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Collaborative Leadership Means Empowering Those Around Us

When Tara Desiderio describes the people with whom she works, she rarely refers to them as “staff.” To her, they are family. Even though she carries the title of “principal” at Wescosville Elementary School in eastern Pennsylvania, Desiderio sees herself as another member of the school team.

“Working together as a team is something I feel passionately is at the forefront of our success,” she explains. “It doesn’t matter if you are an administrative assistant or part of the maintenance team or an instructional leader—if we are missing anyone from the team, we are missing part of the whole and we won’t be as successful.”

Desiderio’s approach for a shared, forward-thinking vision for teaching and learning embodies the sense of collaborative leadership that surrounds the Future Ready Schools® (FRS) framework. East Penn School District, where Desiderio works, joined the FRS network in 2016 and Desiderio became an advisor for the Future Ready Principals™ leadership strand in 2019.

“A lot of what Future Ready Schools® stands for and what Future Ready Schools® believes in is what we in our district strive to achieve every day, pushing forward equity for all students and making sure students have a voice in their education and feel valued in what they do,” she says. “The more I aligned myself with Future Ready Schools®, there was such synergy I couldn’t help but bring our district along.”

Desiderio’s success as a leader comes from building authentic connections with her teachers, students, parents, and neighboring community, according to the educators on her team.

“She is very supportive. She makes those connections and really establishes trust with her staff so they can come to her about anything,” says Dennine Leschinsky, an instructional specialist at Wescosville. “She prefers not to be called boss, which I adore because she does not want that perception that she is better than anybody else. We’re all on the same team. We’re here for our students and that is always what’s in her mind—putting the students first.”

For instance, during the first two weeks of the pandemic in 2020, Desiderio and her team called every family at the school to check on students and find out how the school could support their needs. Similarly, every time a new student enrolls at Wescosville, Desiderio personally calls the student’s family to answer questions and welcome them. Before school began this year, Desiderio also delivered books to the homes of each incoming kindergarten student and organized a Facebook live event where she read the books to the students and their families the night before the first day of classes.

Desiderio and her team also surveyed parents to find out how they could support families during the pandemic. The results showed that most parents engage with school news on social media, so Desiderio’s team increased its use of Facebook and Instagram to share information with parents. The team organized virtual spirit days and singalongs, promoted socially distanced school challenges, and shared photos of school activities to maintain a sense of community and to strengthen the school-home connection. Throughout the pandemic, the school also has organized remote meetings for parents, which has contributed to more participation and parent engagement. The school team regularly visits students’ homes as well to deliver materials and school supplies as needed.

These strong connections likewise shine in Desiderio’s approach to professional learning for her team. Each month, the Wescosville faculty participates in Empower Hour. During the sixty-minute gathering, small groups of teachers organize and lead three different discussions about the topics of their choice. Teachers not leading a conversation rotate through the sessions to learn about topics that interest them. “It’s all in response to what the teachers say they need,” Desiderio says of Empower Hour. “Teachers request the topics for the sessions. It’s not a presentation. It’s just a teacher leading a discussion to help other teachers be more effective. We amplify our teachers’ voices.”

Desiderio and Leschinsky also organize regular “learning lounges” where teachers can gather informally to share teaching strategies, get advice about specific instructional approaches, or troubleshoot challenges together. Desiderio also helps facilitate the school’s professional learning communities where  teachers collaborate in grade-level and subject-matter teams.

“[Tara is] a phenomenal instructional leader,” says Leschinsky. “She knows when to question and when to sit back, listen, and take it all in. It’s important to have both of those skills as a leader—to be a good listener but also be there to help facilitate.”

Desiderio encourages all members of her team to lead in their own ways. Building that collective leadership strength allows the school to support students more effectively, she says.

“When we create a collaborative culture, people are not afraid to lean on one another, take risks, and learn from one another to get everyone moving toward the same goal,” says Desiderio. “Our goal is to make kids feel safe, to feel loved, and let them know they are going to a place where they can take risks. …  By empowering those around us we model for students how to reach higher and take risks too.”

To learn more about Desiderio’s approach to collaborative leadership during the pandemic, listen to her story on the FRS podcast Coaching Through Uncertainty.

Kristen Loschert is an education writer and communications consultant. Follow her on Twitter at @KLoschert and connect with her on LinkedIn.