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Leading by Design: An Action Framework for PLC at Work Leaders

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By focusing on what students learn rather than what they are taught, schools can redefine their mission and begin the transition to a professional learning community. After interviewing and observing principals, administrators, and teachers, the authors identify seven leadership practices that effective PLC leaders share, along with the techniques that have led them to sustainable success.

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8 Chapters

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Chapter One Leading to Learn and Learning to Lead

ePub

As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others.

—Bill Gates

It should come as no surprise that the most significant place to impact student achievement is at the classroom level. This is why the work of PLCs is so powerful: teachers work collaboratively to solve complex issues in the classroom and ensure that all learners learn. There are many definitions and variations of the terms used to describe the PLC model. Richard DuFour, Robert Eaker, and Rebecca DuFour—the architects of the PLC concept—have worked tirelessly to clarify a professional learning community as “educators committed to working collaboratively in ongoing processes of collective inquiry and action research to achieve better results for the students they serve” (DuFour, DuFour, & Eaker, 2008, p. 14). Educators engaged in the PLC process are working collaboratively and tirelessly to lead everyone—their students and themselves—to learn at the greatest achievement levels imaginable.

 

Chapter Two Creating and Sustaining Collaborative Relationships

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The collaborative team is the fundamental building block of the organization. A PLC is composed of collaborative teams whose members work interdependently to achieve common goals—goals linked to the purpose of learning for all—for which members are held mutually accountable.

—DuFour, DuFour, and Eaker

At the heart of it all, the work of a PLC requires collaboration. Effective leaders begin the PLC journey by building the community in both structure and culture—efforts that require all three of the core leadership practices to launch simultaneously. The paradigm shift from autonomous classrooms to collaborative teams, however, places the early emphasis and focused discussion on the notion of collaboration. This leadership practice does not happen in isolation from the other practices, but it is one of the most visible places to signal that a change in behaviors is expected. As schedules change and leaders work to empower teams, educators can immediately see that the work of collaboration has begun.

 

Chapter Three Aligning Systems

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Have a simple, clear purpose which gives rise to complex, intelligent behavior, rather than complex rules and regulations that give rise to simplistic thinking and stupid behavior.

—Dee Hock, founder of VISA

Effective leaders know they must help align all systems to support the work of its vision, mission, values, and goals, or the work of PLCs cannot succeed. If any internal system is not aligned to these key focal points, then the overall work might be impossible to start, slow to proceed, or unlikely to maintain early changes along the way. Moreover, when leaders align systems to enact the organization’s vision, mission, values, and goals, they send the clear message that the organization’s guiding statements are more than words on a page; instead, they are actionable agreements.

The leadership practice of aligning systems is most certainly recursive (it is addressed repeatedly) and iterative (each effort builds on and refines previous efforts). It might seem that once an organization’s or team’s internal systems are aligned, the work could be considered done. Systems are dynamic, however, so there is no such thing as “done,” as leaders interact with and improve them.

 

Chapter Four Facilitating Shared Responsibility

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A nation is formed by the willingness of each of us to share in the responsibility for upholding the common good.

—Barbara Jordan

It never ceases to amaze us how many insightful leadership lessons come from the most unlikely sources. Consider the following excerpt from the classic children’s book Stuart Little:

Just as the sun was coming up, Stuart saw a man seated in thought by the side of the road. Stuart steered his car alongside, stopped, and put his head out.

“You’re worried about something aren’t you?” asked Stuart.

“Yes, I am,” said the man, who was tall and mild.

“Can I help you in any way?” asked Stuart in a friendly voice.

The man shook his head. “It’s an impossible situation, I guess.” he replied. “You see, I’m the Superintendent of Schools in this town.”

“That’s not an impossible situation,” said Stuart. “It’s bad, but it’s not impossible.”

“Well,” continued the man, “I’ve always got problems that I can’t solve. Today, for instance, one of my teachers is sick—Miss Gunderson her name is. She teachers Number Seven school. I’ve got to find a substitute for her, a teacher who will take her place,”

 

Chapter Five Building Coherence and Clarity

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Leadership is about going somewhere. If you and your people don’t know where you are going, your leadership doesn’t matter.

—Ken Blanchard

When we developed our initial assumptions for this project, we expected the leadership practice of building coherence and clarity to be the first order of business for leaders in professional learning communities. We eventually found that the three core practices we’ve described launched the work of becoming a learning community, and that building coherence and clarity is the foundational practice that underpins all other aspects of their leadership work. In other words, effective leaders engage teams in understanding the compelling why before, during, and after engaging in the work at hand. Moreover, the leaders we interviewed shared their own newfound understanding that they could not create coherence and clarity by simply defining and sharing the compelling why; instead, they had to engage staff in conversations so that staff explored and defined the compelling why for themselves. This strategy created meaning that took hold, and leaders no longer felt like they were constantly repeating the rationale. When leaders facilitate conversations so their colleagues can build coherence and clarity, they develop shared understanding for the organization’s work, they articulate a clear rationale for improvement and change, they focus collective efforts, and they mobilize and energize shared passion for a common purpose.

 

Chapter Six Modeling Practices and Expectations

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I hear, I forget; I see, I remember; I do, I know.

—Confucius

Leadership is neither a passive nor a periodic act. Effective school leaders in a professional learning community are relentless in their ongoing efforts to build the individual and collective capacity of their colleagues. As we spent time with leaders of high-performing PLCs, we found that successful leadership practice is less a result of soaring rhetoric and inspirational speeches than of intentional modeling. In fact, strong leaders used modeling as yet another way to create coherence and clarity regarding their collective work. We found that highly effective leaders spend time, attention, and effort modeling the practices and expectations they have for their colleagues and schools.

The importance of modeling has been well documented in the research and literature on leadership. In The Leadership Challenge, Kouzes and Posner (2007) describe the importance of modeling in this way:

Constituents expect leaders to show up, to pay attention, and to participate directly in the process of getting extraordinary things done. Leaders take every opportunity to show others by their own example that they’re deeply committed to the values and aspirations they espouse. Leading by example is how leaders make visions and values tangible. It’s how they provide the evidence that they’re personally committed. And that evidence is what people look for and admire in leaders—people whose direction they willingly follow. (p. 77)

 

Chapter Seven Reflecting on Leadership Effectiveness of Self and Others

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Reflective practice is as much a state of mind as it is a set of activities.

—Joseph Vaughan

The suggestion that reflection is a key practice for successful leadership is almost as old as the craft of leadership itself; unfortunately, what is valued and what is practiced are not always aligned. Leaders do not always practice reflection with a high degree of consistency or purposefulness. Leaders are busy—many view taking time to reflect as a luxury or wish-list item. For leaders trapped in hurried days and harried ways, it is easy to put off reflection for a better time without recognizing that reflection is the antidote to frenzy. The practice of reflecting on leadership effectiveness of self and others serves to maximize the effectiveness of all leadership practices and strategies. Effective leaders engage in reflection as a means of understanding and refining their leadership craft.

Both experience and observation have shown us that modeling requires reflection in order to maximize its own potency. The two practices must operate in tandem for the full range of benefits of modeling to occur. Even when modeling is explicit, it does not necessarily guarantee the recipients of the experience will translate the unspoken messages into new and desired learning that will lead to deep understanding or systems change. The leadership practice of engaging others in thoughtful and strategic reflection will move learning from modeling to a consistent, clear, and organizationally understood level. Most importantly, the leadership practice of reflection plays a significant role in developing coherence and clarity throughout the entire organization. All reflective moments—whether in group conversations or private thoughts—should help members further understand the work of collaboration so they can fully participate in the team or organization.

 

Chapter Eight Developing Leadership Capacity in Self and Others

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I start with the premise that the function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.

—Ralph Nader

After we began writing this book, one of us had the opportunity to work with a wonderful educational leader, Jeff, who had done phenomenal work in transforming two different schools to function as PLCs. In each of those two schools, Jeff and his staff achieved incredible student achievement results while operating as PLCs. Though he had since retired from his role as principal, it was quickly evident that he was loved and respected by his peers, as virtually everyone in the room—teacher and administrator alike—flocked to greet him when he entered the training space in which we would be working. During a break, I shared my observations with Jeff that everyone there clearly respected and admired him. “Well,” he said, “that’s easy to explain. Each school here has a leader at their table right now who I worked to develop into a leader when we worked together in my first school—and they are each remarkable leaders in their own right.” At that point, he was able to highlight the strengths of each of the leaders with whom he had worked, and it was immediately evident that the respect and admiration were mutual.

 

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