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Supervisor or Colleague: How Can Principals Create a Culture of Collaboration?

by Catherine Awsumb Nelson, October 2, 2013

Principals know that fostering effective collaboration among their staff is one of the most powerful things they can do to elevate the level of learning (adult and student) in their building. But as administrators, supporting and especially participating in collaboration can be tricky. Finding the time and other resources for educators to engage in deep conversations around teaching and learning is only the beginning. Beyond those structural issues of budgets and schedules lie even more challenging cultural questions.

NCLE’s 2012 national survey examined the role that educator collaboration plays in building capacity for deeper literacy learning, and produced the report Remodeling Literacy Learning: Making Room for What Works.

Our findings confirmed previous research that principals play a vital role in fostering effective collaboration in their schools and identified two critical issues in how they can best play that role:

  • Balancing the roles of supervisor and colleague in a way that supports collaboration that is both rigorous and safe.
  • Closing the perception gap between themselves and their staffs in terms of whether the conditions for productive collaboration exist in their school.
Supervisor or Colleague?

What is the right role for principals in fostering effective collaboration in their schools? Our survey found that principals strongly value collaborative learning for themselves and their staff and invest a lot of time in it.  Thirty-eight percent of principals reported that being part of a collaborative team was their own single most valuable professional learning experience over the last twelve months, far exceeding the numbers who cited conferences, professional readings, or workshops. Principals told us that they participate regularly—at least once a month——in all kinds of different teams in their schools:

In fact, principals participate in an average of 3.7 different teams each month, and 25% of principals participate in five or more!

Not surprisingly, with their time spread thin over many teams or groups, principals end up playing mostly a supervisory role.  Twenty percent or fewer of principals said that when they participate in a subject-area or grade-level team, they are doing so as part of the collegial conversation, not as a supervisor. The percentage who participate as colleagues is somewhat higher for PLCs (45%) and data teams (31%) but still, the clear majority of principals are in the room as supervisors.

These data raise important questions about how principals can best build and sustain collaborative culture, especially given the implementation pressures and accountability demands that the new Common Core State Standards are putting on teaching teams. For example, how can principals honor teacher-driven dialogue and support the development of trust that is necessary for challenging conversations to happen, while also maintaining some accountability that the collaboration stays focused on the school's teaching and learning goals?

These are some of the important balancing acts for principals to consider:

Closing the Perception Gap

NCLE’s review of the literature on effective collaboration identified a set of characteristics of collaboration that have been shown to promote real change in teaching and learning, for example levels of trust among teachers and administrators and the extent to which teachers are comfortable making their practice public.

In the national survey, we asked respondents to what extent those conditions for effective collaboration exist in their schools. We found a clear pattern: principals are much more optimistic about the conditions for collaboration.

If principals are going to build truly collaborative cultures,  a conversation about these underlying conditions, and the gaps in how teachers and principals perceive them, might be a good way to start. For example, consider questions like these:

  • “What does a ‘hard conversation’ about teaching and learning look like?”
  • “When have we had those conversations in our school and when have we avoided them?”
  • “When has a conversation with colleagues had an impact on your practice?”

NCLE’s Asset Inventory (pdf) is a quick survey tool schools can use to open up such a dialogue.

With the coming of the Common Core State Standards, giving teachers the time and space to engage in deep, shared learning is more critical than ever. Our data suggest that in order to foster the most productive collaboration, principals should take a hard look at the supporting conditions in their building, including their own role as both supervisor and colleague. What experiences or insights do you have about how principals can pull off this tricky balance?

For additional information, visit Making Room for What Works: Principals and Literacy Learning (pdf).

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