Determining a collaborative leadership model

While practitioners at teacher-powered schools have collective autonomy to make decisions influencing school success, this doesn’t mean they come to consensus on every decision. They do have highly collaborative cultures in which teachers all work together for the good of the whole school.

Most teacher-powered teams make some decisions as a group and then delegate some decisionmaking authority to one or more leaders (in addition to leadership committees expected to act on the team’s established shared purpose and priorities). In this model, the traditional top-down leadership triangle—in which teachers are accountable to a principal who is then accountable to district administrators—is inverted.

There are many ways to make a collaborative leadership model successful. Whatever choices your team makes, consider whether, when securing your autonomy agreement, you need to negotiate for the ability to implement those choices. Also strongly consider writing down the decisions made, and the reasons for them, in a handbook or other format. This will help with team cohesion around specific team procedures and get everyone on the same page more quickly when conflicts arise.

At this point in the Storming stage, your team does not need to select its school leaders. (These individuals will be active later in the process once your school is running.) However, keep in mind that you might need to indicate who those leaders will be when submitting your school proposal. You can continue to consider which team members are the right school leaders for your team as you work toward the Norming stage.

The make-up and role of the board

Your school might be required to have a board of directors, governing board or site governing council. If so, this is the time to start recruiting members, defining their role, and educating them about their role. Some members of this body might be teachers (if allowed by policy), administrators, parents, students, and community members. Some members might come from the design team—people who care deeply about the school but do not want to work at it once it opens. Others might fill a need that your team seeks. For example, perhaps your team wants an excellent facilitator or mediator, an expert at organizational development, an attorney who can help you consistently make the case for preserving your autonomy, or a person who will provide sound financial guidance.

As you recruit your board, some teams will also be required to establish board bylaws. According to Foundation Center, bylaws formally define and create a framework for how the school will be managed. They determine which board and personnel team members will have authority and decision-making responsibilities and how those responsibilities should be carried out. They also describe the rules for calling board meetings, and how and when board members are elected. The framework and rules often aid in clarifying how things are run and can be especially helpful when resolving internal disputes. In your state, there may be legal requirements around what must be included in your bylaws. There may even be particular requirements for your type of school. Do some investigating with your state department of education, district central office, or charter authorizer to learn what is needed for your school.

At some teacher-powered schools, authority is explicitly granted to teachers through their autonomy arrangement and bylaws reflect this (see Avalon School’s bylaws, below). In other cases, the board or council at the school level has final decision-making authority in policy (de jure) while in practice (de facto), the board or council informally delegates its authority to the team of teachers at the school and provides oversight. The board and team communicate with one another through a lead teacher or other board liaisons who are chosen by the team. Most of the time, the board or council provides helpful guidance and support and “rubber stamps” teacher teams’ decisions. The board typically only interferes if the team is doing something illegal, immoral, or inane. This has happened very rarely, if ever.

For these schools, board bylaws typically represent the policy and not the practice. In other words, since the autonomy arrangement officially granted decision making authority to the board, bylaws—usually filed with the state and/or another approving body–reflect that the board officially has final accountability for outcomes. Some bylaws also indicate where accountability rests with principals or lead teachers as well—a holdover from the traditional system (the idea that one person at the school—as opposed to a team–needs to be accountable to the board for outcomes).

When teachers’ authority is not otherwise explicit in a formal policy, some teacher-powered schools have managed to at least integrate important yet subtle cues regarding how things work in practice into bylaws—indicating where the principal or lead teacher is only a liaison between the board and the team because the team is the decision maker (see Laurel Tree Charter’s bylaws, below). The more explicit the bylaws regarding the authority of the team, the better, to ensure the team’s authority in the long run and to avoid confusion about how things actually work. Yet it is true, in this pioneering stage of the work, that at times it will be difficult to get bylaws approved with these provisions because they are different from what is in the formal autonomy agreement. Politically, some are not ready to give up on old ideas of accountability in such a formal way. See Seeking External Support to learn more about navigating politics.

One way that teachers have worked around this is to establish their own bylaws for their work as a team in addition to their formal bylaws. These additional bylaws may or may not be formally filed, but do establish routines and practices at the team level (see ALBA School’s Cooperative bylaws, below).

Planning for changes in leadership

Another element of collaborative leadership that your team should seriously consider is the process your team will use to select new leaders when there is a change in internal leadership. You should diligently seek to incorporate what you decide in your autonomy agreement and, if it makes sense, in your bylaws.

If teams associated with district schools do not include this process in their autonomy agreement, they risk having the district assign a new leader for them. This can become a problem if the assigned leader wasn’t planning to work at a teacher-powered school because it is likely that he or she will expect to be “in charge” of teachers and use conventional leadership strategies. Teachers’ past experience indicates that this can cause turmoil and eventually undermine a team’s existing culture.

Author tip

Jump ahead to the Performing stage step planning for changes in leadership to help you anticipate and develop appropriate procedures for addressing changes in leadership.


Collaborative leadership resources

ERS’ School Designer

Website. Education Resource Strategies website provides a free version of their School Designer tool to help teams plan and align their school plans and budgets.

Community Toolbox: Collaborative Leadership

Website. Learn how to bring people together in constructive ways and create strategies for addressing team concerns.

Collaborative Management: Discussion Starters for Creating a Teacher-Powered School

Discussion Starters. Teams starting or improving a teacher-powered school should use this resource to explore how to cultivate efficient, democratic decision-making practices as well as how teams delegate authority to leaders among leaders.

Democratic Learning and Leading: Creating Collaborative School Governance

Book. Ronald Newell and Irving Buchen assert that teachers must work intentionally to create a collaborative culture.

HolacracyOne, LLC

Website. Holacracy is a new way of running an organization that removes power from a management hierarchy and distributes it across clear roles, which can then be executed autonomously, without a micromanaging boss. The work is actually more structured than in a conventional company, just differently so. With Holacracy, there is a clear set of rules and processes for how a team breaks up its work, and defines its roles with clear responsibilities and expectations.

Leadership Ensemble: Lessons in Collaborative Management from the World’s Only Conductorless Orchestra

Book. How one orchestra transitioned to collaborative management by dismantling top-heavy hierarchies and developing flexible, responsive strategies and decision-making procedures.

The Relational Bank Account

Commentary. It’s okay to ask others to do things, and a pattern of reciprocation (I’ll do what you ask, and you’ll do what I ask) is a powerful foundation for a relationship. When your relational account balance is high, you can afford to make some withdrawals. Understanding this insight will help your team build goodwill when collaborating to manage your school.

Thinking Collaborative: Adaptive Schools Seminars

Website. Some high performing teacher-powered teams use adaptive practices, first learned in the seminars described on this website, to improve their collaborative practices. The "7 norms of collaboration" help teams determine and uphold norms regarding how long people can speak, how the agenda is followed, when a decision is in a "dialogue" (learning) phase versus when it is in the "discussion" phase (decision making), and more.

Trusting Teachers with School Success: What Happens When Teachers Call the Shots, Chapter 5

Book. Chapter 5 explains how teams running teacher-powered schools collaborate for the good of the whole school. It also describes how teachers choose their leaders (individuals and committees) and the organizational structures for ensuring those leaders are accountable.

Why Would a Principal Want to Work in a Teacher-Powered School?

Commentary. Kim Farris-Berg explains the role of principals and administrators at teacher-powered schools and why this is good for all educators.

Community Schools Playbook, Chapter 6

Publication. Chapter 6 of the Community Schools Playbook, on Collaborative Leadership Practices.

Meaningful & Sustainable School Improvement with Distributed Leadership

Report. A research-informed framework for advancing meaningful school improvement using a distributed leadership approach.

Sample leadership structure charts from teacher-powered schools

Academia de Lenguaje y Bellas Artes (ALBA): Leadership Structure

Chart. The ALBA team documents which team members and committees influence various aspects of school management in this chart.

Avalon School: Leadership Structure

Chart. Learn how Avalon School distributes leadership across the school community.

Discovery Charter School II: Leadership Structure

Chart. The Discovery Charter School II team outlines the responsibilities of faculty committees and various community members to facilitate collaboration in promoting a shared purpose and philosophy. The structure creates a sense of belonging for all involved including faculty, parents, students, administration, and the board.

Howard C. Reiche Community School: Leadership Structure

Chart. The Reiche team created this organizational chart outlining how they've distributed leadership responsibilities across committees.

Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy (MSLA): Leadership Structure

School proposal excerpt. This excerpt from the MSLA proposal outlines how leadership is organized within the school. It also offers information about teachers’ approach to discipline, attendance, family engagement, and student recruitment.

San Francisco Community School (SFCS): Governance Team Structure

Chart. This chart developed by teachers at SFCS (a teacher-powered school since 1972) is one example of how sharing authority among teachers can work with a well-organized plan.

Sustaining Organizational Chart for The Urban Assembly School for Green Careers

Chart. Teacher-powered Urban Assembly School for Green Careers organizational leadership chart clearly illustrates their distributed leadership structure and expectations.

Governance & Management Framework for Augsburg Fairview Academy

Chart. The Augsburg Fairview Academy team outlines the responsibilities of each group in their organization and provides detailed descriptions of each position.

UCLA Community School: Leadership Structure

Procedural document. UCLA Community School outlines their governance structure in this PDF adapted from a presentation created by Rebekah Kang.

Sample chart outlining elected leader responsibilities

Elected Leader Responsibilities

Chart. The teacher team at High School in the Community Academy for Law and Social Justice outlines the responsibilities for their elected leader.

Sample collaboration procedure documents from teacher-powered schools

Fist to Five Voting and Consensus Process

Procedural document. The North American Students of Cooperation (NASCO) describes the Fist to Five process for making decisions as a community. Fist to Five moves away from simple "yes" and "no" voting, helping the group to understand the quality of the "yes," or the extent to which the group supports the idea.

Avalon School: The Constitution of the School of Avalon

Procedural document. The People of Avalon (including its students) authored this constitution outlining the responsibilities and authorities of its three branches of government: legislative, judiciary and executive.

Decision Making Procedures at a Teacher-Powered School

Procedural document. This document from SFCS highlights how, in a typical teacher-powered school, whole teams make some decisions by consensus and delegate other decisions to committees or individual leaders.

San Francisco Community School (SFCS): Support and Accountability Path

Chart. This chart clearly defines and communicates what team members can do when a colleague is not living up to team or committee agreements or contractual obligations.

San Francisco Community School (SFCS): Protocol for Introducing and Discussing Teacher-Powered Governance Model

Procedural document. At San Francisco Community School the Developmental Leadership Teams (grade-level teams) use this document to guide discussions about their teacher-powered governance model and processes. The document also helps veterans integrate new hires into the school's inner workings and culture. If grade-level teams want to seek clarification or change of an aspect of the governance model, they put the discussion topic on the full team meeting agenda.

San Francisco Community School (SFCS): Teacher Commitments Chart

Chart. The team of teachers at San Francisco Community School outline the responsibilities individual teachers must take on in order to demonstrate commitment to the whole team's values. They also clarify what supports teachers will receive to honor their commitments.

Sample handbook documenting routine procedures

Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy Handbook (MSLA)

Handbook. The team of teachers at MSLA documented what they decided about routine procedures and general information for all members of its personnel team in order to enhance healthy collaboration.

Avalon School Employee Policy Manual

Handbook. The team of teachers at Avalon prepared this policy manual to document their core values and routine procedures.

Minnesota New Country School High School (MNCS) Parent Student Handbook, 2015-2016

Handbook. This parent student handbook clarifies the policies, procedures, and routines that families should expect to adhere to as part of the MNCS community.

Sample board policy and procedure documents

Avalon School: Board Section of Website

Website. The Avalon School team has pulled together a number of resources for its board on the school website. In Minnesota, where Avalon is located, the charter law specifies that teachers can have a majority of the board. At Avalon, the teachers do have a majority, which means that the bylaws are one of the ways by which the teacher team secures its autonomy. Their decision making authority is explicitly written in. On this website are board goals, bylaws, policies, meeting agendas, and meeting minutes.

Innovative Schools Network: Wisconsin Teacher-Powered Schools Sample Resources for School Governance

Website. This website contains links to a number of sample board policy and procedure documents from teacher-powered schools (High Marq, Valley New, and Wildlands), including sample bylaws and board/council meeting agendas.

Nonprofit Bylaws—What to Include and What to Leave Out

Commentary. This post on Charity Lawyer blog indicates the essential components of bylaws and why they are essential.

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