Administration & Leadership

Implementing a Distributed Leadership Model

Administrators can invest in building a leadership model based on close communication, autonomy, and trust across campus.

July 10, 2024
filadendron / iStock

We (Paula and John) crossed paths nearly a decade ago when Paula hired John as a social studies teacher at Westerly Middle School. When Paula offered John the job, John hesitated. He was already established at a small private school and was unsure about starting over. When he voiced his concerns to Paula, she pointed out that even if this position lasted just one academic year, the experience of working in a larger setting with greater resources and a diverse group of fellow social studies teachers would be immensely beneficial for his future career.

Her guidance wasn’t just about filling a role; it was about investing in professional growth, which became even more important when we worked together as a middle school principal–assistant principal team.

an inclusive leadership model

Becoming a building principal is often considered the pinnacle of an educator’s career. It can be a rewarding position, allowing the principal to create an atmosphere where students and staff alike grow into new phases of their lives. However, this role comes with a tremendous amount of responsibility. One of the most important tasks for a principal is to create an environment of trust for students, staff, families, and the community. The school will succeed when all voices are heard, valued, and respected. 

Distributed leadership. The distributed leadership approach can be defined in a variety of ways. Whether viewed as delegating responsibilities or distributed leadership, it is imperative that responsibilities be distributed among team members to ensure that tasks are completed and to avoid burnout. Distributed leadership allows for diverse perspectives and skills to be utilized effectively, leading to more innovative solutions and a more resilient organization. By delegating authority and encouraging initiative, principals can create a more dynamic and responsive educational environment where everyone feels invested in the school’s success. Doing this requires the creation of a great team. 

An investment approach to mentoring. Leadership is an opportunity to inspire and cultivate the next generation of educators and leaders. Over the years, John  progressed from a social studies teacher to taking on leadership roles within the school system. As he went through the process of completing his administrative internship and eventually becoming an assistant principal, his growth and trajectory continued to be shaped by Paula’s mentorship.

As John was beginning his administrative internship, Paula knew that she needed to do more than have him take notes and watch. She immersed John in the daily operations of the building, leaving no stone unturned and making him lead in every capacity that would be expected of him as a future school leader. This practice not only prepared John for what was coming next but also gave him the ability to step into an administrative role immediately upon completion of his graduate studies.

Assembling a team

Assistant principal. The role of the assistant principal is often open for interpretation. Some believe the role should be reserved for disciplining student behavior; there are other folks who believe the assistant principal should serve at the pleasure of the principal; still others believe the assistant principal should focus on teaching and learning. Mutual respect and trust between the principal and assistant principal must be present and apparent, and they should drive the daily operations of the school community.

The role of the AP in a distributed leadership team. As an administrative partnership, the principal and the assistant principal must create a team that will drive their school forward. Everyone in the building is a leader in some capacity. Whether your interactions are with department chairs, instructional coaches, behavior interventionists, custodial staff, school nurse teachers, or union leadership, it is vital that you seek advice from all leaders within your building. By building a leadership team and identifying their strengths, you are showing a commitment to continuous improvement and a willingness to listen and trust those around you. 

Building a broader team. The catalyst that fostered our dynamic team was very simple: trust. Our middle school implemented monthly leadership meetings. These meetings brought together team leaders, administration, deans of students, and deans of teaching and learning to build both community and leadership capacity within the building. Not every person at the meeting necessarily had a title that defined them as a leader, but each had a unique perspective that was needed to make sound educational decisions that would move our school forward. By putting distributed leadership into practice, the school was able to see their strongest test scores and an improvement in school culture and student behavior. 

On every campus, it’s important to identify who the leaders are. Some schools have a “SPAN” team, which brings together social workers, psychologists, administrators, and nurses to share their insights about the school and students. Establishing a team of leaders who are not administrators creates a collaborative environment where all stakeholders feel valued and are able to become the best versions of themselves.

Effective Communication on teams

Fostering effective communication between the principal and assistant principal is vital for the school to function. Here are some strategies to help facilitate clear and concise communication:

  • Schedule regular meetings between the principal and assistant principal to discuss goals, challenges, and progress. This allows for open dialogue and reflection in areas for improvement and growth.
  • Establish clear guidelines to help the assistant principal understand their role within the leadership team and enable them to focus their efforts on areas that contribute to their professional growth.
  • Encourage the assistant principal to share their ideas, perspectives, and suggestions on various aspects of school leadership. Create a collaborative environment where their input is valued and considered in decision-making processes.
  • Provide opportunities for the AP to take initiative on school projects. The AP should have the opportunity to lead, own, and solve/resolve. This builds confidence and develops leadership skills. Make sure to acknowledge and appreciate the AP’s contributions and accomplishments publicly: This encourages continued growth and dedication. 

Take time to get to know your team, understand core values of each individual, help them to discover their strengths, and encourage creativity! Empower your team to take initiative; listen to their concerns, ideas, and feedback. And don’t just listen—understand their perspectives and demonstrate a commitment to their ideas.

School leaders can invest in building a model based on close communication, autonomy, and trust across campus. 

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