The Power of Collective Purpose in Schools

What is the role of the school leader in nurturing a sense of collective purpose?

Over the past two disruptive years in education, teachers have never felt more demoralized, and their professional expertise has never been more threatened. Stress, trauma, and loss of agency can damage what organizational researchers Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer call our “inner work lives,” the thoughts and emotions that drive our happiness and our productivity at work. Education researchers Ryan Donlan and Shelly Wilfong make a similar case, connecting a teacher’s sense of wellbeing and success at work to their perception of how much they matter. In both cases, a sense of purpose plays a critical role: teachers need to believe that what they are doing both benefits them personally and contributes to something bigger than themselves.

In schools, much of our purpose work focuses on helping students discover and nurture their own purposes. This is, of course, admirable and important, but how often do we take the time to define, share, and nurture our purpose as educators? When prioritized alongside belonging, purpose can increase the psychic rewards of teaching, which can motivate a person to remain in their job. Leaders often struggle when their management style doesn’t demonstrate a clear understanding and commitment to purpose. Yet, purpose is rarely an explicit, ongoing part of our work and, in some cases, important decisions about workload, compensation, program, etc. lack a clear connection to purpose, which hurts a school’s culture.

I’ve written before about how crucial purpose work is for individual educators. Here, I want to emphasize the need for school leaders to complement that individual work by acting as the stewards of collective purpose in schools: the shared understanding of, belief in, and pursuit of communal values and goals. A firm grip on collective purpose allows people in a school community to make coherent decisions in the face of ambiguity and uncertainty, to create clear and empowering communications, and to prioritize the work that matters by letting go of the tasks that don’t. In other words, collective purpose builds trust.

Portraits for Collective Purpose

As part of GOA’s Design Lab, I’ve been guiding school teams through development of different kinds of school Portraits: Portraits of a Graduate, Portraits of an Educator, Portraits of a Leader. Portraits are visual, memorable, and learner-friendly documents that reflect a school’s public commitment to its learning priorities. The design methodology is grounded in clarifying collective purpose by working as a community to define the learning outcomes that matter to us.

Whether your Portrait defines collective purpose as student outcomes, teacher outcomes, or leader outcomes (or all three!), the process is as important as the product: designing a Portrait is an inclusive process full of collaboration and visible thinking. It creates time and space for open reflection across a school community: What are our visions for our students and ourselves? What unspoken assumptions do we make about school that we should articulate and evaluate? Are we all working towards the same goals? If so, how do we know? If not, why not?

Image of GOA's Profile of a School Leader

GOA's Portrait of a School Leader

Collective Purpose Leads to Collective Teacher Efficacy

Schools and communities use Portraits in many ways: to organize programming around relevant skills, to launch a move towards competency-based learning, and to break down silos that prevent collaboration and innovation. For me, some of the most powerful potential in a Portrait lies in its ability to move us towards collective teacher efficacy.

Collective teacher efficacy is the shared belief among teachers that the work they are doing has a positive effect on student learning. It is the most powerful influence on student achievement on John Hattie’s famous list of 252 effects. Research has found its impact ranges from conveying high expectations to students to fostering learner autonomy to teachers’ putting forth greater effort and persistence to trying new teaching approaches based on effective pedagogy.

Collective teacher efficacy and collective purpose are not the same thing. As Hattie makes clear, collective teacher efficacy is the result of an ongoing, rigorous process of feedback loops where teachers implement ideas in the classroom, collect evidence of impact, then gather in groups to analyze that evidence before returning to the classroom to make evidence-based shifts to their practice. This loop of applying pedagogy, documenting the results, then discussing those results in professional learning communities, improves practice and produces collective teacher efficacy. It places teachers and their expertise at the center of evidence-based practice.

Collective purpose can be the first step towards collective teacher efficacy. In schools where teachers are accustomed to operating individually or in insular silos, a clearly articulated collective purpose in the form of a Portrait creates an opportunity for teachers to gather to discuss and plan for pursuing shared learning outcomes. The common rubrics that emerge from a Portrait (for example, Mesa Public School’s “Look Fors” and Utah’s competency model rubrics) can become tools for collaborative collection and review of student work, for high-quality feedback among colleagues, and for effective monitoring of student progress across domains and grade levels, all key ingredients in collective teacher efficacy.

As education professor Jal Mehta has argued, giving educators time, space, and resources to gather to design and test solutions to common problems is one of the most powerful and effective ways to empower teachers to do their best work. For me, this is some of the most important work school leaders can do right now: reconnect to purpose, and then provide the support teachers need to act on it.

GOA’s Design Lab works with schools to create and implement Portraits. Submit an inquiry to learn more about how we can bring our design process to your school. Additionally, we invite you to join our next free, online event: “Ask Me Anything: How Do We Rethink Time and Space?” on March 23rd at 2pm ET. Register here to join the discussion.

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