K–12 Leadership

Student Success Demands That We All Work Together

How Facilitative Leadership Can Make the Connection and Propel Outcomes

Chris WilliamsThis is a pivotal moment for education. Three years after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, administrators, teachers, community stakeholders, and, most importantly, many students are continuing to struggle.

Pandemic-related school disruptions precipitated the most significant drop in math and reading scores in decades. At the same time, The Institute of Education Sciences’ 2022 School Pulse Survey found that an astonishing 87 percent of public schools reported negative social-emotional development in the past two years.

Solving these complex problems will require more than individual excellence. This moment calls for skillful collaboration and leadership that results in positive outcomes for teachers, staff, and students. In this context, collaboration is not simply about learning to get along. It’s a method for accessing innovation and optimizing performance across the board. It starts at the top.

One tested method — focused on facilitative leadership to involve and empower people to work together to achieve a common goal using seven leadership practices ranging from coaching to planning to celebrating — can help academic communities support success and promote holistic outcomes. The timing for this type of approach is especially important as schools look to re-energize staff, restore trust, and find new ways to support the changing needs of students in today’s post-pandemic learning environment.

Here are five ways that school administrators can deploy facilitative leadership practices in their districts to support success for years to come.

1. Gain commitment and instill confidence by sharing an inspiring and powerful vision of the future.

A clear vision will help motivate teams to coalesce around strategies and initiatives that enhance education delivery and student outcomes.

While schools face numerous academic and student well-being challenges, establishing an inspiring vision sets a clear direction forward. It’s uplifting, encouraging, and directional, bringing intangible value and appreciation to people’s day-to-day school operations and helping to boost teacher and staff recruitment and retention.

Whether you’re leading an entire district or a single school, casting a clear and compelling vision of the future is the first step to guiding others toward greater achievement and confidence.

2. Balance attention across three dimensions of success: measurable results, effective processes, and trust-based relationships.

After casting a vision, administrators will need to frame how performance and satisfaction will be measured within their district, school, or PLC. For educators accustomed to a results-oriented outlook, this can be uniquely challenging.

That’s why a framing around results, processes, and relationships helps people think about success in a multi-variable state. Instead of thinking about results in terms of ultimate outcomes, leaders also encourage continuous improvement in the process and how people treat each other. For example, teams can sustain productivity and quality through:

  • How meetings are organized and run

  • How feedback is solicited and effectively given

  • How debating and disagreeing are done in a productive and respectful way.

District administrators must understand that people have unique orientations. Some are results-focused, while others are relationally motivated or process-driven. It is the leader's job to balance success across the dimensions instead of leaning too far in a single direction.

A balanced administrator is best positioned to enact change amongst teams and throughout a district. With facilitative leadership, enacting a supportive work environment with continuous improvement is a key performance indicator of results being achieved.

3. Design collaborative processes, so people understand how and when to contribute their ideas.

Many educational stakeholders are rarely or never asked for their input, depriving leaders of key insights that can drive robust decision-making, improve relationships, and ultimately buy in to change. People want to participate in decisions that affect their daily work lives.

Therefore, school leaders should seek maximum appropriate involvement from stakeholders. Consider: who will be impacted by the change or has valuable institutional knowledge? This helps to improve communication and decision-making, increases commitment to action, and establishes higher levels of trust.

For example, empowering teachers and other stakeholders to build consensus on cultural or aesthetic decisions helps them feel more personally involved in the organization’s holistic mission, vision, and environment.

4. Facilitate understanding and agreement in every conversation.

Big-picture outcomes are achieved step-by-step through collaborative conversations, formal meetings, and PLCs. These strategic and highly-valuable exchanges can drive change when they are facilitated appropriately.

Leaders enable success when they accurately identify the most important topics, stakeholders, and desired outcomes from these conversations. Consequently, facilitative leaders will prioritize meeting planning, diversity of opinion, teamwork, and the creation of realistic action plans.

Agreement building is the currency of collaboration. Whether enacting district-wide change or making improvements in a single school, cohesion is based on productive collaboration to build understanding and agreement across teams and stakeholders.

5. Celebrate success and accomplishments to reinforce desired behaviors and core values.

People want to feel valued and appreciated at work. Especially in a fast-paced educational environment, celebrating success and accomplishments often gets overlooked.

District administrators can reverse this trend by celebrating the success of individuals and teams, even small ones, in ways that are authentic and appropriate for the accomplishment.

For instance, writing a handwritten note of gratitude to a first-year teacher expresses value and support appropriate to the occasion. In contrast, a teacher approaching a major milestone deserves a more expansive celebration.

Making appreciation and celebration a district-wide priority can have profound implications for school culture and student success. This includes taking the time to know your staff and how they want to be recognized, and then recognizing performance helps to build pride, self-esteem, and greater commitment.

A Final Word

Current challenges and opportunities call for inclusive school leaders who can lead across hierarchy and traditional lines of authority to tackle complex problems facing stakeholders at varying levels in public education. Leaders are craving tools to think more clearly, guide collaborative action, and improve team performance.

The practice of facilitative leadership as a district-wide model can propel the development and retention of effective teachers, leaders, and professional staff. It has been effectively deployed at the district and state-wide levels and can build a strong educational leadership pipeline at a critical time. The answers to our district's most pressing problems are there — among our people.

Mission-minded school leaders across the country have implemented hundreds of practical solutions. Educators are excellent at defining problems, analyzing root causes, and coming up with well-reasoned answers. How about we tap into the assemblies of passionate and talented people who yearn to be catalysts for student excellence, sustainable improvement, and closer collaboration?