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Every School, Every Team, Every Classroom: District Leadership for Growing Professional Learning Communities at Work TM

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In this sequel to Total Instructional Alignment, the author peels back complex layers of the change process to reveal the five big ideas at the core of successful schools. Focus on these foundational ideas to simplify decision making and eliminate distractions from your efforts to promote effective teaching and learning. Teachers and administrators alike will appreciate this straightforward approach to solid leadership for school improvement.

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Chapter 1 A New Way to Lead Schools

ePub

Discussions about leadership can be much like discussions about religion: almost everyone speaks about both topics with a high degree of certainty in his or her views. Agreement about specific points and their implications for behavior is frequently lacking, however. So rather than advocate for a specific definition of leadership, we believe it is much more beneficial to describe the behaviors we have observed in leaders of professional learning communities and then to explore the effects that those leadership behaviors have on organizational development—for better or for worse. As we reflect on these behaviors, and more specifically, on the underlying, sometimes hidden assumptions that guide those behaviors, we become more conscious of the foundations of our daily work.

What we know above all is that the traditional ways of leading schools are inadequate when it comes to reculturing districts and schools into high-performing professional learning communities. The old ways of leading schools are simply not good enough anymore. Think about it: gone are the days when we assumed that just because a principal has completed a program in school administration, he or she has become magically ready to create and lead a high-performing school. And yet, although we know leadership requires more complex skills and training, year after year district leaders continue to hire principals and send them out into schools with little direction or support, as if to say, “Shoo, shoo—go lead!”

 

Chapter 2 Articulating a Moral Purpose

ePub

The challenge facing leaders who seek to reculture their districts into high-performing professional learning communities is not convincing faculty and staff that ensuring high levels of learning is an admirable and worthwhile mission. The idea that a district should seek to ensure high levels of learning for all students is hardly controversial, and it is highly unlikely that a group of faculty or staff will start a petition in opposition to learning! In fact, the inherent danger is that our mission is so common sense, it risks becoming a cliché. Rather, the challenge is how to articulate this moral purpose in such a way that it will cause everyone to question and align his or her existing attitudes, commitments, and behaviors. In other words, the challenge is how to embed the learning mission into the day-today culture throughout the district.

Most faculty and staff are willing to work hard and go above and beyond what typically might be expected— if they believe the purpose is worthwhile. This is why it is critical that district leaders go to extraordinary lengths to articulate the district’s fundamental mission and moral purpose. Leaders must continually draw everyone’s attention to the why question—why we are doing what we’re doing—and this why must always put students and their learning, the very reason schools exist, at the center of our work.

 

Chapter 3 Building Shared Knowledge

ePub

Becoming a professional learning community is a difficult, complex, and incremental journey. If we are to successfully reculture schools into true professional learning communities, we must develop a shared understanding of what PLC practices look like in the day-to-day world of schools. One of the best ways to help everyone gain a deep understanding of the professional learning community concept is simply to approach the task as collectively finding out everything we can about professional learning communities and the specific practices that form the basic framework of the concept, and having deep collaborative discussions about each practice in order to clarify and add meaning. In short, clarifying what it means—and what it looks like—to function as a professional learning community is a process of collaboratively learning together.

This process of building shared knowledge requires thought, planning, redundancy, and creativity. It will require more than doing a book study, listening to a consultant, or attending a few staff development meetings. Building deep understanding requires using multiple approaches over an extended period of time and thoroughly exploring how various PLC concepts and practices interconnect and support each other. We like to think of this process of ensuring clarity as “connecting the dots.” It affects virtually every aspect of how things are done across the entire school district. Everyone needs to see how all of the work “fits”; otherwise, professional learning communities will just seem like one more initiative.

 

Chapter 4 Aligning Policies, Practices, and Procedures With the Learning Mission

ePub

It is not enough to simply declare a mission of ensuring high levels of learning for all students and build shared knowledge about PLC terms and practices. This fundamental purpose must be aligned with and embedded into the policies and procedures that drive daily work throughout the district—not just of teachers, but of administrators as well.

Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for districts and schools to declare a learning mission and then continue to utilize outdated policies, practices, and procedures that are incongruent with that mission. Successful PLC districts move beyond merely recognizing the importance of alignment and engage in a systematic, collaborative, critical review of each policy, procedure, and practice to ensure alignment. Effective district leaders examine every decision through this learning lens, asking, “What is the probable impact on learning?” They work to shift organizational culture from one of random, hurried decision making to one of thoughtful, learning-focused decision making.

 

Chapter 5 Leading Collaborative Teams

ePub

Most traditional schools promote a culture of teacher isolation—individual teachers are left on their own to teach. A professional learning community cultivates the exact opposite. Schools and districts that function as professional learning communities are driven by a collaborative culture in which teams work together to ensure all their students learn. DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, and Many (2010) describe the collaborative culture of a professional learning community by observing, “In a PLC, collaboration represents a systematic process in which teachers work together interdependently in order to impact their classroom practice in ways that will lead to better results for their students, for their team, and for their school” (p. 12).

The power of collaborative teams is old news. For at least a quarter of a century researchers and experts in organizational development have touted the efficacy of high-performing collaborative teams. Pfeffer and Sutton (2000) note, “Interdependence is what organizations are all about. Productivity, performance, and innovation result from joint action, not just individual efforts and behavior” (p. 197).

 

Chapter 6 Ensuring a Focus on Student Learning

ePub

When young students return home from school, parents often greet them W by asking, “So, what did you learn today?” They don’t ask, “So, what were you taught today?” The fact is, most parents—and educators—know there is a tremendous difference between what students are taught and what they actually learn. A focus on learning is the organizing principle of districts, schools, and teams—and classrooms—that function as true professional learning communities. All of the previous work we have described to this point, both structurally and culturally, was for the purpose of laying the foundation for an intense, passionate, and relentless focus on the learning of every single student within the district.

This cultural shift is often greeted with what appears to be widespread agreement. No one raises a hand to comment, “Well, I just can’t agree with the notion that we should focus on the learning of our students!” The problem is that while many educators agree that student learning is obviously desirable, at a deeper level they either do not believe it strongly enough to do the things necessary to ensure that all students learn at high levels or they do not know how do so. But if a district publically declares ensuring high levels of student learning for all students as its core purpose, and really means it, educators within the district will act in fundamentally different ways. They will engage in a sharp and persistent focus on the critical questions associated with learning, and they will do this work in collaborative teams.

 

Chapter 7 Ensuring Adult Learning

ePub

A focus on learning in a professional learning community isn’t just for students. Leaders in professional learning communities recognize that the quality of student learning is greatly affected by the quality of adult learning throughout the district. As a teacher in White River once observed, “If the adults don’t get it, how can we expect the students to get it?” District leaders must realize that if they really mean it when they proclaim ensuring high levels of student learning as the district’s core purpose, they must focus on ensuring deep learning for the adults in the district as well—and that deep learning will most likely occur when the adults learn by doing.

There is a lot of common sense to the notion that we learn best by doing, yet many districts seek to train their way to school improvement. In addressing the question of how organizations can best close the gap between what they know and what they do, Pfeffer and Sutton (2000) offer this prescription: “The answer to the knowing-doing problem is deceptively simple: Embed more of the process of acquiring new knowledge in the actual doing of the task and less in the formal training programs that are frequently ineffective. If you do it, then you will know it” (p. 27). DuFour, DuFour, and Eaker (2008) echo the call for job-embedded adult learning. They write:

 

Chapter 8 Assessing District Progress

ePub

The journey to becoming a professional learning community is just that—a journey! Furthermore, it is a difficult, complex, and incremental journey that affects virtually every aspect of district and school culture. While there is no single right way to reculture a district into a professional learning community, as preceding chapters have shown, there are definite beliefs, concepts, and practices that must be embedded into the day-to-day work life of the entire district.

This raises a number of significant questions: Where are we on our journey to becoming a professional learning community? How well are we doing? Are more students learning at higher levels as a result of our efforts? What should be our next steps?

A recurring theme of this book has been that district and school leaders can enhance their effectiveness by thinking of themselves as highly successful classroom teachers. Nowhere is this analogy more relevant than in the need to frequently monitor progress at the district level. If effective classroom teachers and collaborative teams utilize the power of both formative and summative assessments, shouldn’t district leaders model the same behavior when assessing progress on the PLC journey? District leaders should develop a formative assessment plan in order to periodically assess their progress on the professional learning community journey throughout the year, as well as conduct a broader, more in-depth, summative assessment annually.

 



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