Do you remember hearing about the medieval tales of King Arthur and his knights of the square table? Well, most likely that’s not how you remember the tale. That’s because, beyond being strong enough to extract a sword, Excalibur, from a stone, Arthur was wise enough to convene his team around a round table, one in which no knight sat in a prominent position. Even Arthur, the king, sat as one with his colleagues. It’s hard to argue with that logic—yet most of us work in schools that are architecturally designed to support silos.
Traditional school-design conventions also tend reinforce the notion of hierarchy: the principal’s office is usually bigger, nicer, and located in a dominant position within the building. Contrast the principal’s office with the staff lounge, mailroom, and staff announcement boards. I’ve been in many schools, and describing these spaces as “nondescript” would be generous. Principals need to consider how to make their work spaces—their office and the staff room—inviting. What can we do to make these spaces less hierarchical and more conducive to collegiality and creative collisions?
Writing in Forbes magazine, leadership expert Carolyn Kinsey Gorman underlines the detriment of silos to a team or organization: “Wherever it’s found, a silo mentality becomes synonymous with power struggles, lack of cooperation, and loss of productivity.” In this respect, it’s depressing to consider that the siloed structures in school interiors share some design elements with prisons: buildings with corridors that have rooms or cells on each side, with entry possible only through a single narrow door. This design works against collaboration and creativity. As a result, opportunities for teachers to brainstorm or share input and feedback are less likely to spontaneously happen.
The Ideal—Collegial—School Design
Contrast a typical school design with “The Ring” at Apple Park in Cupertino, California. Steve Jobs recognized the value of employee interaction, so he planned a huge circular building without corners to facilitate conversations among employees. While a fully circular building may not be feasible for schools, Jobs’ ideas can be applied in other ways. In The Culture Code, author Daniel Coyle describes human interactions in workplaces as “collisions…serendipitous personal encounters” (p. 66). These collisions cultivate the collegiality and learning that the late Roland Barth described in his book, Improving Schools From Within.
Barth believed that the adults in a school must grow and learn like their students. Thus, his ideal school is “teeming with frequent, helpful personal and professional interactions” (p. 9). Barth was one of my heroes, so developing and supporting faculty collegiality and interaction became a major priority when I started my career as a principal. I knew that every teacher in my school would be a better teacher if they continually learned from their colleagues.
Collegiality can be, and should be, a tool for leadership growth, too. As Barth wrote, “perhaps even more than teachers, principals live in a world of isolation” (p. 83), and while that statement was written in 1991, conditions haven’t changed all that much.
In his book Nuance: Why Some Leaders Succeed and Others Fail, author and speaker Michael Fullan agrees: “The first characteristic that stands out is that nuanced leaders know in their bones that no progress will be made in the absence of learning from and with the group” (2018, p. 18). Personally, I benefited enormously by working with and learning from the teachers at my school.
But collegiality won’t happen without an awareness of physical space and intention.
About the Author
Thomas R. Hoerr retired after leading the New City School in St. Louis, Missouri, for 34 years and is now the Emeritus Head of School. He teaches in the educational leadership program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and holds a Ph.D. from Washington University in St. Louis.
Hoerr has written six other books—Becoming a Multiple Intelligences School, The Art of School Leadership, School Leadership for the Future, Fostering Grit, The Formative Five, Taking Social-Emotional Learning Schoolwide—and more than 160 articles, including “The Principal Connection” column in Educational Leadership.
This was posted with permission of Dr. Thomas Hoerr