Want to Keep Teachers Happy? Build a Culture of Collaboration at School

Effland: Principals can treat educators as the professionals they are by sharing decisionmaking with them — the people who will be most affected.

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In principal preparation programs, there is an often-used axiom: “If you don’t feed the adults, they will eat the kids.” It means that when staff are not growing or feeling respected, there are strongly correlated negative impacts on student learning and experience. I’ve heard people criticize this idea as hyperbole, but it sticks because there is some truth to it. Teachers are hungry. They are hungry to be treated like professionals, and the best way to satiate this hunger is to build a culture of collaboration and shared decisionmaking. Placing key decisions closest to the people who will be asked to execute them treats educators as the expert professionals they are and will have a significantly positive impact on their school. To build this culture at your school, I recommend focusing on four key actions.

The first of these, modeling, is simple but surprisingly difficult to make habitual. School leaders run many meetings a week, but also have many more short, impromptu interactions with staff, and they must model the culture they want with during these brief interactions. When someone on your team comes with a question, model collaboration by first asking for their thoughts. When someone asks you to make a quick decision, respond by seeking their input on the best options. This sends the message over and over that you, as a leader, truly value the perspectives of your teaching team, which begins to build the ethos of collaboration and shared decisionmaking in your building.

After you have started reinforcing the values of this culture through modeling, you need to create structures for more formal and consistent shared decisionmaking. Start by choosing important aspects of your collective work, such as student culture, professional development or community events, and have your staff opt into and form mini-teams that align to their own interests. Once mini-teams are formed, you need a clear process for shared decisionmaking. I recommend using a simple, three-step process that can be repeated until a final decision has been made. First, several people from the mini-team create a proposal based on the group’s initial thoughts. Second, the proposal is presented to the entire group, debated and refined. Third, everyone has the opportunity to approve or disapprove of the proposal. At my school, anyone who gives a thumbs down is also volunteering to craft the next iteration of the proposal, which will then go through the same process. If your organization or team prefers majority rule when decisions are made, this process can be modified. The key is that there is a clear and accepted system for these groups to make decisions that is both efficient and aligns with your organizational and community values.

Now that you have both an ethos of shared decisionmaking and the structures to support it, you need to ensure there is time dedicated to this work. This is a two-part commitment. First, you must set aside regular time for your mini-teams to meet. There are always constraints and competing needs, and you will need to work with a variety of stakeholders, including your staff, your district or charter management organization and any unions. The second part is a philosophical one. Working collaboratively and sharing decisionmaking simply takes longer than top-down decisionmaking. You get the time back in the efficiency of executing plans or decisions that everyone involved feels fully a part of, but the first part of the process is slower and requires patience and commitment from leaders to see it through. 

The final piece of building this culture on your team is to honestly and strategically share decisionmaking authority. Leaders have many decisions to make, ranging from minute to massive. If you believe in and have built a culture of collaboration and shared decisionmaking, you are going to be sharing at least some of that responsibility and privilege. You must do this honestly and strategically. You demonstrate honesty by never pretending to share decisionmaking when you already have a definitive perspective on what that decision needs to be. You will still want to make some decisions yourself. Own that and be transparent with your staff when that is the case. The strategy part comes from carefully choosing which decisions to share and which staff members to pass them on to. For example, I would never bring a decision about choosing a vendor for enrollment software to the teaching team, but I would to the operations team. I would definitely want input from the teaching team when adopting a curriculum for reading intervention, but the staff at a single school cannot make that decision because it would be difficult for a district or charter management organization to support different curricula at different sites. You also need to be mindful of decision fatigue. Being a teacher is extraordinarily demanding. Avoid overwhelming your staff further by ensuring that the decisions you are asking your team to share responsibility for are connected to their day-to-day work.

Creating a culture of collaboration and shared decisionmaking in your school will have incredible impacts in your community. Your team will feel more invested, more respected and more joyful in their work, and that will have a significant impact on the student experience and outcomes.

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