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Four Steps to Achieve Consensus

Thanks to its partnership with publisher Eye on Education, EducationWorld is pleased to present this blog post by PJ Caposey, author of Building a Culture of Support: Strategies for School Leaders, publishing in November 2012. PJ is the principal of Oregon High School and an adjunct professor in the educational leadership department at Aurora University.

In leadership circles, we often talk about the desire to work toward consensus within our organizations. The concept of working together as a group to reach a decision that everybody can support sounds like Leadership 101—but is it? Is it possible that some of what has stalled progress for many schools is commitment to consensus above all else? Could the compulsion to reach common ground actually be halting educational progress?

Imagine this scenario—there are five teachers in a departmental meeting discussing curriculum alignment and modifications. Teacher A wants to teach eight units and Teacher B wants to teach six. The other teachers do not voice an opinion either way. Within 20 minutes the group decides to teach seven units, and they move forward. Consensus was reached, and everybody left the meeting with high spirits and relationships intact.

If the end in mind was for the department to agree upon what would be taught—the meeting accomplished its goal. If the end in mind was to work collaboratively together to ensure that the best possible product was put in place for student consumption—this meeting may well have been a failure.

“So, are you saying as a leader you should not seek consensus?”

No—but before being content with consensus, a leader must work to accomplish several things first:

Promote Student-Centered Conversation
Seeking consensus can often become an adult-centered proposition. In many cases, meetings that involve adults working toward consensus are dictated by the adult desire to preserve what they value. That may be a particular unit of study, job consistency, relationships with their colleagues, or any other of a myriad of reasons. Whatever the reason—if it is not strictly what is best for students and what supports the mission and vision of the school, it is simply not the right reason. In contrast, providing focus as to the global purpose and the ‘why’ for each meeting promotes student-centered conversation.

Teach Collaboration
As much as the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are promoting argumentative literacy—so should you as a leader. Collaboration is a learned skill—many educators need a refresher course in order to master it. A collaborative culture exudes trust, willingness to engage or participate, and the willingness to listen to ideas counter to yours without taking them personally. This is extraordinarily difficult, since teaching is so personal. In order to promote a collaborative culture and to keep interactions professional, it is often necessary to create meeting norms.

Create Meeting Norms
Norms are designed to influence behavior and allow for greater results. It is important, however, that the list of norms does not become so exhaustive that it stifles creativity. It is also of the utmost importance that if norms are established, they are monitored and observed. Norms for effective meetings need not be a long, cumbersome list. Below is a list of norms to support student-centered, collaborative meetings that will lead to a valuable consensus:

  • Begin and end on time.
  • State the purpose of the meeting and stick to that purpose.
  • Every member present must participate at some point in each meeting.
  • All commentary and suggestions are vetted by asking, "Is this a student-centered manner of moving forward?"
  • Disagreements are professional, not personal, and are to remain that way.
  • If the meeting results in an action item, it is to be collaboratively agreed to (via consensus) and supported with fidelity.

If Necessary, Mold Consensus
Leadership must remain adaptive. As the world around us (along with the educational context) changes, it may become necessary for the leader to not only facilitate a collaborative and supportive culture that will lead to positive decisions being made, but also have many conversations, provide contextual background, and occasionally teach team members before entering into a consensus-seeking conversation.

As a school leader, it is not enough to seek consensus—you must build a culture that welcomes collaboration and remains student-centered. Occasionally, you also must mold consensus. Moving forward with collective support of the school's vision allows for far greater and more impactful school improvement efforts. Thus, gaining consensus is extremely important for a school leader—but only when that consensus was formed after true collaboration and with a focus on students first.


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