Sunday, November 6, 2016

Collaborative Leadership - Reflections

Last weekend, I read Collaborative Leadership by Peter DeWitt. I never know if I'll finish a professional book I start. My preference recently has been to read blogs rather than books, but this book was different. I kept reading, taking notes, and reflecting, something I haven't done in awhile. Before the weekend ended, I had finished reading the book.

Peter is someone I follow regularly on Twitter and Facebook, and I look forward to reading his blog, Finding Common Ground. Every so often, I'll comment on his blog or I send him an email if I don't want my comment published. Peter always responds honestly (even though he's probably very busy) and therefore, I looked forward to reading his latest book. I told Peter I would let him know what I thought of the book, but I was having a difficult time getting my thoughts down on paper. It sounded more like a paper for college, and that was certainly not my intention.

This morning, I checked my Facebook page and saw this blog, "I hear of teachers crying on their kitchen floor because of stress" and read the numerous comments from teachers who were feeling undervalued and overworked. At that moment, I knew that this was exactly what I needed to write about the impact of Collaborative Leadership on me.

Teaching is challenging, and this year, more than any other since I've been a principal, that point has been hammered home. We lost three new teachers due to the heavy work load and inability for them to find the balance between their personal life and school. I thought we were "collaborative" and even though we "trained" these new teachers prior to the start of school, there were so many more questions and concerns that they had. Added to the stress were students with challenging behaviors that made it even more difficult to teach. Peter shares a blog he wrote back in January 2014 about "10 Critical Issues Facing Education"  and today, in November 2016, those issues are still relevant. That list doesn't even include unique issues a school faces. In our case, it is transiency as well as deployments that impact our school community.

A principal cannot make major decisions in isolation. One of the best decisions we made collaboratively as a school was to seek accreditation. It was not easy to get buy-in from everyone, but at the time, we were discussing ways to address the perception that our Hawaii schools were substandard. We believed that accreditation would validate what we were doing to address the questions: Are students learning? How do you know? What do you do if students are not learning? In other words, the focus was on learning. The self-study was rough; we realized that we had 'pukas' - holes - that we needed to address as a school, but overall, we were doing a pretty good job of educating our students, 98% of whom are military dependents who don't stay in one school for very long. Since that initial self-study, we've gone through a mid-term progress report and another accreditation self-study. Each time we look back at where we had started, we are amazed at what we have accomplished as a school community regarding teaching and learning.

We are in the process of determining our Financial Plan for next school year, and as usual, we will  be conservative because we never know whether we will meet our projected enrollment which our FP is based on.  However, we will have a discussion about our focus on learning and how we can best meet the needs of our students while also ensuring that teachers continue to develop their pedagogy and other essential skills in this 21st century world. For this reason, we are transitioning to project-based learning, integrating content area standards and focusing on inquiry with students asking as well as answering higher-level questions. Our school-wide data also indicates a need for professional development in teaching math for understanding and problem-solving. We value our staff and we must provide meaningful professional development to increase their efficacy so they can increase student learning and student efficacy.

Although we use social media and hold school-wide or grade level events to engage families, we can do even more. When I taught Head Start many years ago, parents were encouraged to volunteer in the classroom so they could learn skills and strategies they could use with their children at home. Because these were low-income families, it was essential for these parents to understand their importance as their child's first teacher and to give their children a "head start" when they enrolled in kindergarten. I learned that when teachers invite parents to help in their classrooms, the benefits are many. Family engagement increases trust in the school, builds positive home-school relationships, and positively impacts student achievement.

At our school, teachers are empowered to be innovative and to try new ideas with their students. Most of our weekly meeting time is devoted to teachers learning together or from each other, and we provide substitute days so teachers can collaborate to plan instruction or share ideas, review student work, analyze data, and determine next steps. But that is not sufficient. In the best possible scenario, teachers would observe in each other's classrooms, have time during the school day to co-plan lessons, implement and then reflect on those lessons, meet with mentor teachers or Instructional Coaches, as well as prepare for future lessons. How can we make this happen?

We need to have collaborative discussions. As we look ahead to future meetings and discussions regarding this topic, we need to be open to new ideas (including how we allocate our funds) and trying out new ways of teaching and learning. There is still much to be done. We are still in the process of understanding what it means to be assessment-capable learners, and one of our priorities is creating a more effective system to give and receive feedback from all members of the school community. Another topic of discussion is how to personalize professional development for our staff in order to build their efficacy.

We still have much to work on, but I am confident that if we go into a meeting with one plan or idea, we will leave the meeting with something better. As Helen Keller stated, "Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much."  We want teachers to feel confident about their ability to positively impact student learning. It will take collaborative leadership and trusting relationships to build a learning community in every classroom throughout our school.

Thank you, Peter DeWitt, for providing me with this opportunity to reflect on my practices as a school leader.


  1. Jan,
    Thank you so much for reading and writing a blog about Collaborative Leadership. In my conversations through social media with you, I can tell you are a collaborative leader. I do hope we get to meet in person some day.
    Thank you again for writing this very thoughtful blog about the book.

    1. Thanks, Peter. Now to write a review for Amazon :-)

      Being a collaborative leader is challenging, and I don't think we'll ever get to where we want our school to be. But we just keep trying and taking forward steps.

      Thanks for continuing to inspire and validate my efforts! Hope that trip to Hawaii comes to fruition :-)