A few years ago, I came home and announced that I’d be doing a different job at my school the next year. My youngest son looked incredulous. “Don’t be offended,” he said, “but your career is all over the place.”
He’s not wrong. I’ve served in a number of roles over the course of my career, ranging from classroom teaching to building and district leadership roles. At several points over the years, I’ve stepped out of a formal leadership role and back into a classroom teaching role. At the same time, shared leadership and developing a sense of shared efficacy became a focus for our school teams. “We’re all in this together” became a familiar refrain.
Thinking about how I could be a part of this while in a formal leadership role wasn’t always easy, but it made sense that it was part of the job. I knew to incorporate examples from other teachers into our PD sessions and often included classroom teachers in helping lead those sessions. But I knew our real goal was to create and nurture an environment where supporting each other—no matter your role—became the norm. I knew that support doesn’t have to flow through someone with an official leadership title. Everyone has a hand in supporting each other and improving our practices. If it all comes down to one or two people, what happens when they move on or get overwhelmed by the never-ending workload?
The opportunity to move back into a classroom teaching role has helped me think more broadly about how to nurture the kind of environment our school team is aiming for. Learning to lead from the same context as those around me has helped me realize that what I really want to be doing is enabling everyone in our school community to lead and support each other. If it always goes through me, can I really say that I’m developing shared efficacy? Can I say I’m part of encouraging an environment where teachers grab anyone nearby for help thinking through something and where those being asked feel able to step up and help?
I thought about what moves I could make that might help, and I paid attention to others in formal and informal leadership roles who were reaching for the same thing. I don’t have it all figured out, but four things have helped me make a start.
Small moves that nurture an environment of shared efficacy and leadership
- Send them to the source and let the source speak for itself. How many times have the voices of potential emerging leaders remained silent? It may not be perfect. Maybe the teacher who is helping another still has a lot of room for growth, but if they are able to help someone else bump up their game just a bit, that is still a step forward. Even better is the likelihood that they will continue to grapple with it together.
- Set others up—as experts—even if you know the answers or can help. Normalize the fact that others know what you know and can be resources too. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t help when we can; it’s just a way to widen the circles of support. Figuring out that there are many resources and strengths to draw on can feel comforting in a fast-paced, always-striving-for-more kind of time in education. Knowing that we have a lot of expertise in the bank also makes us feel better about making withdrawals.
- Monitor the need for your voice, even in asking questions. If the conversation is already helping others move forward, even a little, is my voice really needed? This is different from watching the balance of talk; it’s about the content of the talk. Think about what is and isn’t needed in this particular moment to help someone develop new understanding or take a step forward in their practice. And remember that there will be other moments.
- Consider taking it outside the classroom. Conversations in shared spaces provide opportunities for others to chime in, ask their own questions, and provide other perspectives. It also helps normalize a shared sense of responsibility and availability for support. Intentionally have some conversations in the hallway or get up and go see what or how someone else is doing something. Call out to someone walking by and ask a question that invites them into the discussion. Coaching conversations don’t have to always take place behind closed doors or one-on-one.
These ideas aren’t magic. They don’t always work. But I’m not the only one in our building making moves like this, and bit by bit it’s making a difference. Walking through the hallways before and after school and even during the school day, it’s not unusual to see a group of teachers talking about what they are doing or how, asking for help or ideas about reaching a struggling student, or sharing how they have designed their learning environment.
Often someone walking by will overhear and chime in with ideas or more questions. More often than not, the group is a mix of grade levels, years in teaching, and knowledge about the topic. Sometimes our instructional coach is a part of the conversation, but if she’s not, we don’t worry. We’re all in this together.