Teachers are increasingly being pushed into new roles as their ability to connect online opens up new opportunities. Educators are finding their own professional development, sharing lesson plans and teaching tips with colleagues around the world, and have often become ambassadors to the public on new approaches to teaching and learning. Easy access to information has empowered many educators to think and teach differently, but often those innovations remain isolated inside classrooms. Without a school leader who trusts his or her teachers, it is difficult to convert pockets of innovation into a school culture of empowered teachers.
One way of building that kind of unified school culture is through distributed leadership, the idea that no one person at the top of the hierarchy makes all the decisions that will affect the work lives of the adults in the building. Instead, the school principal or district superintendent empowers teachers and staff to run crucial aspects of a school, such as admissions, professional development and new teacher mentoring.
“Distributed leadership is not ‘I empower you to do exactly what I say,’ ” said Chris Lehmann, principal of Science Leadership Academy in an EduCon session about how to effectively distribute power. Often leaders believe they are distributing power, but they are actually just delegating. For teachers to buy into a system like this, which asks more of their time outside class, they must feel they are professionals trusted by leadership.
“Teachers have to really own what they are in charge of,” said Aaron Gerwer, intern principal at SLA. “They have to be invested in what they’re doing.” To get that investment, teachers have to know that support from leadership won’t be pulled away at the first bump or disagreement. There has to be space for different perspectives.
“It is a shared belief in the big ideas,” Lehmann said. “However, within the manifestation of the big ideas there’s a lot of room.” It’s the leader’s job to listen and include different viewpoints in a school’s vision statement, and once that structure is set it should guide every decision. If school staff are constantly re-examining core beliefs, there is no time to get good at anything. Through flexibility and distributed leadership, staff can work together to improve the teaching practices that help them reach those big goals.