LfJ Series: A Justice-Centered Process for Justice-Centered Policies: How to Create Shared Governance StructuresRead Now
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A Justice-Centered Process for Justice-Centered Policies: How to Create Shared Governance Structures
This month, we have been talking about the value of sharing leadership with stakeholders, particularly students. We have also talked about how to measure student perceptions of things like leadership opportunities and feelings of belonging at school. Today, let’s take a look at what shared governance could look like in practice.
Specifically, we’ll talk about structures to put in place to systematize shared leadership and school decision-making. Structures support sustainability. Shared leadership will not work as a one-off initiative. If each time a policy is created or changed, parents, students and teachers are part of the process, the school will make better decisions and simultaneously reinforce that stakeholder voices are truly valued.
Research has highlighted a number of practices to bear in mind when setting up structures of shared leadership. Here they are:
Embrace radical collegiality. Fielding (2001) defined this term in relation to students, but it’s useful for our work with families and caretakers as well. It refers to the idea that educators learn and become more effective when they see students (and families) as partners and they share responsibility for student success. Educators have to see students and families as partners, fully capable of making thoughtful decisions about student learning. If we can’t do that, shared leadership will never work.
Build a representative leadership team. Research has found groups larger than about 15 members can become unwieldy and ineffective (Calvert, 2004; Pautsch, 2010). As much as possible, stakeholders should be represented equally, with a slightly higher percentage of students to reduce the ratio of adults to students, which has been known to overwhelm and thus silence students (Osberg, Pope, & Galloway, 2006).
Clarify the governance structure. Be very clear about how and to what extent power is shared. Identify which types of decisions will be made solely by the school’s administrator(s), and which types of decisions will be shared. Clarify what is needed to move forward with a decision (e.g., majority vote, consensus using a fist to five protocol). Also, determine leadership team members’ responsibility to communicate with the stakeholders they represent (e.g., weekly, only to get feedback on major policies). For example, the leadership team may draft a new policy and want to get feedback within one week from all stakeholder groups so they can vote to approve the policy the following week.
Use stakeholder research to inform decisions. Decisions made by the shared leadership team should be based on data. There are all kinds of data streams. Perception data (collected via surveys, interviews, or focus groups) is often overlooked, but it’s incredibly valuable! It’s this type of data that tells us about stakeholders’ experience of the school (e.g., their sense of belonging or the extent to which they feel their voice is valued).
Pedagogy. Scaffolding learning experiences such as learning research and leadership skills so that all stakeholders can practice and improve their leadership competencies is important both in a classroom and beyond. Members of the leadership team should receive the support needed to enable them to communicate regularly with the stakeholders they represent. This could take the form of tech tool training so all members are able to create and send out a survey using Google Forms or to communicate asynchronously using an app like Voxer or an LMS like Google Classroom.
Meet consistently. Meetings should be held consistently, at the same time and in the same place (whether that’s the same physical location or the same virtual room) if possible, to avoid confusion that may exclude members from participation in the meeting. Many shared leadership initiatives have failed to thoughtfully involve students or families because meetings were held during school hours when classes were being held and family members were at work.
These principles can be developed and sustained in a variety of ways. I’d love to highlight a few examples of how schools and districts are putting these principles into action.
Superintendent Darcy Fernandes of Massachusetts’s Althol-Royalston district called for all stakeholders (including family members, students, teachers, and community members) to join sub-committees for the district’s upcoming 5-year strategic planning process. You can hear directly from Superintendent Fernandes on this episode of the podcast.
A high school in Pennsylvania offers constitutional courses in ninth grade. (Often, government courses are offered as a twelfth grade Social Studies course.) They do this so that students are able to fully engage in school governance. The school’s system of governance is modeled after the three branches of the United States government, with an executive branch composed of school staff and the legislative and judicial branches composed of a mix of students and staff. You can read more about this school’s structure here.
As a principal, Taryn Givan used the Leader in Me framework which involved stakeholder-specific “lighthouse teams.” The student lighthouse team was made up of 3-5 representatives from each grade team (selected by the students), staff had their own lighthouse team, and families had a lighthouse team of their own as well. The program emphasized building individuals’ leadership skills as they navigated their roles in the lighthouse teams and the larger school experience. You can hear directly from Taryn Givan on this episode of the podcast.
On an even broader scale, Boston Student Advisory Council (BSAC) is a student body that advises the Boston School Committee and works with school leaders on 3 priority issues:
environmental justice; student rights and student voice; and school climate & culture improvement. Every BPS High School has at least 2 students on BSAC. Page 3 of this document highlights Boston Public Schools students’ roles in governance at the school, district, and state levels.
It is a daunting task to bring hundreds if not thousands of voices together to make important school decisions. A 2016 Center on Education Policy study found that nearly 50% of teachers said their input is not considered in school-wide decisions and that they feel frustrated and excluded. Students who have historically experienced exclusion from school systems and their family members who may have been excluded from their children’s school and/or as students themselves, may be understandably skeptical of the idea of seeing school leaders and teachers as partners. Establishing trust and a sense of multi-stakeholder partnership will take time and effort to build, and it is well worth it.
According to researchers Carson, Tesluk, and Marrone, shared leadership thrives when members share a commitment to a common goal, receive emotional support from one another, and feel their individual voices are valued. Furthermore, they found “When team members feel recognized and supported within their team (social support) they are more willing to share responsibility, cooperate, and commit to the team’s collective goals” (2007, pp. 1222-1223).
To help you get started, check out my free worksheet: Setting Up Structures for Shared Leadership.
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Lindsay Lyons (she/her) is an educational justice coach who works with teachers and school leaders to inspire educational innovation for racial and gender justice, design curricula grounded in student voice, and build capacity for shared leadership. Lindsay taught in NYC public schools, holds a PhD in Leadership and Change, and is the founder of the educational blog and podcast, Time for Teachership.