Professional Growth

6 Ingredients for Staff (and Student) Ownership in Education

7 min. read

Here’s something obvious but important: there’s a real difference between simply showing up and truly buying into the mission and vision of your organization. It’s true in business, and it’s true in schools. And in schools, cultivating employee ownership for that mission has an equally important partner: ensuring students are invested in their education.

The “why” is self-evident:

  • As an employee, I’m far more likely to pour my heart and soul into my work. I’ll come in early when needed, work hard, think about ways to improve. I’ll be more creative, go that extra mile, climb every mountain, give my projects that extra bit of spit and polish, keep learning how to do my job even better — because I care about making an impact and not just taking home a paycheck. (But sure, the paycheck matters, too.)
  • As a student, what I get out of a class will largely hinge on what I put into it. Case in point: in junior high — specifically in 8th grade algebra — I was disengaged. I didn’t see the relevance of the subject. That education would make my life better hadn’t yet hit home. Math class felt like something that happened to me, an hour a day to be endured (that’s an indictment of MY state of mind at the time, not of math!). Contrast that with Political Science class, years later. It was far more difficult than algebra was, but I deeply cared about it. I was invested. So I buckled down, earned a ‘B’ (no mean feat, trust me), and still draw upon that class to understand the world today.

Over the past few years, Mountain Brook Schools in Birmingham, Alabama has been working to increase both staff and student engagement. In our recent podcast, Director of Instruction Missy Brooks and junior high principal Donald Clayton share elements they’ve found crucial to building ownership.


1. Visibility & Transparency

It’s important for every staff member – teachers, administrators, custodians, paraprofessionals, everyone — to understand not just where they stand organizationally in the district, but how they each contribute to students’ education. Then, they need to see how the district is investing in them, as well as have a clear picture of the overall success of the mission.

“We’ve put in some structures so that everyone can see their place in the district. And when I say ‘place,’ I mean the investment in [them] and how important they are, so that we can achieve our purpose. Recently, we had a ‘State of the District,’ where our superintendent talked to us about all kinds of things, just trying to be very transparent, letting everybody know the financial situation of the district, etc.” – Missy Brooks

2. Staff Cohesion

Build a sense of community. Mountain Brook held a training day aimed at connecting people across buildings and teams. They formed cohorts of people across disciplines, grade levels and departments. The cohort leaders weren’t facilitators, but rather nurses, teachers, custodians, bookkeepers. Together, they had rapid-fire Q&A (What’s your favorite movie? What advice would you give your middle school self?), physical group challenges and other ways to get to know one another.

The result? Greater commonality and a strengthened shared vision. Non-certified staff expressed that they were pleased to be included in the day. New employees loved the chance to get to know colleagues better. And it gave them a chance to speak into what’s happening in the district.

“Leaders can ask great questions to get input, but having opportunities like this to input your personality, input who you are, into the whole organization and find connections within it, that’s an input that I probably didn’t see….but I can tell there’s a lot of fruit from that.” – Donald Clayton

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3. Listening

Social media abounds with inspirational quotes and memes about the leadership quality of listening — for good reason. Teachers and staff want to be heard. Students do, too. Through working with the Schlechty Center, Mountain Brook learned that students didn’t feel that their voice was being listened to, and set out to actively change that by:

  • Systematically collecting student input and collaboratively combing through the data to understand and act on it
  • Interviewing a student on stage at the superintendent’s State of the District presentation
  • Modifying clubs and activity periods according to student input
  • Working with teachers and students to design instruction based on students’ stated needs (The result: students excited about grammar!)

4. Co-created Definitions

Giving students a voice is key to generating student ownership. But what does that look like? Co-creating a definition of student voice is key. The team at Mountain Brook spent time at each school to ask teachers and students to define student voice. Then, they looked for common themes which they incorporated into the final definition.

“The teachers really did feel heard, and when they saw those common phrases and common words appear in the definition and saw how common those things were across the district, in every school, they felt empowered. ‘You know what? This definition is ours. It’s not something that somebody has given us.’” – Missy Brooks

5. Meaningful Goals

Want to get everyone on board? Set goals that depend on everyone’s contribution. Communicate clear objectives that an entire district can take action toward and observe measurable progress.

While everyone may work toward staff and student ownership in their own way, those co-created definitions help everyone aim for the same thing. Ideally, these will result in cascaded school, team and individual goals. “I use the idea of a highway,” Missy said. Having collected all kinds of input from stakeholders across the district, the central office sets the guard rails within which the work of the district happens. “But in the middle of that, [each school] can get there how they need to get there with their faculties and with all the people in their buildings.”

6. Differentiated, Individual Professional Development

Because teachers and staff have taken ownership of Mountain Brook’s mission, when Missy visits a school building, it doesn’t feel like a ‘gotcha’ — it’s a collaborative experience. And because every building has its own personality, what Crestline Elementary is doing to support the mission of the district, for example, will look different from Mountain Brook Junior High — as will the professional learning that’s needed.

“We’re more connected then we’ve ever been. I know we’re more connected with our students. We’re more connected to one another, because there’s power in working on the same thing together. We’re also more aware of the talents and skills that are in our district, and in particular in our building. That’s not just with our adults, but with our students. Seeing our students as individuals who can help the learning process, who have ideas about what this looks like, that’s a big step and a neat place to be at, where everybody looks at students as resources as well, and data points to help figure out, ‘How do we get to the next goal, how do we get to the next place?’” – Donald Clayton

Ryan Estes

Ryan is a Customer Marketing Manager for the global award-winning Content Team at Frontline Education. He spends his time writing, podcasting, and talking to leaders in K-12 education.