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I am so excited to welcome you to the Leading for Justice mini series! This is going to be a 4-part series where we explore the research on why shared leadership should be an area of focus and how to set up structures for shared leadership in our educational contexts.
This episode provides an overview of the impacts of shared leadership, reviewing the existing research with a specific focus on the benefits of providing opportunities for meaningful student leadership. As a quick preview of the mini series: the next episode will focus on how to measure the constructs we will discuss today; in the third episode, we will look at specific structures that amplify and sustain student leadership (as well as what this actually looks like in schools and districts); and the last episode will focus on how to analyze the data you’ve collected through an adaptive lens to finally tackle long-standing challenges.
Let’s dive into the research on how shared leadership practices impact a school and its stakeholders!
To me, the first step to addressing the question, “How can we improve educational equity at our school?” is to implement shared leadership practices.
A quick note on how I define shared leadership as different from the term “distributed leadership”: shared leadership is inclusive of all stakeholders (students, families, staff, teachers, administrators, community members) whereas distributed leadership has historically been about administrators sharing power with teachers.
To address the needs of your specific community, you want to ask the various stakeholders in your community: What needs to change? Especially when we’re trying to address entrenched equity challenges, we can no longer look to the same group of people who have always been making decisions to come up with a solution that will work. It has to be a community effort. Shared leadership asks us to listen more than we talk, to collect data—including perception data (we’ll talk about this more in the next episode)—before rushing to take immediate action.
Not A One-Time Initiative
Shared leadership practices are also inherently sustainable. We can’t have a one-time conversation about policy and call it a day. Sharing leadership enables us to have ongoing conversations about policy and practice. Problematic dress codes, punitive discipline policies, how students are graded, all of this can be regularly reviewed and discussed within a shared leadership governance structure.
Improved School Outcomes
Research has found that organizations actually make better decisions for the organization when multiple stakeholders are involved in the decision making process (Kusy & McBain). If we want better outcomes for our schools, it's in our best interest to include student and family voices—who historically have not been part of the conversation—to make better policies. For example, working with students, families, and teachers to create a feminist, antiracist dress code will likely decrease the amount of lost learning time due to dress code violations.
Improves Student Belonging
Equity is closely tied to belonging. “School belonging is associated with a range of positive educational and developmental outcomes, including psychosocial health and wellbeing, prosocial behaviour and academic achievement, and transition into adulthood. However, an increasing number of students worldwide report not feeling a sense of belonging to their school. There is growing research evidence that strong student–teacher relationships can promote school belonging...Students who lack a sense of belonging are more likely to engage in problematic behaviour, suffer from mental illness, and experience low achievement. The most at-risk students are the ones who are already vulnerable, and these effects can continue into adult life.” (Allen et al., 2021)
In short, belonging is positively correlated with good outcomes and negatively correlated with bad outcomes. Yet, there is a worldwide trend that perceptions of belonging are decreasing for students. That is concerning. The 2021 paper used data from before the COVID-19 pandemic, and I imagine this trend has only intensified since that data was collected.
Additionally, this research found student belonging was linked to increased academic performance and motivation and a decreased likelihood of risky and antisocial behavior, school drop out, substance abuse, truancy, and depression. Belonging is critically important!
Improving Belonging is Especially Critical for Students Who Have Been Marginalized
On average across all 67 countries whose students completed the survey, researchers found socio-economically disadvantaged students were 7.7% less likely to report belonging. This difference was substantial in the United States and 11 other countries. First generation immigrant students were 4.6% less likely on average to report belonging. Girls were less likely to report belonging than boys. (Note: No data was reported for non-binary or gender non conforming students. I'm not sure if that was because they didn't ask for it, or they didn't report that data in the summary.) This difference of girls being less likely to report belonging than boys was particularly large in seven countries, of which the United States is one of them. Again, these are concerning trends.
Certainly, there are a lot of different things that we can do. On an interpersonal or classroom level, we can nurture positive student-student and teacher-student relationships. At the school level, we can amplify student voices in a meaningful way to show students’ their experiences and ideas are valued and they are full, decision-making members of the school community.
Youth Development and Academic Benefits
Individual students who engage in meaningful leadership activities demonstrate improved peer and adult relationships (Yonezawa & Jones, 2007); positive self-regard, feelings of competence, engagement (Deci & Ryan, 2008) and academic performance (Mitra, 2004). When students act as representatives of various student groups, that also energizes other students that may not have a formal role or aren't engaging in that leadership opportunity, but they identify with the students who are. Feldman and Khademian (2003) called this “cascading vitality.” Essentially, student leaders who have historically experienced structural, political, and/or social marginalization inspire other students with similar identities and experiences to see the possibilities for themselves to lead as well.
Preparing Students to Be Civically Engaged...Now and Later
Baumann, Millard, and Hamdorf (2014) tell us “preparation for active citizenship was a foundational principle of public education in America from its beginning.” This is a really powerful reminder that the goal of education is to prepare our students for active citizenship, and active citizenship is partnering with others and leading change in our communities. At least, that’s what I think of when I think about civic engagement.
We often try to prepare students to be future leaders after graduation. It's also really important both for the time students are in school as well as later in their lives that they have authentic opportunities to be civically engaged while they're still in school.
The next question is: How can I create these opportunities for my students? What does this look like in practice? That’s what the next several episodes in the mini series are going to be about! But the first step is helping adults (and families students) see the benefits of shared leadership. All stakeholders need to see each other as partners, capable of making thoughtful decisions about student learning. As you prepare to implement the ideas and practices we'll talk about in the next 3 weeks, ask: Why are we doing this? What are the possibilities?
This episode was created to give you the language and research to be able to share with stakeholders who may be hesitant to jump into a shared leadership approach. Feel free to share the episode directly with colleagues and families. The free resource for this episode is a research one-pager highlighting the key ideas from this episode. So, if it's easier to share a short fact sheet with stakeholders, grab that resource below!
There’s a lot of different ways that we can make shared leadership possible and we’ll explore several case studies in the upcoming episodes. For example, student leadership skills can be built during academic courses or by training students to serve as members of youth court or be peer mediators. It could look like passing a student Bill of Rights like this one that was published by students across the United States.
Don’t miss the next 3 episodes in the Leading for Justice mini series! If you are not currently subscribed to the podcast, subscribe today so you don't miss an episode.
Thanks for reading! Continue the conversation below in the comment section and join our community of educational visionaries on Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook. Until next time leaders, continue to think big, act brave, and be your best self.
Lindsay is a educator and leadership coach who helps teachers develop engaging project-based curricula, fosters student and teacher voice, and works to advance racial and gender equity and culturally responsive practice.