Redesigning Learning Spaces through Collaborative Leadership

By Melissa Denig • Dec 22, 2017

Working in a teacher-powered school has given me a voice where I previously didn’t have one. I teach and lead at Washtenaw Alliance for Virtual Education (WAVE), located in Washtenaw County, Michigan. WAVE is a blended (online and face-to-face) public high school with 300 seats for students.

We are very lucky to work in a building that isn’t siloed into classrooms like the majority of traditional schools where the physical space is prohibitive to a true collaborative environment. Although, it wasn’t always like that; and in the process of redesigning our space we learned a lot about ourselves and collaborative leadership in teacher-powered schools.

Growing our teacher-powered practices

Teacher-powered schools use collaborative practices among teachers and have autonomy over decisions impacting student success and school change. The physical space of a school can promote or hinder this collaboration and shared leadership. At WAVE, we share offices, classrooms, and students; and completely embody the saying, “It takes a village.” While, at times, this can be can be chaotic and a challenge for scheduling, usually our space helps us to work as a team.

In three areas we used chalkboard paint to create an “announcements” wall, a teacher “in/out” wall for students to see which teachers were available, and a “class schedule” wall for students to easily navigate daily class options.

Until recently, however, our space was sterile, unorganized, and was not functioning as well as our team knew it could be. Students did not feel valued because we never had our own space or the correct sized furniture, but rather moved from abandoned space to abandoned space collecting used elementary furniture along the way. Our board members and director gave us a budget and approved monies from our general fund for a space redesign project.

As a team we tried to brainstorm together and plan solutions for creating a better space, but it was a struggle. Although teacher-powered is a team-based process, we quickly learned that not all decisions have to be a collective effort. It’s important within any system, including teacher-powered systems, to be able to delegate power and assign roles when needed to allow individuals to push the action forward and ensure a cohesive result. Redesigning our school space provided us an opportunity to reflect on our approach to teacher-powered and shift our thinking with more clarity about the process.

Collaborative leadership means we each draw on our strengths

Amos Briscoe, my colleague and WAVE Visual Arts teacher, and I were chosen to lead the space design project. As an artist, Amos has a keen sense of design, amazing ideas for wall displays and student murals, and was thus an obvious choice to lead this project. I, on the other hand, am not “qualified” to be a designer in anyway, but I am very organized, creative, and a type-A planner. Since Amos and I had a similar vision for the re-design and our roles were naturally divided based on our set of previously mentioned skills, our preparations came together easily and uncomplicated.

With our enlightened understanding of teacher-powered, we realized leading this project was more than just design, it was also shaping our ideas and decision-making processes. Moreover, traditionally teachers are not put in charge of designing a school, but our autonomy and hybrid leadership roles allowed us to do this. At teacher-powered schools, teams learn to use everyone’s talents beyond their subject credentials. Delegating to colleagues, trusting their choices, and knowing that everyone is ultimately accountable to the group, and most importantly the students, is at the core of teacher-powered practices.

Furniture shopping was the most fun part of the design project. Notice the calm blue walls, the moveable tables, and the ability for students to do work directly on the whiteboard tables.

Redesigning our space to prioritize student needs

With the overall goal of creating a better learning environment for students, our space design had three focuses: reallocation of space, wall color, and new furniture. Recently, we acquired extra meeting rooms in our multi-purpose building, which allowed us to rethink the purpose of each room in our space. We eliminated the conference room, which freed up space for another classroom. This additional learning space is really exciting because students are always asking for more opportunities for structured learning and teachers have had amazing ideas for new classes, but not the space to run them. The new classroom is small, but we chose a desk with a foldaway table to be able to seat as many students as possible without feeling crowded. The desks are also easy to move, making the small space versatile for collaboration, discussion, and presenting.

Once upon a time our walls were a basic flat white color, but over the years they have grown very dingy, dirty, and gross. With some informal teacher and student input we chose a bright turquoise color for our large accent wall and a cool light blueish grey for the remaining walls. Since many of our students struggle with anxiety, depression and ADHD, we focused our choices on happy and calm colors. The students involved also expressed their desire for a bright accent color within the “cool” color family.

Given that our main lab area is primarily used for working in groups, we chose unique leaf/teardrop shaped whiteboard tables that can stand alone or fit together to form flower shaped small groups, larger semicircles for teacher-led activities, and even larger waves for staff meetings. These multi-functional tables allow the students to collaborate, work directly on the tables, and easily change the layout of the room when needed. A new student norm at WAVE is to demonstrate learning right on the whiteboard table and take a picture of it to hand it in to their teacher digitally!

As we have settled into life in our new surroundings, colleagues and students have voiced their excitement for the changes that were made to our space. Students and staff alike care more about our school because it’s organized, calm, focused, and professional. Using our teacher-powered autonomy to create a space that incorporated teacher and student ideas, with a focus on collaboration among students and teachers, resulted in a finished space that is not only conducive to academic growth but that also inspires a sense of pride and ownership in students and staff.