Setting the table for change: Eliminating power dynamics between stakeholders

This post is part of an ongoing series that describes strategies program leaders can use to energize stakeholders around improvement work. See earlier posts in the series here and here.

No educator-preparation program is an island unto itself: Preparing new teachers often requires working across organizational boundaries. Programs are heavily reliant, for example, on mentor teachers within partner districts to guide and coach teacher-candidates during student teaching. Within a program, clinical faculty and supervisors play as important a role in preparing aspiring teachers as tenure-track coursework faculty.

And yet, the voices of district-based teacher-educators are often dismissed or ignored during conversations about program improvement, privileging certain voices over others. And within universities, clinical faculty or supervisors may have less say in programmatic decisions than tenure-track coursework faculty.

Meaningful, sustainable improvement isn’t possible without the support and engagement of these stakeholders. Yet if they believe their voices aren’t respected or their concerns aren’t heard, they may be less motivated to dive into improvement efforts. Leaders looking to galvanize support for change will need to eliminate power dynamics among stakeholders.

Invite people to the table…and set the table carefully.

A faculty member once told me, “We have to invite stakeholders to the table. Sometimes we forget to do that.” I’ve also heard from program faculty that they sometimes exclude stakeholders because they don’t know enough about “best practices” to be involved in improvement conversations.

It can be simpler and quicker to work on improvement initiatives with a small team of program faculty, and only bring in stakeholders at the end of the process to “check the box.” And perhaps stakeholders don’t understand all the nuances of educating teachers. But they have other valuable perspectives and knowledge that faculty may not have, such as the day-to-day realities of schools or communities. Their knowledge and perspectives can lead to better decision-making and ultimately better programs — but only if they’re at the table to share them.

But it’s not enough to invite people to the table. Leaders also need to be attentive to how those experiences are designed. Are leaders proactively acknowledging and addressing historical power dynamics? Are leaders publicly identifying the assets that different stakeholders bring to the table? Are stakeholders always asked to come to the university or do meetings alternate between the university and school and community settings?

Of course, paying stipends can help to recognize the contributions of stakeholders, but even seemingly small logistical details can signal to stakeholders whether they are valued. A mentor teacher told me recently that she pays attention to whether the university provides refreshments because it indicates whether she matters to them. Another faculty member told me that when she brings groups in, she puts a tablecloth and flowers on the snacks table so they feel “celebrated and appreciated.”

Don’t just hear … listen and respond.

We constantly see programs gathering feedback from candidates, alumni, and employers on the quality of the program and its graduates, usually via surveys. This approach can certainly give a helpful overview of strengths and areas for improvement. What we see less often, though, is programs convening focus groups or town halls to dive more deeply into these perspectives, or triangulating this evidence with systematically gathered feedback from faculty, mentor teachers, and community members.

Leaders can create spaces to speak with stakeholders whose voices have been heard less frequently. This creates an opportunity to hear from stakeholders and also models for other program faculty how to privilege voices that have been historically marginalized. At the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV), mentor teachers told us how important it was to them that the dean met with them to discuss co-teaching. One mentor teacher said, “That was powerful. For the dean to take that time was amazing.” Having a leader spend time with them signaled to mentor teachers how valued they were.

But it’s not enough to just solicit feedback. As one clinical faculty member recently shared: “Don’t ask me what I think, if you’re not going to do anything with it!” If you’re going to ask for input, it’s important to honor the time and perspective of the person providing the input by sharing what happened with the feedback. Leaders can communicate how the feedback will inform program changes. If changes can’t be made, leaders can explain why not. If leaders don’t take these steps, stakeholders may feel like their perspective is being ignored or dismissed.

At UTRGV, mentor teachers were asked to provide feedback on the program, and saw changes to the model as a result, which helped them feel like they were contributors to the process. One mentor teacher shared how she perceived this collaborative improvement, saying, “We keep tweaking the model, we’re constantly evolving.”

Collaboratively design and develop.

Leaders can go one step further by asking stakeholders to be involved in designing from the beginning, rather than just having them provide feedback and input on a work-in-progress. Leaders can create a process that allows stakeholders to co-lead the design of a meeting agenda or another shared product. In a previous post, we’ve talked about how leaders at UNC Charlotte asked coursework faculty, clinical faculty, and mentor teachers to work together to develop an agenda for a training to support feedback and coaching skills across roles, which ensured that the needs of each group were met and that the groups shared ownership of the product. At Loyola Marymount University, we’ve seen a methods faculty and mentor teachers co-plan and teach a methods class based at a school site, drawing on their different experiences to create a rich learning experience for candidates. Leaders can create opportunities for stakeholders to be equal partners in designing and developing a shared product, like a vision statement, meeting agenda, or candidate learning experience.

These strategies to eliminate power dynamics can help leaders authentically engage a broader range of stakeholders, signaling that each perspective is valued and valuable.

Valerie Sakimura

Executive Director

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