My colleagues in school administration share a running joke about the Game of School Leadership.
Roll the dice, pull a card that reads “three of your classrooms are reporting cases of lice” or “the city just called and there’s unscheduled work on the water pipes: expect brown sludge in your water fountains today.” Or maybe both. Then you play the game, put out the fires, keep everyone safe, maybe even happy, and keep skipping down the colorful path to victory. I’ve been in this executive director game for just five years, but I feel pretty confident that the pandemic wild card was new to the deck for most of us. Of course, surprises make our work interesting, right?
Whatever the wild card, it can be daunting to create new systems, policies, and procedures that best serve all our stakeholders—parents, teachers, board members, and students. In 2014, our young school faced a lot of changes all at once, forcing us to a make-it-or-break-it moment. Not unlike the position so many of us are in now, we needed to rethink the core of who we were in order to adapt to emerging needs. These epochs of change are the ideal time to transition to a new way of being all the way through rather than going to a quick fix that often leads to more problems. If we revise the core of our students’ experience, the revision can be better if we reevaluate our systems starting at the top.
Our independent school’s Board of Trustees had been governed by Robert’s Rules of Order for years, relying on the majority-rule style of governance that is typical across the country. In that crucible year, we were lucky to welcome a new board member with expertise in sociocracy, a system of governance that values harmonious and deep solutions.
Sociocratic, also called dynamic governance, differs from traditional models in that it requires teachers and staff to adapt to a more active role and engage a balance between strength and flexibility. It is not a complete flattening of hierarchical roles, but it does add roles. And, unlike Robert’s Rules, the roots of this system can go as deep as your organization. It is not merely a method for boards, but a method for school leaders and classroom teachers.
There’s a lot of wisdom and buy-in lost in a majority-rules system, and inequities of power are inevitable. On the other hand, sociocracy unifies an organization by breaking it down into semi-autonomous circles, linked through a system of representation. Better decisions are made because everyone has more voice within a still-stratified system that taps the expertise of teachers, the experience of parents and students, and empowers administrators with more information.
You can (and should) read more about the history behind this theory of governance, but here are a few pivotal broad-stroke goals for school administrators.
How Sociocracy Works
Create logical circles of eight to 10 people with leaders in each circle: Trust them, empower them, and check in with them often. Create as many circles as needed. In our school, with 20 full-time teachers and eight administrators, we have three levels of circles:
- At our foundation, we have four teaching team circles that include all teachers and their program directors. They are organized by grade level groups: pre-K, K–fourth grade, fifth–eighth grade, and high school.
- The next level up in terms of responsibility and decision-making power, is our single administrative circle. This includes program directors of each of the four grade level groups, admissions, building, office, registrar and business, and executive leadership.
- At the uppermost level, our Board of Trustees circle includes parents, at least one teacher representative, and at least one administrator.
Teach your faculty and staff about how to achieve consensus. It’s not the same thing as consent. That is a totally different kind of in-service workshop. Meetings aren’t conducted popcorn style, which favors extroverts, but in rounds in which everyone is invited to respond to the proposal, discussion prompt, or question at hand. When the group weighs a decision, teachers and staff are encouraged to express doubts, ask clarifying questions, and get truly on board before moving on. Sometimes this takes longer to process, but it always means better decisions and less grumbling after a decision is made.
All stakeholders have a vote: This means your board must include staff members in rounds of consensus and administrative decisions include the voices of teachers, department managers, and the front office. This is another key difference between a sociocratic school and one ruled by Robert. It’s sometimes a difficult leap of faith to make as it can feel disempowering and scary to share the reigns. It’s important to remember that you hired these people because they’re good at what they do. There is wisdom in each perspective. When a policy is shaped by the teachers, administrators, and staff who are responsible for enacting them successfully, it is a better policy. Every time.
Use focused and collaborative meeting agendas: Every circle needs a leader to avoid the diffusion of responsibility, and leaders create agendas for every meeting to avoid the diffusion of efficiency. At the beginning of each meeting, however, the agenda is reviewed and everyone present can weigh in on that list—adding items or recommending certain items be tabled. This helps to craft an agenda that is honed, relevant, and thorough.
We are all working hard to rethink what we do to reach our students, to stay connected, to inspire. As school leaders, we are called to model essential learning skills because we, of course, are lifelong learners. In wild-card times, we must take risks, work collaboratively, explore resources… we must do all those things we ask our students to do. The necessity of change is a great teacher: what an opportunity this is to learn something new.