1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31

Leading Together

April, 2011
Leave a comment 2840 views

Lisa Zhou, a Chinese mother of two, is the chairperson of her school’s parent association; a bilingual school with a strong international dimension. With the help of other parents, Zhou’s parent group has designed a logo for themselves that represents their approach to playing a leading role in their school’s culture. The logo features three overlapping apples – parents, staff, and students – on a brown field. Its message is simple, says Zhou, “As long as we work together to fertilize, and to water, we can reap a lot!” Lisa is not the only leader in her household. Eldest son Tom, a fifth grader, is the co-president of his school’s student council. He describes a leader as “someone who is special, that others want to follow, and who can make people do things from the heart.” Says Tom, “If you tell someone to do something, they are just doing what you told them, but if you listen to someone’s ideas, your ideas can mix together and you have a better idea.”

The Zhou family’s vision of leadership – working together, mixing ideas, and emerging stronger – isn’t anything new, at least in theory. In practice, this premise, commonly known as shared or distributive leadership, is hard to fully achieve in educational settings, particularly in international schools where constituents come from a myriad of social and political backgrounds. Although realists argue that distributive leadership is utopian, and requires time-consuming consultation that can backfire by inviting unnecessary dissent, a growing number of Chinese-based international school leaders are working to foster cultures of shared leadership. They believe the risks are worth it. Distributive leadership has the potential to be highly efficient and effective in the short and long-term, making it both sustainable and desirable.     

Trevor Higginbottom, a former member of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate in the UK, and now an educational consultant who visits schools in China several times a year, pegs the Head as the key cog in the shared leadership machine. Their role is two-fold, as Higginbottom points out, “They must create and manage the culture of the school.” To create the right environment, the top brass must be committed to spending less time telling people what to do, and investing more time in helping people understand what to do. This is achieved through hands-on mentoring and coaching, as opposed to solely written and oral directives. When it comes to day-to-day management, “there are still too many [school] leaders who pretend they know it all,” contends Tom Kline, Director of Western International School Shanghai (WISS). Kline’s ideal manager doesn’t fall into this trap. Rather, they continuously “utilize the skills of those in their organization, and in the wider community.”

Perhaps more harmful than leaders who pretend to know it all are the ones who believe they can do it all. These leaders frequently get bogged down in their work and end up locked away in their ivory towers. When they realize they can’t realistically do everything, they run the risk of becoming “seagull managers.” They only come out to dump work on other people. This can get messy. The slip actually begins when the manger tries to do it all in the first place. Sheridan Potter – who has worked in international/bilingual schools in Ningbo, Xi’an, and Shanghai – has simple advice that might help this type of manager, “Give teachers the tools they need to solve their own problems.” As Trevor Higginbottom reminds us, “Ownership is a key concept of distributive leadership.” When staff members are given some control over their own destiny, they are more willing to comply with changes and innovations. At the same time, sharing the tools, as Potter advises, develops leadership competencies throughout the organization, which serves to develop junior professionals and creates the potential for parents and children to be part of the management process.

There is also the problem of the “honey bee” leader who tends to be over-helpful. They are prone to taking on other people’s problems because they aim to be supportive and productive. However, this behavior often stifles their colleagues. This kind of leader may inadvertently prevent others from developing their full leadership potential, and simultaneously limit the range of possible solutions available to a ‘hive’ of challenges. “Honey bees” should delegate more confidently when it comes to challenges facing the school, and refuse to take on problems that others are equipped to deal with. Tom Kline suggests this is even more essential in schools because “staff members are well-qualified, and often very experienced in many fields.”

Of course, shared beliefs about leadership are critical. If chosen as desirable, it is essential that all levels of the organization, including the highest ones, buy into the distributive methodology. It is one thing for a single principal to embrace shared leadership, but a pattern cannot be sustained over time without commitment and modeling from above. The trick in the business of education is to ensure that the leadership culture is aligned with the school’s mission and learner profile. Indeed, “staff should feel there is a shared philosophy,” acknowledges Trevor Higginbottom. Tensions arise when staff and parents are not able to see all the pieces of the puzzle, or when students perceive they are being held to standards that are not being mirrored by teachers and administrators.

Once a pattern of shared leadership is realized, the opportunities presented through alignment are endless. WISS is an example of a school that has implemented what they refer to as a “flat management structure,” which allows “more autonomy on the ground,” and distributes authority to those “who have the expertise and passion in vital areas of school life.” Tom Kline suggests this makes “a difference when it comes to getting the job done.” Mark Angus, Principal at BIS Nanxiang, uses distributive leadership to bring his secondary and primary schools closer together. Rather than seeing only his head teachers grow from collaboration, he develops staff and inspires buy-in by pairing team members from both sections of the school at the start of each year and asking them “to work together to devise a schedule of events, learning experiences, trips, guests, etc.” for the entire organization. In the process, he tries to align assignments based on “a teacher’s interests, hobbies or field of expertise.” The most exciting part of this in Angus’ view is that there are initially “no limits – pupils can come off timetable or be out of the school as much as is necessary.” Staff must only justify the learning outcomes. Having said this, it higher levels of motivation may be the primary justification for a definitive move towards the shared leadership paradigm. According to one teacher at Shanghai Singapore International School, “I feel motivated when I know my management is listening and working with me.” In a line of work where staff members are asked to demonstrate high levels of commitment outside of their normal work hours, a shared approach may also be needed for retention, not to mention keeping students and families in the organization. Shelly Bragg at Shanghai Community International School (SCIS) says they promote themselves to teachers and students as a “‘community’ school which relies on the collaboration of all.” To summarize, when all constituents see that their views and opinions matter and they are given the tools to participate, they not only stay put, but they stay invested. If the ideological and learning-focused underpinnings are not compelling enough arguments for distributive leadership, perhaps the enrollment and staff retention advantages should be.

In conclusion, it’s worth reflecting again on Lisa Zhou, her team, and the simplicity of their logo’s three apples. The best way to support a school is to lead together. 

By Richard Eaton 

Head of North American School, Shanghai United International School

Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • Sphinn
  • del.icio.us
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
  • Google Bookmarks
  • E-mail this story to a friend!
  • LinkedIn
  • Live
  • MSN Reporter
  • MySpace
  • RSS
  • Twitter
  • Yahoo! Bookmarks
  • Yahoo! Buzz

admin Education , , ,

Related Articles

  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.