Does Your School Leadership Have a Focus on Collective Responsibility? - Steve Barkley

Does Your School Leadership Have a Focus on Collective Responsibility?

I have a long history of stating that teaching is a team sport and needs to be a public act with colleagues. My use of the word team is to illustrate collective responsibility. When I meet with administrators and teacher leaders and ask them to rate the level of teaming in their schools, they tend to initially rank their practices higher than they do after I spend some time describing teaming as collective responsibility. What many educators describe as teaming is what I describe as franchising. With franchising, teachers with common grade levels or content areas meet, collaborate, and then return to their classroom with individual responsibility for their students. When the PLC, grade level, or department is a team, they have shared responsibility for students’ success across their classrooms. Thus, student work and assessment need to be shared continually with teammates. As a team works together, they frequently are in each other’s classrooms observing learners engagement in the needed learning production behaviors. When school’s build collective responsibility across the school, these same team behaviors expand to broader school goals.

Stephanie Hirsch wrote that collective responsibility means

  • …. that all staff members share a commitment to the success of each student. Teachers take pride in getting to know all students. When teachers learn that any teacher or student is struggling, they feel a responsibility to share it. They celebrate with their colleagues when things go well, and commit to changes when things do not go the way they had anticipated.
  • ….. that we do not allow any single teacher to fail in an attempt to ensure success of anyone student. Teachers appreciate the benefits of working collaboratively. Whenever one teacher has a problem, the team is there for support. They use collaborative learning and planning to quickly target students experiencing learning challenges.
  • …… that students benefit from the wisdom and expertise of all teachers in a grade level or subject. Time is scheduled for teams of teachers to follow a cycle of improvement designed to support the development of powerful learning opportunities and assessments that ensure higher levels of learning for all students.

Your leadership team might use the following questions to explore the current level of collective responsibility:

Do all staff members understand and commit to our school’s mission and educational goals?

How are decisions about teaching and learning made in our school?

To what extent do our teachers collaborate on planning, assessment, and professional development?

How do we support and facilitate collaborative practices among our staff?

How effective is our communication within the school community?

What systems do we have in place to support staff facing challenges?

How do we measure and share the impact of our teaching practices on student learning?

In what ways do we hold each other accountable for our professional practice and its impact on student achievement?

How are successes and areas for improvement communicated and acted upon within our school?

Do our collaborative efforts focus on improving student learning and well-being?

Here is a process I implemented to begin building a PLC with five high school teachers from a math department who each taught some algebra one classes. As we started, I realized that if they tried to look at all (160) of the students’ work initially, the conversation would not get focused specifically enough for teacher learning that could be applied to impact student learning.  We made a decision to select a smaller group of students that would serve as the focal point for their PLC conversations.  Teachers would take learning from the focus on that smaller group and apply it to all of their students.  The five teachers each selected

  • three students from their classes that they would identify as being advanced or highly proficient. Those would be students who would likely master standards quickly and might be able to focus on additional standards.
  • three students who were proficient. Those were students who with sufficient instruction and practice would master the standards of the course.
  • three students who were below level. These might be students who were lacking some prerequisite skills coming into algebra one and may require some additional scaffolding.
  • three students who would need “intensive” support. Teachers might focus on different learning outcome goals than the existing standards for the course.

These 60 students served as the initial focus of the PLC’s exploration and learning.  The PLC designed a common assessment for their upcoming unit of study. First, they selected items for the assessment that addressed the proficiency at the level of the standard. They then considered what additional problems to add to the assessment that would provide feedback on whether the advanced group of students had achieved a higher -level standard. Lastly, they identified where, within their assessment, they would be able to see growth of intensive students even if they were working under the proficiency level of the given standard.

The PLC set these activities to guide their conversations and work over the coming weeks.

  • They decided that they would examine the assessments of these 60 students in groups. At the next PLC, they might take the work of the 15 advanced students or the work of the 15 proficient students with everyone studying those assessments, looking for similarities and differences and drawing meaning and understanding. Where problems were identified, they would plan together how to proceed.
  • They also decided that on a future assessment, each teacher would identify a student’s work who was just meeting the proficiency level and the work of another student who was just below the proficiency level. Prior to their PLC meeting, they would share those with each other so that when they came to the PLC meeting, they could identify the degree to which they agreed on assessing “meeting the proficiency” of the standard.
  • They decided that on a following assessment, each teacher would select one student’s work that was just at standard and one that was just below standard and without putting their evaluation onto the paper, they would exchange them with each other so that they could come to the staff meeting having everyone made several sets of decisions about meeting proficiency and not meeting proficiency.

Collective responsibility isn’t just beneficial—it’s imperative. Teaming must go beyond simple collaboration; it requires a deep, shared commitment to every student’s learning journey. For leadership teams, building and fostering an environment where educators not only share ideas but also shoulder each other’s challenges, and celebrate each other’s victories, is a leadership requirement. By continually assessing our approaches to shared responsibilities and outcomes, and by ensuring all voices are heard and valued in this process, we can construct a school culture that truly reflects our collective commitment to excellence and equity.

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