We vs. Me: A collaborative approach to school district leadership

The more you give the more you receive….

I have heard it said many times, but have rarely seen it in practice in public schools and school districts. In my work with educational leaders, I meet many school and district level leaders who are tasked with the difficult job of improving schools and school systems that are under-performing. Under these circumstances, timelines are tight and it is difficult for a leader to be patient in order to spend the time and energy necessary to build the relationships necessary to sustain long-term positive improvements.

Today, I share with you one example of a superintendent who exemplifies the concept of sharing leadership and building a collaborative culture within his school district. While an exceptional leader, this man is also very humble, and therefore does not want to be featured by name in this blog. His story, however, is worth sharing:

What I can tell you about this leader is that he is a superintendent of a mid-sized district in the United States and that he does not fit the mold of most superintendents. The power of what this superintendent does lies in what is often unspoken. He is visible, approachable, engaging, and can lead a school board meeting effectively one day and blend into a staff development meeting as a participant the next.

My first-hand account of this superintendent’s leadership follows: I began working with his school district over a year ago as a consultant training principals and school-level leaders to use the Power Walkthrough software as a tool for monitoring instructional strategies. This training consists of one day of rigorous direct instruction and a second day of application of the learning by conducting walkthroughs in actual classrooms and debriefing each walkthrough. I didn’t realize the superintendent was even in my training as a participant until the second day when one of the principals told me. The entire time, this man, who is the chief executive for an entire school system was so unassuming and truly was engaged the entire time of my presentation as a learner, that I never would have guessed he was the superintendent. The school level leaders in the training were also very accustomed to having their boss work side-by-side with them. I was amazed to see the level of importance placed on staff development and professional learning being modeled by this superintendent.

The experience became even richer on the second day of Power Walkthrough training when we began doing classroom walkthroughs in an elementary school. Again, the superintendent was with the principals working side-by-side to learn more about instructional strategies. When I asked others in the group to facilitate conversations about instruction, it was obvious again that we were among equals. This superintendent could lead discussions, participate in them, and even make mistakes while learning with total support and acceptance from those who work for him. What made this experience even more amazing was watching how comfortable the superintendent was visiting classrooms and schools. He knew the teachers and they knew him on a first-name basis – and even more amazing to me was the fact that he also knew the students and they knew him.

At the conclusion of the two-day training, I had the opportunity to talk with this amazing district leader and I had to ask him how he was able to pull it all off…. How could a superintendent fill so many different roles and still be respected as the leader of a school district? He said it was really fairly simple, in his humble way of speaking. He told me that by sharing leadership you will become a stronger leader and that we should always approach problems as opportunities to learn. When you build a system-wide culture of learning and leading, everyone in that system is responsible and accountable for success. You can only do this by thinking about “we” instead of “me”.

5 Comments

  • Sandy says:

    With the right leaders in place this concept could be quite effective. Shared authority would be difficult for some.

  • Alisha says:

    It is great to see that school leaders are willing to take the time to truly understand the learning process that takes place among other staff members and students. It is nice to work with someone that is willing to undertake the experiences of every position under them to ensure that all staff is provided everything they need. A superintendent like the one mentioned in this post will be able to make decisions based on first hand experiences rather than by hear say. I wish more leaders would consider “we” rather than “me”.

  • Brian says:

    Collaboration. Teamwork. Partnership. We vs. Me. What an excellent approach by this superintendent. Shared leadership creates trust and a shared responsibility in the students’ learning. A true act of modeling through being an instructional leader and visibly being involved in the instructional work. Through a teacher’s eye, it shows he cares and wants to be there, in the trenches with us. A true leader creating a professional learning community in his district. It is those types of actions that lead to inspiration.

  • Amy says:

    It is so nice to see a school leader take time out of his/her busy day and step outside his/her office and work side by side with the teachers. In the three years I have been teaching I have never met the superintendent of our district. I have only seen him in pictures. I think it would be beneficial to see administrators more in the classroom.

  • TC says:

    What a wonderful story. This superintendent is setting his school system up for great success. As a teacher, it must be a wonderful feeling to know that those above you have your best interest at heart and are interested in providing you with the tools you need for student success.

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