The Principal’s Role In Building a Community Of Shared Leadership

The Principal’s Role In Building a Community Of Shared Leadership

With each passing year, we find the role of the school leader changing and evolving. No longer is the school principal a “one-man (or woman) show”. The changing needs of today’s school communities are becoming more and more prevalent. Current research shows that, in order to be effective, today’s leader must learn to embrace a team leadership approach. This research paper focuses on the importance and results of developing and maintaining a positive and committed relationship between principals and teachers. School leaders are finding that, “Working together in teams often is a more effective way to accomplish important tasks. … Teams tend to be better at solving problems, have a higher level of commitment and include more people who can help implement an idea or plan.” (Kent Peterson, 1993, p. 1)

Today, leaders are faced with a myriad of new responsibilities. The job is beyond what one person can accomplish. Hence, the concept of shared leadership comes to the forefront. It is incredible how much the dynamics of schools have changed over the course of a few decades. How many of us remember the principal as a figure always sitting at his or her desk? Today, it is rare to find a principal in his or her office at all. The majority of principals are out and about – in classrooms, talking to students or attending the never-ending string of administrative meetings. Kantrowitz and Mathews (2007) concur when they discuss the vast number of issues that principals deal with. Principals are dealing with issues relating to changing family dynamics, social change, technology advancement, increased testing and ever-changing educational mandates. It only makes sense with so many qualified, knowledgeable professionals in a building to share the concept of leadership.

What is shared leadership? Shared leadership is a concept that does not follow the standard top-down style of leadership that was once the norm. As the title implies, shared leadership involves bringing teachers and their expertise to the forefront of our educational system. In this day and age, we are finally realizing that no one person is “all knowing”. Linda Lambert sums up the concept of shared leadership by saying, “The principal is one of many voices, and decisions are shared. The old model of formal, one-person leadership leaves the substantial talents of teachers largely untapped.” (Lambert, 2002, p. 1) Shared leadership gives teachers a voice in making curriculum decisions and establishing school environment. In the words of Kenneth Shaw, “Provide a pathway to confidence and further development.” (p. 181)

Historically, teachers have held leadership positions since the inception of the one-room schoolhouse in the 19th century. During this era, there may have been a town school board, but the teacher served as the main authority. This changed in the early 20th century when administration became a profession. Now, the administrator became the authority and the teacher was relinquished to deal with “classroom issues”. Change, however, came again when, “Efforts to promote teacher leadership were renewed in the 1970’s and 1980’s in response to regulatory reforms. Opportunities for teacher leadership included mentoring programs, master teacher appointments, and policies to involve teachers in administration.” (Smylie, Conley & Marks, 2002, p. 18)

At this time, the emphasis has shifted to shared leadership. The idea of shared leadership may sound easy to achieve. In actuality, there is a great deal of skepticism from teachers involved in the early stages of implementation. Many teachers are accustomed to being on committees and giving their input only to have it totally ignored. The result is frustration for the teacher and a lack of credibility for the administration. Some teachers will simply stop being on committees for fear of wasting their time. Others will sit on a committee but have little faith that anything good will come of it. “Many teachers fear that their chances to influence decisions are eroding.” (Glover, 2007, p. 1)

So, how do school leaders go about changing this negative perception? Theories vary, but they all come to the same conclusion. The principal and his or her ability to nurture a trusting environment are key components in breaking through the barrier of skepticism and negativity. “Principals must find ways to change that perception so that teachers see that, … their voices are heard and their risk taking makes a difference.” (Glover, 2007, p. 1) For starters, the principal must embrace the concept of shared leadership and have the desire to empower teachers. It takes a confident leader to take the first steps towards “letting go” of some of his or her power. As educators, most of us have worked with leaders who are comfortable with shared leadership and some who are not. Roland Barth (2001) concurs that principals who do not have security issues are more likely to share leadership without holding back.
The effects of shared leadership touch many areas of school environment. When shared leadership is effectively utilized teachers feel empowered and valued. They are able to take ownership of the outcome of decisions they are truly a part of. According to E. McEwan (2003), teachers are more likely to feel increased ownership for student learning when given the opportunity to take more ownership over their school environment. Teachers are also more likely to stay in a school where they feel valued, thereby decreasing teacher turnover and increasing continuity. Principals also feel the positive benefits of shared leadership. Building morale increases, as does productivity. Teachers have more respect for a leader who shows respect for his staff. The principal’s workload is lightened, he or she has increased input and knowledge from his staff, and he or she builds trust and respect within their school. Amy Mednick (2003) also discusses the unexpected leaders who appear when given the opportunity to shine. These future leaders may never have come forward had they not been encouraged to take a step in the direction of leadership.

The focus on shared leadership is directly linked to the theory that school improvement will follow if teachers are empowered and listened to. It is a logical assumption that students will notice the change in school culture. As teacher morale increases, so does effective teaching, and, in turn, student learning and achievement. Smylie, Conley and Marks emphasize that this outcome is largely dependent on the “development of teachers’ knowledge, abilities, and commitment.” (Smylie, Conley and Marks, 2002, p. 18)

I am privileged to be currently teaching and serving as department chairperson in a school where the principal supports shared leadership. Over the course of the last three years, he has given teachers numerous leadership opportunities. In addition to establishing teams related to various school initiatives, we have also been given opportunities to go to a variety of training seminars. Every effort has been made by the administration to give us time for team planning and peer observation. The most recent initiative has been to establish teacher led staff meetings. This resulted from teacher input requesting that time be made available for presentations to both the whole staff and individual departments. Each month, a different department will share an instructional strategy lesson or best practices, or the administration will host a guest speaker who will present on a topic requested by staff. For example, there has recently been much interest in the use of Blackboard with our students. As a result, Dr. Ruth Klein will be doing a presentation on utilizing Blackboard for our staff at the end of October.

The change in the staff morale is noticeable. There are some teachers who would prefer not to be bothered, so to speak, with this increased responsibility. The majority, however, welcome the opportunity to give input and feel valued by our administration. In a meeting last week, some of the teachers were talking about the fact that we have waited long enough to have professionalism put back into our profession. Teachers want to feel important. In the book BRAVO Principal!, there is a quote that states, “Everyone has an invisible sign hanging from his neck saying, ‘Make Me Feel Important!’ Never forget this message when working with people.” (Harris, 2004, p. 29) In many ways, feeling important is what has been lacking in the profession of teaching. This is what I see changing in my school. When I am asked for input, I feel as if I am making a difference. Isn’t that why most educators became educators?

I am left asking myself how this knowledge about shared leadership will impact me as a future leader. I come back to the same conclusion each time. The reason I went into education was to impact the lives of students. As I have gone further into my career, I realize that it is also important for me to have an impact on my colleagues and on the profession of teaching itself. Without collaboration and trust between teachers and administration, education can never be at its best. The important thing is that the teachers feel united with the administration. Everyone should be striving toward one common goal … positive learning outcomes and successful student achievement.

Barth, R.S. (2001). Learning By Heart. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Glover, E. (2007). Real Principals Listen. Educational Leadership, Vol. 65 (1), p. 60-63.
Harris, S. (2004). BRAVO Principal! (1st Edition). Larchmont, NY: Eye On Education, Inc.
Kantrowitz, B. & Mathews, J. (2007, May 28). The Principal Principle. Newsweek, p. 3.
Lambert, L. (2002). A Framework for Shared Leadership. EducationalLeadership, Vol. 59 (8) p. 37-40.
McEwan, E. (2003). 7 Steps To Effective Instructional Leadership. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, Inc.
Mednick, A. (2003). The Principal’s New Role: Creating a Community of Leaders. Conversations, Vol. 4 (3), p. 1-12.
Peterson, K. (1993, July). Critical Issue: Building a Committed Team. Paper Presented at NCREL’s Urban School Leadership Conference, Naperville, Illinois.
Shaw, K.A. (2005). The Intentional Leader (1st Edition). Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press.
Smylie, M., Conley, S., & Marks, H. (2002, September). Exploring New Approaches to Teacher Leadership for School Improvement. LSS Review, Vol. 1 (2), p. 18-19.