Teacher Empowerment: Shared Accountability Comes from Teachers Having True Autonomy

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The Midwest School Transformation Project is a three-year project that will provide up to 15 schools across Minnesota, South Dakota, and North Dakota with individualized support to transform education to more student-centered learning models. For more on the project visit https://edvisions.org/the-edvision/mstp/ and stay tuned for further articles on the project by our insightful writer, Dr. Nancy Allen-Mastro!

Dr. Allen-Mastro began her career in education as an elementary school teacher and later spent 26 years as a school administrator, serving in a variety of roles, including Principal, K-12 Director of Curriculum, Instruction, & Assessment, Assistant Superintendent, and Superintendent in rural and suburban schools in Minnesota.  She earned her Bachelor’s degree from Montana State University, a Master’s degree from Bemidji State University, and a Doctorate from the University of North Dakota.  She retired in 2017.  

TEACHER EMPOWERMENT: Shared Accountability Comes from Teachers Having True Autonomy

Teacher empowerment is a cornerstone of EdVisions’ Ed°Essentials model for supporting school transformation. Empowerment can occur in a number of ways, but at its core is the democratic governance of a school community with teachers as the primary decision-makers. This goes beyond teachers having input regarding educational programming and can extend as far as budgeting, staffing, and overall school management.

It’s not like teachers aren’t busy enough. Why would they want to take on one more thing when their day is already full with a wide range of responsibilities? The answer is simple. Being engaged in making decisions that matter means investment; having a final say means ownership. Many teachers complain they don’t have a say in what is taught and how schools are organized. If they did, things would be different.  

As teachers are asked to do more to meet a broader array of student needs, many are asking for the opportunity to be part of creating from the ground level new learning environments that meet the needs of all children. When teachers are involved, they are more willing to be accountable not only to themselves but their peers as well. This type of collective decision-making can be and often is transformational. According to Julene Oxton, Director of School Transformation and Development at EdVisions and Lead Coach for the Midwest School Transformation Project, “As autonomy increases, so does true accountability. When a collective decision at the teacher level is made, they take responsibility for the outcome of that decision. The blame game is no longer in play.” 

Teacher empowerment isn’t a new concept. Schools have been working around its edges for decades. In any given school one could expect to find the typical committee structure that is used to engage teachers in planning and problem-solving. Curriculum committees, program advisory panels, behavior management teams, budget task forces – the list is endless.  While this structure of collecting input works well for informing a process, it doesn’t go far enough to fully explore an issue from all angles and ensure commitment to the final outcome and position implementation for a high degree of fidelity. 

EdVisions has created a Teacher Empowerment and Leadership Continuum, one that is being used in the MSTP. The purpose of the continuum is to help schools recognize and identify current practice, then take steps to move towards higher and higher degrees of teacher empowerment over time.

To move from the Directive to the Transformational level on the continuum requires several conditions. The first among them is establishing a high level of trust, and trust we know is developed over time. Positive relationships and trust grow stronger from collectively arriving at a decision that aligns to the common beliefs and vision of the group. Teams should expect and even invite conflict, as it can be a useful lever if handled well. To build trust during conflict requires people to respectfully challenge each other and have productive ways to deal with conflict. This is where good facilitation becomes key, as it allows for a wide range of ideas to be considered before landing on a path forward and gives time for ideas to germinate and be tested. 

Ways schools in the MSTP plan to incorporate teacher empowerment into their programs center heavily on creating a staff culture that is conducive to rethinking how decisions are made. Time for teachers to collaborate, having meeting norms, creating clarity around roles and responsibilities, and building trusting relationships are planned. The role of the school administrator will also be reimagined. The traditional hierarchy is likely to shift dramatically as decision-making protocols are developed and more decisions are left to teachers. The MSTP schools recognize a shift in how decisions are made requires new skills and have also identified a number of areas for staff learning.  

Not all decisions need to be made by all teachers. In The Art of Coaching Teams, Elena Aguilar offers insight into how to determine which decisions should be made by whom and under what conditions. Aguilar also identifies habits and behaviors that lead to a culture of trust and effective decision making.

Watertown-Mayer High School in Watertown, Minnesota, situated 30 minutes west of Minneapolis, is an example of a traditional high school seeking to create a more student-centered learning environment. As an MSTP project school, one of its commitments is empowering its teachers. According to Ron Wilkie, superintendent at Watertown-Mayer, the groundwork began to be laid four years ago when the district set a new strategic direction. They knew they needed to prepare the culture to manage change over time. Now in their fifth year of a comprehensive planning process, changes envisioned back then are becoming visible. 

One of the ways Watertown-Mayer began to empower teachers was in creating a professional development model where learning is personalized for each individual teacher. Several years ago, they also created a teacher leadership framework. Last year they developed a profile of a graduate from Watertown-Mayer and identified local standards, both of which have helped to solidify the district’s vision for how it plans to transform itself.

So what’s different for teachers? Bob Hennen, principal at Watertown-Mayer High School says, “We have always tried to involve teachers in decision-making, but now we’re formalizing that.” In terms of operational matters (budgeting, hiring, etc.) he seeks input but still makes the final decisions. But when it comes to teacher practices, teachers have extensive autonomy. In addition to teachers driving their own professional development, there are a number of teacher-led groups that shape staff culture and the curriculum. Each has the autonomy to make decisions without gaining his final approval. “I want all teachers part of the decision making,” he says. Teachers can choose and be involved in the areas that match their interests or forte. 

When asked if conflict occurs and how it is handled, Hennen is honest. “It’s a maturing process…it’s hard for some teachers to have those hard conversations with their peers.” Giving constructive feedback is difficult, he notes, pointing out that collegial relationships are different than supervisory relationships. It requires a continual effort to build trust.

Watertown-Mayer High School is a good example of how changes to empower teachers in traditional structures can be made gradually with the right kind of support and a sustained commitment over time. We can compare their journey to that of Sage Academy, another MSTP project school not far away in Brooklyn Park, a suburb of Minneapolis. As a charter school, teacher empowerment has been a focus since its inception in 2002. According to Cari-Ana Garcia Luna, interim director at Sage, “We already have a strong culture of including all teachers in the decision-making process. We are trying to move towards the teachers making more decisions/actions without direction from admin.” She adds they are doing more staff development around what it means to be a teacher leader, and because new staff come and go, as in any school, ongoing professional development is needed to support new teachers who may not be familiar with teacher empowerment. This year Sage plans to visit some teacher-powered schools to observe first hand how teacher empowerment occurs.  

Where can you find out more about teacher empowerment? The Teacher-Powered Schools Initiative launched in 2014 was created to support teachers in having the autonomy to design and run schools. It provides a wealth of resources and hosts a national network of teacher-powered schools so teachers can share best practices and learn from each other. You can learn more by going to teacherpowered.org. For a broader look, another resource is David Osbourne’s book Reinventing America’s Schools. Osbourne’s book focuses primarily on the charter school movement but drives home the point that true accountability comes from autonomy to make decisions. 

None of us can always get exactly what we want. Life is, after all, filled with compromises and concessions when we work with others. We have other points of view to consider. More than one solution is possible, and everyone may not be on the same page. Sometimes we just disagree. But in schools where teachers are empowered to collaborate and make real decisions, we move closer to a place where everyone can not only live with the outcome but feel committed to moving forward with confidence and a sense of unity. 

Where would your school fall on the Teacher Empowerment and Leadership Continuum? How would it rank in regard to the conditions and behaviors needed for effective decision making?

Here are some questions to ask yourself and your teammates: 

  • How are decisions in your school made?
  • How is your staff empowered?
  • To empower staff more, what would need to be different?
  • Is trust present?
  • Is there clarity around roles and responsibilities?
  • Is accountability shared? 

Is it time for a conversation in your school around teacher empowerment and leadership?