Shared Leadership and Communities of Learning

–Focusing our energy on creating a stronger sense of mission

We educators are bombarded with data—test scores, graduation rates, GPAs, drop-out percentages, college enrollment numbers, class size, remediation rates, and more.

These numbers are not meaningless. Like the reading on a thermometer, they indicate that something needs attention. We can lower our fever—a number—with aspirin, though changing that number may not treat the condition that caused it. And there are lots of ways (some more fitting than others) to affect numbers like graduation rates. Perhaps schools have taken too much from the industrial mindset—schools as assembly lines— and lost sight of schools as communities. Assembly lines aim for numbers. Communities build on relationships.

What if we focused our energy on creating a stronger sense of mission, centered on the shared value of learning? People rather than numbers. Better health rather than lower fevers, as it were.

Our first public school, the Boston Latin School, opened in 1635. For most of our history, public schools were small. They often mixed ages together and taught all kinds of things from religion to ‘rithmetic. Schools served as a primary location for students to interact socially, to establish a sense of community together. Standardized curriculum? Graduation percentages? Funding indexed to test scores? Not for many, many years.

I believe that the school must represent present life —life as real and vital to the child as that which he carries on in the home, in the neighborhood, or on the playground. I believe that under existing conditions far too much of the stimulus and control proceeds from the teacher, because of neglect of the idea of the school as a form of social life. I believe that the teacher’s place and work in the school is to be interpreted from this same basis. The teacher is not in the school to impose certain ideas or to form certain habits in the child but is there as a member of the community to select the influences which shall affect the child and to assist him in properly responding to these influences.

John Dewey(1897)

I’m not suggesting we go back to a one-room building heated by a coal stove with a single blackboard. Yet as all our access to data and learning tools—via technology— expands the horizon of information, what about creating a sense that we’re all working together on creating connection, insight, and application?

We know that learning and teaching both gain meaning as well as staying power when they occur in a web of relationships. Not only does learning thrive when we interact with other perspectives, but we also develop the skills of emotional intelligence and learn to see our differences as resources. The more we can create a sense of shared discovery—community—the more learning becomes a value rather than just a series of lessons.

For that community to grow, we can start by examining what we mean by leadership. Do we view it as exclusive—only for a select group like administrators or department chairs? Do we limit student leadership to athletic teams, clubs and the student council? Community comes from the same root word as common (I’m a recovering English teacher). So the more leading becomes common rather than exclusive, we have access to a wonderful truth: the more leadership we share, the more leadership there is. The more we can spread responsibility, decision-making, and open communication throughout our school, the stronger the sense of community.

Most of our current schools have three barriers that block sharing leadership:

First, faculty, administrators, and staff don’t have a vehicle to develop a vision for collaboration or steps to implement that vision.

Second, students don’t participate in curriculum, instruction, and governance.

Third, all the members of the school community do not collaborate on developing and measuring success.

We can take simple, concrete steps to address these roadblocks, understanding that structural change takes time and trust—

Why not set aside some in-service time to allow school staff to develop their collaborative skills and build greater understanding? Give them space (and power) to share leadership in developing goals, making budgetary decisions, involving the community, brainstorming learning projects. As leadership becomes less concentrated and more mutual, we know from research as well as from experience that organizations become more agile, innovative, and energized.

The fact is, the knowledge of how to improve schools has grown a great deal in the last 20 years, and the educators who have put that knowledge to work in their schools and districts hold important lessons for the rest of us. If I had to put into one sentence what the key lesson they hold is, it would be that they focus on improving the knowledge and skill of the adults in schools and give them the time and space to collaborate about what kids need to learn and how to teach it.

—Karin Chenowith

For the students, we can bypass the artificial separation of grade levels and trust their often-underestimated capacity to manage the classroom. Share power with them about lessons, projects, class norms, setting goals, every aspect that affects their development. Even better, we can work with other teachers to establish and support mentoring, coaching, and across-grade-level projects. After all, how much of our post-school life is spent working only with people of the same age? Teachers can become fellow learners, their greater knowledge and experience a resource rather than an authority. This shift creates an atmosphere of interdependence—community. Learning geometry, language, and computer science while practicing leadership is not a bad habit.

Finally, we can start to collaborate on developing a vision for the school’s success. Some of this vision will have to correlate with external standards like statewide testing. Building a community of learning works best as a practical vision—to succeed we need to consider the surrounding realities. Those realities do not negate the idea of agreeing on, for instance, a mentoring requirement for graduation, building student participation into curriculum development, developing alternative paths to achieving recognition (including grades), and giving students more responsibility in developing their own benchmarks for achievement.

I’ve worked in a factory. Swing shift. Two fifteen-minute breaks, ½ hour for lunch. It was soul-numbing. I’ve also worked for most of my teaching life as part of several learning communities – teams (including the students) who share leadership, learn continuously, challenge each other and see our differences as a powerful resource, regardless of position or experience. The tedium of the first helped me realize the power of the second.

If we can see the continuum of education as the assembly line on one end, a community of learning on the other, we can develop plans and programs that help us lead, together, forward and leave the factory behind.


Mac Bogert
Mac Bogert
I fell in love with learning, language, and leadership through the intervention of two professors—I had actually achieved a negative GPA—who kicked my butt for drifting through my first couple of semesters at Washington and Lee University. After graduate school at U. Va., I started teaching English at a large high school in northern Virginia. A terrific principal lit my fire, a terrible one extinguished it. I left after five years (the national average, as it turns out, maybe the only time I did something normal) and started an original folk/blues/rock band. That went well for a time until the record company sponsoring us folded. I toured for some years as an acoustic blues musician, primarily as an opening act for bands like the Muddy Waters Band, Doc, and Merle Watson and such remarkable talent. As that market dried up (disco), I earned my Coast Guard Masters License and worked for the next decade as a charter and delivery captain and sailing instructor. At the same time, I was working part-time as an actor and voice-over artist, selling inflatable boats and encyclopedias, and working as a puppeteer. Itchy feet, I suppose. I came back into the system in 1987 as a teacher specialist in health and drug education in my county school system, also part-time as Education Coordinator (and faculty member) for Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts. I ‘departed’ both jobs in 1994 (therein lie more stories than 350 words could hold) and started my own business. AzaLearning is the career I’d been dodging for decades. I serve 200 clients around the country, helping with all kinds of coaching, planning, transforming conflict, creative problem-solving, communication, and mediation (I also trained and worked as a community mediator somewhere during sailing and teaching): learning, language, and leadership. In 2016 I published Learning Chaos: How Disorder Can Save Education and actively contribute to a couple of online education magazines as well as publish a newsletter, a blog, and the learning chaos podcast.

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  1. Thanks, Charlotte.

    Mark Twain: “I have never let me schooling interfere with my education.”

    We’re learning machines. You’re spot on that we humans, each and every one, learn 24/7, and yet the establishment measures according to assembly-line rubrics. It’s time to unleash the power of our children – no more separation by age, let them work together to build curriculum and even develop their own measurements. In other words, build up and across, not down from the administrative establishment. Our schools, still shackled by the industrial mind, prevent so much learning it breaks my heart.

    It would be a pleasure to talk some time: [email protected]



  2. Unfortunately, in practice, we see every day that in most classes of every order and degree the frontal lesson still has a hegemonic role, which provides for the notional and individual transmission of the answer considered “correct”, which must be reworked in solitude, in the widespread belief that the comparison with others is just a waste of time, an element that disturbs the traditional learning process.
    In my opinion, the key lies in three words: action, social osmosis, opportunity.
    Stimulating activity is one of the fundamental elements for a new methodological approach. Furthermore, learning is an osmotic process. Paradoxically, working on the group is often perceived by teachers as a waste of time, while it is exactly the opposite. The sense of belonging, the ability to interact and manage conflict, the construction of a serene and stimulating environment, activate motivation, the sense of self-efficacy and cognitive processes. It cannot be done without. In short, it is necessary to make the class function as a group.

    • Thank you, Aldo.
      If we can accept that the brain processes constantly – and there is no evidence to the contrary – we can wear our teaching role very loosely. When we leave them room to learn, we know that children (including tall children – adults) rise to the occasion. Apparently it’s not about capacity but about the constriction of curriculum.

  3. Ever since I first heard you make the comment about segregation of students by age, I keep thinking about it and realizing how brilliant it is.

    As a corporate learning professional, my team and I advocated a new model, facilitated by but not exclusive to, technology. For adults, technology based learning allows the introduction and digestion of content. But content alone isn’t enough. That is when synchronous learning – in-person or online – takes it to the next level with discussion, debate and depth. We introduced this for a geographically dispersed leadership population which drastically reduced our cost, while it demonstrated a boost in collaboration and communication – two of the objectives of the program.

    Maybe it’s the introvert in me, but I prefer to learn content on my own, at my own pace. When I’m with others, I want to discuss and debate. I’m not sure how a similar model wouldn’t work with kids, particularly if mentored by the older kids. As a former corporate executive, I would certainly welcome newcomers to the workforce who were comfortable mentoring, coaching and debating.

    • Thanks, Carol.

      I’m happily introverted (and shy), and I love learning with others. It just tires me out.

      I’m discovering in this most interesting time that different does not mean less or more. Online some amazing opportunities present themselves if we’re flexible – comfortable with discomfort. We’re still exploring, right? I know it feels like a decade, but it’s only been a year since the quake began, so let’s push forward rather than back.

      After all, keyboard-based learning has great capacity for shared leadership and flexibility. Given our fundamental need for both community and individuality, the virtual platform is fabulous. No more sitting in rows, no more all the students facing the facilitator. Plus all our little rectangles are equally sized, and for the first time in our lives we see ourselves talking (and as others see us), and the list goes on.

      Some of us respond to the discomfort of the experience with “This too shall pass.” Others say “Wow! Where can we travel with this new boat?” I choose b.



  4. Listening to the radio on my way from A to B I caught a great comment on what was wrong with using the term “Learning loss” for the effects of the pandemic.
    To paraphrase the speaker, he drew out so many things students had learned that were NOT in the standard measurements: Using Zoom, Tiktok, and too many other online tools to mention; teaching said tools to their older connections, be it church groups, grandparents, or parents; composing, choreographing, writing, planning whatever they put up on Tiktok; using their imagination and creativity to even participate in school under unusual circumstances…

    And to paraphrase Mike Vacanti from a discussion on the Friendship Bench, we are trying to measure 21st century skills using 20th century metrics. (In schools,) hiring people, doing KPIs, our systems are geared for rewarding a normal distribution while we ask people to be outliers.