What is Collaborative Leadership in Education?

Written by Scott Wilson

What is collaborative leadership in education? Collaborative, or democratic, leadership is a style that emphasizes bringing together your entire team to participate in school planning and other major decisions. It gives input and agency to educators throughout a school and results in broader buy-in and better morale.

collaborative meeting

Everyone likes to be consulted when big decisions happen that affect their work. Teachers are no different. But it can often seem like their views and preferences go unheard.

That’s a challenge for leaders. Traditional top-down leadership can undermine respect and morale. And even more importantly, it can leave out some of the most insightful voices in the school. The people in the classroom every day often bring valuable perspectives to big decisions. As a school principal, you leave them out at your peril.

Collaborative leadership is one way to bring those voices to the forefront. A collaborative leader doesn’t make decisions behind closed doors. Instead, they happen with discussion and input from the entire team.

Collaborative leadership delivers on some of the main promises of a strong educational leader right out of the gate:

It’s a powerful way to build the kind of successful, supportive school environment that every leader covets.

Clearing up Misconceptions About Collaborative Leadership in Education

hands raisedAlthough collaborative leadership is sometimes called democratic, or shared, leadership, that’s not entirely accurate. The principal or superintendent running the show still holds ultimate responsibility. They are still in the hot seat, both legally and morally, so the final call is always theirs.

A better term may be distributed leadership. It’s the idea that as much as possible, day-to-day decision-making in the school is handled at the faculty level. That doesn’t mean teachers are voting on budgets or setting IT access policies; instead, they are exercising leadership in the areas where they are the experts.

Effective collaborative leadership in this model requires a lot of principals and senior leaders:

How Does Collaborative Leadership Work in Education?

presentation for staffCollaborative leadership is a style that involves reaching across traditional boundaries to involve more stakeholders in decision-making.

In traditional corporations, this usually works mostly among the management team. Groups of senior leaders focus on getting past the silo structure of departments. They work together to make decisions for the good of the organization overall, with input from every area.

In education, collaborative leadership tends to work slightly differently. Schools are the last bastion of the flat organizational structure. A single principal typically has 50 or more direct reports. Every teacher, janitor, or assistant principal in a school is an immediate subordinate. There are no layers as you would find in most corporate structures.

So, collaborative leadership in education involves bringing together teachers, librarians, counselors, and specialty educators to participate in determining school priorities.

Building a Distributed Leadership Structure Is Hard Work That Offers Big Benefits

working together in an officeCollaborative leadership is a tough path for even experienced and well-trained educational administrators to follow. It requires supreme confidence and near-telepathic communication skills. It involves vulnerability and openness. And it takes next-level mentorship and training to cultivate a team who can truly collaborate.

But the payoffs for meeting these challenges as a collaborative leader are huge. Teacher retention and morale bloom under collaborative systems. Some studies have even found academic benefits among students that result from collaborative leadership systems.

It offers wins by bringing in individual knowledge and ideas that are impossible for a single leader to contain. Every teacher and specialist on your team has their own expertise and insights. The jobs they do every day give them a picture of your school that you can never fully replicate.

By taking that expanded knowledge and bringing it in to the leadership process, you tap into a valuable resource of academic expertise. At the same time, you win buy-in for the decisions and their outcome.

The Processes of Collaborative Leadership in Education Require Patience and Connection

Collaborative leaders have to create the opportunities for collaboration. It’s no good to just have discussions or to solicit feedback on decisions that you’ve already made. You need to make clear immediately that teachers can have a real impact on the outcome.

This stresses initiative and creativity. And that means mentoring is absolutely required. Not everyone will have the advanced training that cultivates the skills and knowledge for administration. It’s your job to build your team up to a place where their input contributes something meaningful and workable.

That points to one drawback in the theory: collaborative leadership isn’t quick. It takes time to bring everyone up to speed, and even more time to build consensus. Lightning decisions are not a feature of the system.

Collaborative leadership extends far below the level of principals and superintendents. Many teachers and specialists can also engage in the style. In fact, it may be at its most powerful when junior leaders use it together to elevate their game beyond what any of them could achieve individually.

Collaborative School Leaders Need the Confidence That Comes with Advanced Degrees in Educational Leadership

Collaborative leadership is only one of many different styles that you will learn about through an advanced degree in educational leadership. But as the future of the industry, it’s one that will get a lot of attention in all your classes.

If you look at the typical coursework in a master’s or doctoral program in educational leadership, it’s easy to see how it applies to collaborative styles.

Strategic Communication

Crystal clarity is a must when getting everyone on board for decision-making. These courses give you the full range of skills in both written and verbal communications to make that happen.

Diversity in Education

Appreciating and celebrating diversity is never more important than when it comes to decision-making. You’ll have to handle various cultural and sociological perspectives as a collaborative leader. These classes give you the key.

Administrative Policy and Procedure

The education system wasn’t designed with collaborative leadership in mind. There are many rules and regulations you’ll have to comply with that were written with a less consultative style in mind. Learning the ins and outs of those processes in these classes will show you the openings for collaboration.

Project Management

Project management isn’t always an exercise in collaboration, but coursework that shows how it is done offers valuable tools for collaborative leaders. From the basics like scheduling and communication to more advanced tools like negotiation and outreach, you’ll find these classes invaluable.

You may also get a taste of what collaborative leadership looks like through practicum or internship placements that come with your degree. Although you’ll be outside the line of authority, you’ll be working closely with leaders in the schools where you are placed. Your discussions with them can look a lot like what fully collaborative leadership will be like in your own school.

Finally, with a highly respected degree program in educational administration under your belt, you’ll develop the confidence you need to open the floor to other ideas. As an expert in your field, you’ll recognize the bright ideas your team comes up with. And you’ll have the facts, figures, and people-handling skills to get the very best from them.

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