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Leadership that Moves You Forward, Part III: Diving Deeper on Creating Culture for Change

Ele Blanc Charrington

Elizabeth LeBlanc & Dr. Christopher Harrington

Institute for Teaching and Leading

As we shared in the previous post in this series, our work at the Institute for Teaching and Leading (i4tl) seeks to understand how district-level and building-level administrators can successfully manage the change process when leading personalized learning initiatives. Leaders involved in personalized learning initiatives are engaged in creating a school culture that supports this level of innovation. Therefore, our research project also examined the actions of school and district leadership in terms of their impact on empowerment, self-efficacy, mindset, and motivation of the learning community’s stakeholders – in short, were the actions indicated supporting meaningful organizational change?

This final post of the series will look at data collected through the study’s questionnaire, interviews, and focus groups. These findings examine how actions taken at each leadership level correlate with shifts in empowerment, mindset, motivation, and self-efficacy for other administrators, teachers, instructional staff, and students.

Leadership Position and Levels of Impact

Leadership actions, taken in aggregate from data including both district- and building-level leaders, impacted building leaders, teachers, and students to a “great” extent in roughly similar patterns across each area (motivation, self-efficacy, empowerment, and mindset) examined in this study.

However, there was a definite hierarchical difference in impact levels depending on the leader’s position within the district and school. In most cases, the impact of specific actions was most directly felt by the stakeholder group directly beneath them. For example, the actions of district-level leaders were demonstrated to have a strong impact on the motivation, self-efficacy, empowerment, and mindset of building-level leaders, with a slightly less (but still notable) impact on teachers. On the other hand, the greatest impact on teachers and students across these areas came directly from the actions of building-level leaders.

The impact of building-level leadership action correlated more directly with impact on teachers than students in terms of motivation, self-efficacy, empowerment, and mindset. However, the strength of the relationship between the building-level leaders’ impact on teachers was less correlative than the district-level leadership’s impact on building-level staff. Where district-level actions impacted all questionnaire respondents, some respondents stated that building-level leadership had little to no impact in any of the surveyed areas. Finally, our study found that the single most difficult area for leadership at any level to effect change or “move the needle” was in the self-efficacy of building-level administrators (for district leadership positions) and the self-efficacy of teachers and students (for building-level leadership).

District-Level Leaders: Planning for Positive Impact

Our questionnaire examined the extent to which leadership actions positively correlated with changes on motivation, self-efficacy, empowerment, and mindset as self-reported by building-level leaders. For the purposes of our study, these actions were framed as follows:

  • Shared Vision: Involves building-level administrators in the development of a districtwide shared vision of teaching and learning
  • Innovation: Encourages building-level administrators to implement innovative processes and procedures within their schools
  • Involvement in Strategic Planning: Involves building-level administrators in the development of districtwide strategic planning
  • Collaboration: Provides opportunities for collaboration and sharing of ideas among building-level administrators
  • Communication: Provides frequent and meaningful communication to all district stakeholders (students, teachers, administrators, families, and the community, in general)
  • Accountability: Creates systems for accountability for growth and/or success of administrators, teachers, and students
  • Growth Mindset: Provides specific opportunities for growing the mindset and orientation of building-level administrators towards change

So, which actions of education leaders at the district level correlate most strongly with the elements needed to create and nurture a culture that supports change and innovation?

District-level leaders providing frequent and meaningful communication to all district stakeholders (students, teachers, administrators, families, and the community, in general) was the single most important action in having a positive effect on the motivation, self-efficacy, empowerment, and mindset of both building-level leaders and teachers. When district leaders took this action, growth occurred in all areas and produced an especially significant reported impact on the self-efficacy (which rose 15 percent) and motivation (up 11 percent from the baseline) of building leaders. Consistent and ongoing communication strategies also positively correlated with increased growth mindset and orientation towards change for teachers (which rose 14 percent), as well as motivation and empowerment (up 11 percent) in this stakeholder group.

The second most impactful action that district leaders reported taking was the implementation of measures that support innovation and encourage their building-level leaders to do the same in their schools. The largest gains seen here were in the self-efficacy and mindset of building-level leaders, both of which increased by five percent as reported through the questionnaire. An eight-percent increase in motivation for teachers was also reported when district-level leaders took this action.

Finally, the inclusion of building-level leaders in the development of a shared, districtwide vision for teaching and learning showed the third most overall impact across the areas studied, leading to over five percent growth in both empowerment and mindset of this stakeholder group.

Building-Level Leaders: Planning for Positive Impact

Our study also examined the extent to which leadership actions by school site administrators positively correlated with changes in motivation, self-efficacy, empowerment, and mindset for teachers and student stakeholders. The impact of building-level leadership action correlated more directly with impact on teachers in terms of motivation, self-efficacy, empowerment, and mindset, than on those same qualities in students. For the purposes of our study, these actions were framed as follows:

  • Shared Vision: Involves teachers in the development of a schoolwide shared vision of teaching and learning
  • Innovation: Encourages teachers to implement innovative processes and procedures within their schools
  • Involvement in Strategic Planning: Involves teachers in the development of schoolwide strategic planning
  • Collaboration: Provides opportunities for collaboration and sharing of ideas among teachers
  • Communication: Provides frequent and meaningful communication to all school stakeholders (students, teachers, administrators, families, and the community, in general)
  • Accountability: Creates schoolwide systems for accountability for growth and/or success of administrators, teachers, and students
  • Growth Mindset: Provides specific opportunities for growing the mindset and orientation of teachers and students towards change

The table below illustrates the specific actions that building leaders can take that have the most impact in each category based on i4tl’s research findings in this study; percentages indicate the amount of respondents who reported that the selected action had a “great” or “moderate” degree of impact on the area shown.

All of the surveyed actions had some positive impact on the social-emotional aspects of teacher and student learning, including motivation, self-efficacy, empowerment, and mindset of both groups of stakeholders. Building-level leadership was seen to have the biggest impact on student empowerment and motivation, with over 80 percent of respondents finding principals, assistant principals, and department heads to impact the customized learning environment to a “great” or “moderate” extent. Areas where building-level leadership actions were seen to have the least impact were in the self-efficacy of students, where almost one in four respondents (23.37 percent) stated that the actions of building-level leaders had little to no impact.

Once again, frequent and meaningful communication to all school stakeholders was the single most important action. When building-level leaders reported taking measures to ensure ongoing communication to all stakeholders, motivation, self-efficacy, empowerment, and mindset rose by a minimum of 20 percentage points for teachers; most notable was the increase in mindset and self-efficacy, which rose 30 and 31 percent from the baseline, respectively. Consistent and ongoing communication strategies also positively correlated with increased empowerment for students, which rose 29 percent.

However, the next most impactful action for building leadership was the development or implementation of structures that ensured accountability for growth and success at all levels – from students to teachers to administrators. The largest gain seen here was growth in the mindset or orientation of teachers towards change, as self-reported in our questionnaire; this area increased by 28 percentage points from the baseline data. This action was consistently framed in interviews and focus groups as helping to build a learning community. “We’re all in it together, and the expectation is that we are all learning and growing,” one participant shared.

The biggest finding difference between the effect of building and district-level leadership actions was in the deliberate building of growth opportunities for teachers and students. This action led to a 10-percent increase in reported levels of teacher empowerment and motivation and a 17-percent increase in teacher self-efficacy.

This kind of intentional leadership impact cannot be overstated. As Julia Fisher Freeland writes, “The importance of shared leadership and empowering teachers and students is a common theme from the principals…. Change cannot happen with one person tackling it on their own, so leaders who are looking to make changes within their buildings must ensure that they have a team to support each other and get buy in from stakeholders. The importance of distributed leadership builds on the need for ownership in the school by capitalizing on strengths and allowing teachers opportunities to grow and lead themselves.” The relationship between district-level to building-level leaders and teachers can ensure clear, direct communication of vision from the district into the classroom.

This work by the i4tl is designed to help school and district leaders make informed decisions as they work to create a school culture that supports lasting change as they grow their personalized learning programs – particularly across the areas of empowerment, mindset, motivation, and self-efficacy. Taken as a whole, this series of blog posts can help leaders across the K-12 educational landscape plan for positive impact. Explore the additional Insights in this series for more findings:

Elizabeth LeBlanc, Christ Harrington

Elizabeth LeBlanc & Dr. Christopher Harrington

Institute for Teaching and Leading

Elizabeth S. LeBlanc is the co-founder and CEO of the Institute for Teaching and Leading. She also serves as the Director of Teaching and Learning for Taos Academy Charter School, an innovative blended learning school in northern New Mexico. Elizabeth has 15 years of experience in the design and implementation of high-quality, effective programming. With an MA in Educational Technology and Curriculum Design, Elizabeth works to coach and support teachers engaging in digital and personalized learning. Elizabeth was recently named to the NM Secretary of Education’s Teacher Advisory and was awarded the 2019 NMSTE “Making IT Happen!” award. Elizabeth has co-authored several education research projects, contributed book chapters, and written articles on brain science, whole-child instruction and blended learning.

Dr. Christopher Harrington, the founder of the Institute for Teaching and Leading, has long served on the forefront of innovative education. Currently a professor at Immaculata University, Chris specializes in assembling and inspiring great work from great teams. In his previous positions as President of eLearn Institute, Inc. and CEO of Harrington Education Associates, Dr. Harrington assisted dozens of school districts across the nation in the design and implementation of blended and online learning programs, including the nationally recognized Quakertown Community School District where he served as Director of Virtual Education Services. Chris works with multiple state and national groups in the field of education, including iNACOL and the Colorado Department of Education. Dr. Harrington recently joined the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute team as their Director.