Years after leaving that school, I still feel pangs of distress in my stomach as I think about walking into the building. The toxic energy was palpable. No smiles were exchanged in the hallways. The teachers’ lounge became a dumping ground of complaints, tears, and stress over the latest round of observations. Our students breathed in the apathetic, depressing air teachers spewed out. No one wanted to be there. Attendance was low for teachers as well as students. It came as no surprise the city proposed closing the school at the end of this year.
Since my time at that school, I have grown as a teacher and a leader. I learned students and teachers will come to school if they enjoy the experience. Mitra (2004) notes providing opportunities for student voice in schools facilitates greater agency, belonging, and competence, which ultimately lead to improvements in academic outcomes. The same rings true for teachers. Research from Pedersen, Yager, and Yager (2012) indicates schools that practice distributed leadership have a more positive school climate and improved character development. Spreading leadership throughout the school also benefits the school itself. Kusy and McBain (2000) note organizations benefit from improved decision-making when multiple stakeholders are involved in the decision-making process.
Ideally, administrators will buy into the notion of shared leadership, as this support is integral to school-wide initiatives. Administrators take the following steps:
Create inclusive school governance structures
The school is better served by encouraging teachers and students to participate in making important school decisions. Fielding (2001) promotes the concept of “radical collegiality” between students and teachers whereby mutual learning is both possible and expected. Administrators can develop school leadership teams comprised of teachers and students, which they entrust with authentic decision-making power.
Student councils should be representative of the student body and encouraged to raise student concerns or suggestions in reference to the learning environment. Brasof (2015)’s book, Student Voice and School Governance describes such a model in detail. Administrators can also encourage committees of teachers and students to design and lead Professional Development sessions on topics chosen by teachers and students. Youth and Adults Transforming Schools Together is a Vermont-based organization that practices this form of student leadership.
Resist traditional regulations
Administrators can act as a buffer from unnecessary bureaucracy (e.g. Mitra, 2007) so students and teachers can focus on teaching and learning. Standardized testing particularly disadvantages youth who are Latin@, Black, diagnosed with a dis/ability, or from low socioeconomic backgrounds (Allen, English, & Papa, 2014). One step administrators can take is to apply to waive standardized testing mandates and replace them with project-based assessments. This may work best by organizing with other schools and forming a collaborative network for assistance during the application process and afterwards in the form of ongoing instructional and performance assessment-based professional development. The New York Performance Standards Consortium is such a coalition.
Another step administrators can take is to apply for programs like the Progressive Redesign Opportunity for Schools of Excellence (PROSE) program in New York City, which allows schools flexibility to push back against certain traditional regulations that do not benefit their communities. For example, teacher intervisitations replace most administrator observations; teachers set their own learning goals for the year; and teacher evaluations are based largely on individual teacher reflection and success shares at the end of the year. Unions and departments of education in other cities should advocate for these programs to be created if they do not already exist. Additionally, such programs should be not be restricted only to schools with high ratings, as schools with lower ratings may need the flexibility these programs offer in order to excel.
If the administration at your school has not yet adopted shared leadership practices, here are some strategies individual teachers can use to improve student experiences in her or his classroom:
Co-construct curricula with students
Research indicates providing meaningful, ongoing opportunities for students to co-construct curricula, pedagogy, and authentic assessment foster youth development while simultaneously helping teachers (Thiessen, 2007). While co-constructing curricula can be a daunting task, students are often far more engaged when they decide what and how they learn. Approaches to co-construction span a continuum. Some teachers provide students with the opportunity to decide which units they want to learn by voting or reaching consensus at the start of the semester or school year. Others may have routinized planning structures in place whereby students co-plan the week’s activities. This year, I am asking students to design their own units of study to fit their content interests, skill levels, and learning styles. While 90 different projects are difficult to keep up with, assigning external experts on the various topics and implementing organizational strategies like color-coded progress charts makes such an unwieldy endeavor possible.
Model and reward a growth-mindset
Included in The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life, is a chapter entitled “Giving an A” (Zander & Zander, 2002). In this chapter, Benjamin Zander describes his experience giving each student in his musical performance class an A at the start of the year. This dispels the notion students should only complete their work to receive a grade. Students focused on grades will opt for “easy” assignments on which they can earn a high grade but may learn nothing. If grades were based on individual progress, rather than measuring against a uniform standard, students could compete with their personal bests rather than compete against other students. Students may be more inclined to try if the benchmark seems attainable.
While teachers may not be able to dictate their own grading policies, many teachers are permitted discretion when assessing student effort or work habits. Even if teachers can only determine how this tiny piece of the grade is calculated, they can emphasize its importance. The Values In Action character strengths from the VIA Institute on Character provide concrete language for the often ambiguous “effort” component. Each marking period, ask students to self-reflect on how they have practiced the values. Offer students opportunities to grade themselves and provide a detailed rationale about why they deserve this grade for effort. In order to promote this critically reflective environment, it is vital we as teachers are transparent about our own self-reflection. I like to start class with a short activity that allows all members of the classroom, including myself, a chance to practice a value (e.g. share something for which you are grateful), or celebrate a time when we practiced a value or observed others practicing a value in school.
Allen, T. G., English, F. W., & Papa, R. (2014). A philosophical deconstruction of leadership and social justice associated with the high-stakes testing and accountability system. In A. H. Normore, & J. S. Brooks (Eds.), Educational leadership for ethics and social justice: Views from the social sciences (pp. 135-157). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.
Brasof, M. (2015). Student voice and school governance: Distributing leadership to youth and adults Routledge.
Fielding, M. (2001). Students as radical agents of change. Journal of Educational Change, 2(2), 123-141.
Kusy, M., & McBain, R. (2000). Putting real value into strategic planning: Moving beyond never-never land. OD Practitioner, 32(2), 18-24.
Mitra, D. L. (2007). The role of administrators in enabling youth-adult partnerships in schools. NASSP Bulletin, 91(3), 237-256.
Pedersen, J., Yager, S., & Yager, R. (2012). Student leadership distribution: Effects of a student-led leadership program on school climate and community. International Journal of Educational Leadership Preparation, 7(2), 1-9.
Thiessen, D. (2007). Researching student experiences in elementary and secondary school: An evolving field of study. In D. Thiessen, & A. Cook-Sather (Eds.), International handbook of student experience in elementary and secondary school (pp. 1-76) Springer.