student records, handling school correspondence, computerizing school records, doing statistical analyses of data, and so on.

Some people tend to gravitate toward specific administrative functions, but a large percentage chooses or is chosen to cover a wide range of tasks. One teacher likes to request a new administrative activity every year simply because he gets bored; others prefer to assume as many administrative duties as possible as a way to understand how the school works. As the principal confessed,I was a teacher for 10 years before getting my first appointed assignment as a principal. [During each of those 10 years] I chose a different administrative post because I wanted to have a grasp of the school functions as a whole. I learned a lot. If I hadn't had this experience, I wouldn't have been able to coordinate all these functions successfully.

So Who's Monitoring the Teachers?

The principal, by law, is responsible for evaluating the professionalism, collegiality, and punctuality of the teachers. External counselors appointed by the Ministry visit the school, observe the practices of teachers in the classroom, and confer with teachers whose performance is unacceptable. The principal may invite the external counselors to intervene if a teacher's subject-matter knowledge or pedagogical skills are lacking.

The principal also ensures teachers' effective performance through input from the student body. Students participate in elected school communities that meet at least once each month. If students are dissatisfied with a particular teacher, they can bring their complaints to the principal, who then calls a meeting with the students and teacher to solve the problem.

Each school monitors its own student achievement in Greece. The Teacher Assembly discusses each student's performance every trimester. The national university entrance examination provides the standards against which to gauge this achievement.

Democracy in Action

To understand how the democratic and distributed leadership model works, let's look at how Ellinikon created its electronics laboratory. Science teachers at the school wanted an electronics laboratory so they could enter their students in national and global science competitions. They presented arguments in favor of the laboratory at the Teacher Assembly. Some teachers expressed concern regarding funding and space; a few even questioned the need for such a laboratory. After researching the issue, however, the assembly voted unanimously to go ahead with it.

The assembly then elected members to serve on the planning and implementation committees and created a timetable indicating when the principal would evaluate everyone's committee work and report back to the assembly. Teachers also encouraged students to serve on the committees so they could experience democracy in action and contribute to the common good of the school. A year after the lab was implemented, students won first prize in a national competition for their design of electronic automobile parts.

Why Implement the Model?

The benefits of distributed leadership are clear: connecting teachers with the goals and values of the school and freeing the principal of the many responsibilities of administration. Nevertheless, schools have not widely embraced distributed leadership. So why should we consider going even beyond this concept—to a democratic and distributed leadership model?

One problem that arises from the distributed leadership model is that the administration may appear to be entering into a partnership with a select few teachers while excluding the rest. This may perpetuate or exacerbate conflicts between teachers and administrators as well as among the teachers themselves. In short, the model does not necessarily promote harmonious cooperation among all stakeholders even though it may function more effectively than traditional models do.

In the distributed and democratic model, all teachers collectively assume responsibility for the well-being of the school. Teachers don't simply have a voice in running the school—they actually run it. In the Teacher Assembly, teachers discuss and resolve school matters and issues of concern. The principal is like an orchestra conductor; he or she helps administrators and teachers understand their roles and fulfill them well. The result is long-lasting school improvement.

This proved to be the case at Ellinikon. A year before the new principal rigorously implemented the democratic and distributed model, the school was paralyzed by teacher apathy and student misbehavior. Under the new principal and the new model of leadership, all that has changed. Many teachers who had become discouraged and who had asked to be transferred to a different school changed their minds and decided to stay. Teacher satisfaction and retention improved. Many teachers reported substantial improvements in student achievement as well. Students also noted an improved focus on teaching and learning at the school.

Another reason for implementing the model relates to the education goals of the school. According to Dewey (1975), if a school wants to prepare students for democracy, it must reproduce "within itself" conditions of democratic life and have teachers and students experience these conditions every day. A democratically run school becomes the right medium for this purpose.

Implementing the Model in U.S. Schools

In the United States, the education system separates teachers from administrators. Teachers are not obliged to take part in governing the school; to the contrary, the more they concentrate on teaching, the better. Administrators typically focus solely on the work of administration. If teachers shared in administering the school, however, administrators could focus on more substantive issues of leadership, such as cultivating meaningful school-community relationships, supporting teacher initiatives, connecting their schools with the world, and cultivating partnerships with businesses and arts-related venues.

  • Some districts would need to implement the model for study purposes. Scientific observation and assessment of the model's processes and effects in a U.S. context would address many doubts and encourage teachers and administrators to embrace the model.

  • Districts and principals must demonstrate honest willingness to give decision-making authority to teachers. As Lambert (2005) asserts, "principals need to hand decisions and problem solving back to the teachers, coaching and leading for teacher efficacy while refusing to hold tight to authority and power" (p. 65). Although principals relinquish some control in this model, its strict accountability measures promote good teaching and learning. In addition, the model successfully addresses such pressing issues as teacher and principal burnout and principal effectiveness.

  • Districts and principals must create the structures necessary to sustain the new form of leadership, make resources available to all, and give the model enough time to flourish. Teachers' schedules must allow not only for teaching and planning but also for administrative duties and teacher assembly meetings, which need to take place at least twice each month. Indeed, a four-day teaching week would fit the model. The faculty could devote the one nonteaching day of the week to meetings or to exchanges with the public, district, community organizations, and so forth. Students could spend the day working on independent projects, library research, community service, or internships in various businesses that have partnered with the school.

  • Principals should work as chief coordinators of all actions and as evaluators of the efficacy of all actors. The fact that the model is democratic does not mean that it is not results oriented and concerned with quality and efficiency. However, principals must be equal participants in the decision-making process. They must not override teachers' decision making by misusing the power they exercise as coordinators and evaluators. Although this is a challenging role, it is the key factor for the success of the model.

Benefits for All

By focusing on both outcomes and processes, the democratic and distributed leadership model has many benefits. It advances the efficient implementation of decisions, maximizes the range of knowledge and experience that go into school administration, makes all key administrative decisions visible to all, holds everyone accountable for the effective management of the school, promotes harmonious administration, cultivates the civic goals of schooling, and may likely increase teacher retention. These benefits advance the quality of school life and thereby foster student development and performance.

References

Dewey, J. (1975). Moral principles in education. Carbondale, CO: Arcturus Books Edition.

Lambert, L. (2005). Leadership for lasting reform. Educational Leadership, 62(5), 62–65.

Loeser, J. M. (2008). School leadership. Ebsco Research Starters.

MacBeath, J., Oduro, G. K. T., & Waterhouse, J. (2004). Distributed leadership in action: A study of current practice in schools. Nottingham: NCSL.

Portin, B. (2004). The roles that principals play. Educational Leadership, 61(7), 14–18.

Ritchie, R., & Woods, P. A. (2007). Degrees of distribution: Towards an understanding of variations in the nature of distributed leadership in schools. School Leadership and Management, 27(4), 363–381.

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