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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.
Collaborative leadership resources
Leadership Ensemble: Lessons in Collaborative Management from the World’s Only Conductorless Orchestra
Sample leadership structure charts from teacher-powered schools
School proposal excerpt.
Sample chart outlining elected leader responsibilities
Sample collaboration procedure documents from teacher-powered schools
San Francisco Community School (SFCS): Protocol for Introducing and Discussing Teacher-Powered Governance Model
Sample handbook documenting routine procedures
Sample board policy and procedure documents
Innovative Schools Network: Wisconsin Teacher-Powered Schools Sample Resources for School Governance