Several common frustrations dominate discussions regarding leadership in almost every school I consult, whether working with the board or training front-line administrative staff: (1) the concept of ‘us versus them’ and (2) there never being enough time to do what is being asked of staff. In my experience, an underlying tension always seems to simmer between non-academic and academic staff, as well as between teachers and the various layers of leadership in a school. These tensions often surface as a result of the second problem, time, and, more to the point, how time influences relationships across the school. This problem of time is the result of the myriad of initiatives that senior leaders and other governing bodies try to force through at the start of the school year based on the premise that they only have 9 months to get everything done. Everyone is excited at the start of a new school year, but within months, most can’t wait for the school year to end.
As I delved into the roots of these problems, which grew very deep, I found several organizational obstacles that were common across all schools. Many of these obstacles had a type of folklore to them, in that regardless of how schools tried to innovate and change, they always did it within an unchanging box. This box was built decades ago and was defined by how schools did budgeting, calendaring, strategic planning, recruitment, and admissions. This proverbial box suffocates the desire for change, as it provides very little incentive for the most important change agents, the middle leaders; the teacher leaders, coordinators, department heads, and vice-principals .
The problem of time is more pronounced with middle leaders wearing multiple hats, including the hat of classroom teacher. Some middle leaders are not in the classroom, but are still hindered by the time problem, and it is most likely because they are too invested in the work of the teams they supervise and involved in too many initiatives. The time dilemma doesn’t solve itself, regardless of the number of tools and techniques we use. We need our middle leaders to stop using time as an excuse and teach them how and when to intervene. There are times when a team requires purposeful activities and engagement, and then there are times we need to sit back and observe how that engagement has impacted the work of the team. During an observation period, we can spend time on other initiatives requiring our leadership. Senior leaders (principals, heads of school, superintendents, and board members) must also acknowledge that leadership isn’t just something someone does, but rather something that requires careful planning and coordination.
This book is for middle leaders in schools, from those brave enough to volunteer to lead a grade level or subject team, to those pursuing advancement in their career. Whether you have just accepted a leadership role or you have been leading teams for many years, this book will provide guidance on how you can foster greater interdependency among team members and develop a sustainable collaborative team culture.
Senior leaders will also benefit from this book by the provided insight into recruitment and professional development strategies for middle leaders. The primary objective is to develop (or increase) knowledge, management skills, and confidence for middle leaders, who are relied upon to be change agents in schools. A secondary objective is to challenge the beliefs and practices of senior leaders that can limit the potential and growth of middle leaders.
This book is not just a culmination of everything I have experienced, learned, and implemented, but rather the collective experience of every middle leader and senior leader that has desired to achieve some level of change—if not in their school, then in the way their team collaborates. I have learned that there are several antecedents for success that transformational collaborative teams experience. The antecedents are well-known and referenced in almost all team leadership models and training programs. Why then are teams still so prone to achieve mediocrity?
The starting point for any team is that every team member be unique in how they experience, process, and communicate information. Every team member differs in the role they prefer to play, as well as how they handle conflict. Middle leaders don’t have the luxury of picking their team members to try to mitigate these differences, which is something you wouldn’t want to do in any case. And unfortunately, teachers are not evaluated, and seldom hired, based on their ability to collaborate; however, they are strongly encouraged to collaborate, as it’s in their and their students’ best interests.
That latter point is why collaboration fails, regardless of how many books you read or workshops you attend. Organic collaboration is not impossible, but it needs to be the primary focus of all team members. If collaboration isn’t the sole focus of everyone, then someone needs to take responsibility to align the beliefs and goals of the team. Someone needs to help team members understand their role, administrate team processes, and ensure equity among team members. Without that someone to keep the team engaged in the collaborative work, team members will forsake team goals to pursue their own goals, specific to their unique practice and students.
Teacher leaders, coordinators, department heads, and vice-principals are the heart of the school; they are the someone. They are the true change agents and will be the most effective tool in ensuring transformative and sustained change. We cannot achieve these outcomes without ensuring their buy-in and commitment to implementation. Though, given very little buy-in to a process they feel is completely beyond their control, these middle leaders are expected to influence change among their team members. Middle leaders are just that: in the middle. If they try to be authoritative with their teams, they are shunned from the break room. If they are too passive with senior leaders, then they can’t advocate for those who will be affected most by change. However, if middle leaders can understand the values that drive the beliefs and behaviors of each person they are responsible for and to, they will prove to be much more effective in influencing outcomes.
I have written this book to help middle leaders achieve transformational collaborative outcomes with their teams. Transformational outcomes, explained in the fourth chapter, are changes in attitudes, opinions, behaviors, and practice. Research related to the impact collaboration has on affecting changes in practice and improving student learning is well- documented. Some very successfully branded books and programs based on this research go into great detail about the importance of team members sharing values, beliefs, and goals, as well as about how to develop effective team processes and communication skills. Unfortunately, these books and programs rely heavily on the premise that collaboration is the responsibility of all team members, and overlook the role of the team leader in facilitating the initial stages of team development.
The educational leadership and professional learning community books and workshops don’t talk about the time and effort it takes to kick-start and support collaboration. The fact is that for every hour of a team meeting, it takes two to three hours of planning and coordination to be effective. We don’t work in a vacuum, and when someone has to perform cover or is just having a bad day and can’t deliver on the expectations the team has set, someone has to fill that gap. Someone has to start the school year facilitating a group norming session and someone has to enforce the norms as the school year progresses, especially when team members become distracted by other priorities.
I wrote this book with my own MBA experience in mind. Investing in an MBA is a serious commitment in time and money, and you better use what you are being taught, but unfortunately, so few do. Reflecting on why, I realized that I was being inundated with a substantial amount of information in a short period of time and only a small fraction of what I was learning dealt with my current reality. Everything outside of that small relevant fraction I could not relate to, apply, or even envision when it would be relevant. In some cases, this was because it did not apply to my industry or circumstance. In other cases, I couldn’t imagine being involved in a matter that the case study or research was based on.
The first four chapters of this book have been purposefully laid out to provide guidance to senior leaders on how to identify, recruit, and empower middle leaders. Middle and aspiring leaders can also use these chapters to assess the operating environment they are expected to succeed in. These chapters should help stoke productive conversations that clarify expectations and surface potential obstacles that senior leaders can help middle leaders mitigate.
The next three chapters are intended to help middle leaders understand the scope of their role, clearly define the responsibilities within that scope, and provide guidance on how to effectively execute those responsibilities. Senior leaders can use these chapters to assess how clearly they have communicated the scope, responsibilities, and authority of the middle leader.
The final four chapters of this book mirror that of the common school year. Chapter 8 prepares middle leaders for the start of the school year. Each subsequent chapter provides a road map into the opportunities and challenges during each stage of development for their teams. Detailed activities for each stage of team development are also provided with detailed instructions for facilitation. Each chapter will include vibrant stories of conflict and success and how the activities included can be used to help teams continue their evolution and not get mired by in-team conflict or uncertainty.
This book also aims to address the frustration that every middle leader feels when they aren’t quite able to practice everything they have read or learned. The success of these tools and strategies is dependent on the middle leader’s ability to communicate the purpose and facilitate the process. Success shouldn’t be contingent on whether senior leaders use the same strategies, nor should use of these tools and strategies be seen as time- dependent. Over the years, it has been disheartening to hear educators say, “I can’t wait to use these next year,” “I wish my boss were learning this,” or “This will be useful on the next team I work with.” Don’t hold others, or time, responsible for your ability to lead. These tools and strategies have proven successful across cultural, organizational, and curricular environments.
The beliefs, anecdotes, and tools shared in this book are the culmination of twenty years of leadership and collaborative experiences, both in education and service industries. My journey in education began as a research assistant at the Arizona State University Child Development Laboratory, where I studied mixed-age playgroups and conducted studies of how children retain and recall information. Before moving to Asia in 1999, I worked with the Children’s Action Alliance, the ARC, and the Arizona state government advocating for how to best serve children with disabilities. During these years, I developed an appreciation for working collaboratively and honed essential skills to build consensus and navigate complicated organizational hierarchies. The skills developed and experience gained during this period have helped me identify obstacles within schools that prevent transformative collaboration.
In 1999, I moved to China to teach and became quickly disenfranchised by the lack of inclusion in schools, the pressure to regurgitate scripted lesson plans, and the lack of professional development. Fortunately, I stayed in China, starting up and growing two successful information technology businesses, which provided services to schools but predominantly serviced Fortune 1000 companies. The second startup brought me to India, where I was able to reflect on my successes in China and adapt them to the Indian market. During these years, I learned how to satisfy the needs of a culturally and hierarchically diverse group of stakeholders, develop cross-cultural leadership and communication skills, and hone my experience in building effective teams.
I returned to education in 2008 and began to work with not-for-profit organizations, as well as international and Chinese bilingual schools to develop curriculum, train staff, devise parent engagement strategies, and consult senior leaders on strategy and governance. During this period, a long and mutually beneficial relationship began with the Association of China and Mongolia International Schools (ACAMIS) and its network. Between 2011 and 2017, I worked with over two hundred private and public schools, which included surveying and facilitating workshops with over two thousand educators and administrative staff.
Four people also deserve special mention, as their support and input encouraged me to find a niche, which has become some of the most rewarding work I have done: Fritz Libby, a co- founder of Dulwich College Management; Dr. Jim Koerschen, formerly the Head of School at Concordia International School in Shanghai and first Executive Director of The Association of China and Mongolia International Schools (ACAMIS); Tom Ulmet, the Superintendent of Yew Chung Interational Schools who followed Dr. Koerschen as Executive Director of The Association of China and Mongolia International Schools; and my wife, Barbara Mui, an exceptional teacher and middle leader in her own right, who not only proofread everything I wrote, but allowed me to vicariously live through her own middle leadership successes and challenges.