From Islands of Impact to Widespread Change: The Instructional Leader’s Role in Collective Efficacy

From Islands of Impact to Widespread Change: The Instructional Leader’s Role in Collective Efficacy

From Islands of Impact to Widespread Change: The Instructional Leader’s Role in Collective Efficacy

By: Steve Ventura

In recent years, I have started to mentor several new principals and in some cases, they have difficulty adjusting to a new leadership position. Common challenges include organization and communication structures, interpersonal skills, the ability to seek acceptance of new ideas, and the ability to provide clarity to the school community. A lack of leadership can potentially harm an entire school and can diminish any sense of community or collaboration between colleagues. In fact, poor leadership can have a detrimental effect on the overall school climate.

Likewise, I have worked in dozens of schools that have risen from horrible circumstances because a leader was able to create a positive climate and culture. These schools often shared one common characteristic—the idea that teachers believed they could positively impact student learning. This shared belief, widely known as collective efficacy, did not occur randomly. It was the result of the school leader’s intentional planning to improve instruction and create a safe space for teacher collaboration. It is no surprise that building collective efficacy in schools is widely sought after. When educators believe they can have a positive impact on teaching and learning, they are more likely to influence student achievement and close learning gaps. With an effect size of 1.39, Collective Teacher Efficacy is one of the most powerful practices a school can put into place to accelerate student achievement (Hattie, 2021). Now, more than ever, schools need leaders who can create an environment that encourages widespread collective efficacy across their organizations.

The role of the school leader in collective efficacy

Collective efficacy, when done right, creates highly effective teacher teams that have a heightened focus on student outcomes through trust, positive relationships, and vulnerability. When adults have a high degree of confidence in their collective ability to improve their practice, students' have more confidence in their ability to learn. While great teachers motivate students and instill in them a belief that they can learn, effective leaders are integral to nurturing collective efficacy and ensuring that teachers believe they can improve their practice and are properly motivated to do so.

The role of the school leader in collective efficacy is to ensure that ‘pockets of excellence’ result in systemic impact. Instructional leaders engage in curriculum, assessment, and instruction with the goal of supporting the growth of teachers and students. The instructional leader focuses on what is happening in classrooms, providing them a deeper understanding of the problems that teachers are experiencing and the ability to influence student achievement more directly. Effective instructional leaders enable trust and create a sense of purpose and shared value, which is the foundation of collective efficacy.

In the past, a school principal’s primary role was to manage the entire building. While this is something that cannot be ignored, school leadership has evolved considerably. This includes the ability to share leadership, increase focus on community engagement, and build relationships while still monitoring teaching and learning.

What can you do as a leader to create a culture of collective efficacy?

As a school leader, you play a vital role in determining and reinforcing the culture of your school. Evidence indicates that collaboration among staff is a determinant of whether a school culture is positive or negative and can also be indicative of the quality of teaching and learning present in the school (Dinsdale, 2017). To embed collective efficacy into your school culture, it is imperative that you lead by example, create a structure for collaboration grounded in accountability, trust, and vulnerability, strive to be transparent and involve teachers in decision making, use timely feedback to coach teachers to higher levels of instructional competency, and minimize responsibilities that pull teachers away from teaching. The following will elaborate on and underscore the importance of ensuring that these practices are a part of your school improvement plan.

1. Lead by example.

It all starts with principal self-efficacy: a belief that a principal has the capability to improve the quality of teaching and learning in their school. Principals with a high degree of self-efficacy influence the school’s collective efficacy by creating a resolute focus on instruction, developing teacher leaders, and leading by example (Versland & Erikson, 2017).  When leaders hold self-efficacious beliefs, they focus initiatives on instructional excellence and create a collaborative culture as a result.  As teachers work together to improve their instructional skills, they develop the belief in their collective efficacy to improve student outcomes at scale.

2. Participate fully.

To be effective, leaders must participate in learning with teachers and others in the building. Not only does this show a true commitment to the learning, but the leader is also more likely to be seen by staff as a source of instructional advice. We’ve all been in workshops where the leader shows up for five minutes, sits on their phone or computer, and can’t bother to engage with the learning. This leadership style doesn’t promote collective efficacy, nor does it create a culture of learning. Strong leaders don’t only have high expectations for their teachers and students – they have high expectations for themselves because being an effective leader means that you must continue to grow and evolve with your staff when it comes to building a better school.

3. Create a structure for success.

Strengthening collective efficacy in schools is not simply about creating more time to collaborate. It is about creating a purposeful structure for how to use collaboration time that encourages teachers to engage in a robust and efficacious dialogue. This includes co-creating a replicable meeting protocol, defining roles and expectations, and establishing a vision of excellence that encourages trust, interdependence, ownership, and transparency.

4. Involve teachers in school decision-making.

When teachers have visibility into what decisions are being made at the school-level and an understanding of why they are being made, teachers tend to take ownership over their role in furthering school improvement initiatives. This is why it is not surprising that evidence links teacher involvement in school decision-making to higher levels of collective efficacy (Ross & Gray, 2003). When teachers have the opportunity to be involved in decision-making, they feel that their opinion matters and that their actions make an impact. As a result, a sense of collective agency emerges.

5. Provide effective feedback and coaching.

One of the most important roles of the instructional leader is to provide feedback to teachers and use it to coach them towards greater levels of professional excellence. A feedback loop is an important part of the collaboration protocol because it allows the team to reflect on their instructional approaches and adjust interventions appropriately with an eye on student achievement. There are myriad approaches to coaching and feedback that can yield a positive impact in the collective efficacy equation, such as Instructional Rounds (City et al., 2018). Micro-teaching, a research-based technique where teachers review recordings of themselves to improve their practice, is another approach that can be adapted to a team setting to allow peers to provide constructive feedback, in turn bolstering collective efficacy.

6. Minimize distractions.

Author Cristine Comaford (Smart Tribes, 2013) writes that “focus is to prioritize high-value activities and manage low-value time wasters." When there is too much to do and everything seems like a priority, it can be difficult to maintain focus on collaborating with peers to improve the quality of teaching. That is why one of the most important actions a leader can take to promote collective efficacy is to protect staff from activities that take away from teaching and to provide the time and space for focused collaboration.

Collective efficacy can create leaps and bounds in your school improvement agenda if it is widespread across your organization. A major determinant of bringing collective efficacy from islands of impact to pervasive impact is the strength of the instructional leader.

Leaders can begin strengthening the collective efficacy in their school now by creating the structures for teachers to openly collaborate, replicating these protocols across the organization, and clearing the way for teachers to focus on where they can have the most impact – improving student achievement in the classroom.


City, E. A., Elmore, R. F., Fiarman, S. E., Teitel, L., & Lachman, A. (2018). Instructional rounds in education: a network approach to improving teaching and learning. Harvard Education Press.

Comaford, C. (2013). Smart tribes: how teams become brilliant together. Portfolio/Penguin.

Demir, K. (2008). Transformational Leadership and Collective Efficacy: The Moderating Roles of Collaborative Culture and Teachers' Self-Efficacy. Eurasian Journal of Educational Research, 33112.

Dinsdale, R. (2017). The Role of Leaders in Developing a Positive Culture. BU Journal of Graduate Studies in Education, 9(1).

Hattie, J. (2021). Global Research Database. Visible Learning MetaX.

Ross, J. A., Hogaboam-Gray, A., & Gray, P. (2003, April). The contribution of prior student achievement and collaborative school processes to collective teacher efficacy in elementary schools. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Chicago.

Versland, T. M., & Erickson, J. L. (2017). Leading by example: A case study of the influence of principal self-efficacy on collective efficacy. Cogent Education, 4(1), 1286765.