Initiative fatigue, silver bullets, technology that solves all of our problems—anyone in a classroom knows what this means. Your administrator goes to a conference, a seminar, or watches a TED talk, and she or he is off and running.
Maybe a small committee is formed that toils away making plans to put into effect what the administrator wants. The committee creates shiny PowerPoints, schedules presentations, and plans in-service days. Committee members and the administrator sit and admire their ideas, feeling proud of what they have created. Then they unveil their work to the rest of the faculty where they are quickly reminded of what happens to even the best laid plans.
Anyone working in a classroom also recognizes the aftermath of this scenario.
Those who worked on the committee talk of buy-in and begin their sales pitches. Criticisms are made, offense is taken, concerns of the faculty go unheeded, and frustration abounds. The poor reception of the new idea is blamed on a “bad” school culture, when in reality what the administrator really wanted was a culture of compliance.
This drama is typical in a district that relies on that compliant, buy-in culture. It is indicative of districts run from top-down, egocentric perspectives. Leaders in such districts rarely take into account the whole system within which they work. Initiatives developed in this way tend to fall apart once the administrators responsible for the ideas leave the district.
Embracing participatory leadership practices help move districts away from a culture of buy-in and toward one of ownership. By taking a more inclusive and human-centered—as opposed to a content-centered—approach, districts are better able to see the scope of challenges from multiple perspectives, while empowering all members of the learning community to play active roles in bringing an idea to life.
Rather than seeking silver bullets, participatory leadership encourages a “slow down in order to go fast” approach. It is in this slowing down where ownership emerges. Participatory leadership is exploratory and inquiry driven. When addressing problems, individuals in school communities using this approach do not presume to know the solutions. Instead, all participants attempt to broadly understand the challenges faced by the district and the full consequences of proposed solutions.
The shift toward an ownership culture begins with humble leadership and intentional conversations. Imagine faculty meetings where your administrator creates an environment in which you discuss your school’s needs and co-create solutions, instead of staff meetings where your administrator tells you of the wonderful things she or he is going to do.
Participatory leadership can open the door to department meetings driven by the members of the department or in-service days tailored to the needs of the faculty because they are co-created by the faculty. Through developing the professional environment in which they operate, a faculty learns more than it ever would in a one-off professional development event.
This is when the “go fast” becomes apparent. No time is wasted on cajoling or training staff, or in fixing the major shortcomings of packaged initiatives, because everyone has been involved throughout the process.
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Mike Ritzius is an associate director in the NJEA Professional Development and Instructional Issues Division. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.