What Can Principals of PLCs Learn from Hand Washing?

Are you ready for a disgusting fact:  Most doctors and nurses—highly trained and respected professionals—wash their hands less than half as often as they are supposed to when working with patients (Gawande, 2007).

Stew in that for a minute. 

Imagine the doctor caring for your mother in Intensive Care. 

There is better than a 1 in 2 chance that he just finished checking an open sore or changing a filthy bandage on a patient down the hall and has stopped in quickly to check on Mom without bothering to wash his hands.

Think about the nurse who has been so wonderful for the past few weeks, gently washing your mother’s face with cool water to lower her temperature.

There’s better than a 1 in 2 chance that she just finished doing the same with a patient who has pneumonia two rooms over and hasn’t made it to a sink yet.

Considering that bacteria counts on the average hand range from 5,000 to 5 MILLION parts per square centimeter, those careless hand washing practices aren’t simply irresponsible—they can be downright deadly, passing infections around hospitals to uninfected people at alarming rates.

What’s really crazy is that hospitals are CONSTANTLY working to improve hand washing practices in their facilities. 

Many have gone as far as to install alcohol rinses and gels in every room, knowing that alcohol rinses are more effective and efficient than traditional scrubbing with soap and water.

Most monitor hand washing practices, posting results and reminders on almost every surface in every unit across their hospitals.

Some go as far as to hire staffers whose sole job is to make unannounced visits to individual floors in an attempt to hold doctors and nurses accountable for their choices when it comes to hand cleanliness. 

But few have ever bothered to ask doctors or nurses why they’re so careless about such a simple and effective practice.

That’s exactly, however, what industrial engineer Peter Perreiah did when he was put in charge of a small, 40-bed surgical unit at one of Pittsburgh’s veterans hospitals. “Peter didn’t ask, ‘Why don’t you wash your hands’,” one doctor reported, “He asked, ‘Why can’t you?”  (Gawande, 2007, Kindle Location 308-313).

The answer—which will come as no surprise to classroom teachers and school leaders—was time. 

As it turns out, doctors and nurses are pretty busy people. 

Often in charge of monitoring the progress of dozens of patients on several different floors of large hospitals, just making rounds in a timely fashion can be a challenge.

Add to that challenge the almost constant struggle to find needed examination supplies—gauze, tape, gowns, gloves, medical tools—in each of the dozens of rooms that they are responsible for visiting, and it is easier to understand how doctors and nurses were skipping a hygienic step that should never be skipped.

So Perreiah—in true engineer fashion—set out to make changes that would address each of the concerns that his doctors and nurses had identified as time sinks preventing them from consistently maintaining the highest hygienic standards. 

As Atul Gawande explains in his 2007 book Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance:

(Perreiah) came up with a just-in-time supply system that kept not only gowns and gloves at the bedside but also gauze and tape and other things the staff needed, so they didn’t have to go back and forth out of the room to search for them.

Rather than make everyone clean their stethoscopes, notorious carriers of infection, between patients, he arranged for each patient room to have a designated stethoscope on the wall…

He made each hospital room work more like an operating room, in other words. 

(Kindle Location 308-317)

Perreiah’s changes had remarkable results.  Within one year, infection rates for MRSA—the contagious bacterial infection most likely to lead to death in hospitals—fell almost 90% in his ward (Gawande, 2007).

The story doesn’t have a happy ending, however. 

Despite showing that infection rates could be successfully addressed by making simple changes to save doctors and nurses time, Perreiah’s changes failed to take hold in other wards and on other floors in the same hospital. 

Even worse, when Perreiah left his original unit two years after beginning his experiment in hand washing, performance took a nosedive. 

Turns out that Perreiah was just as important to the improvements in hygiene on his unit as the changes that he had made—and once he’d left, the commitment to the changes wavered.

Interesting stuff, isn’t it? 

And chock-a-block FULL of lessons for school leaders attempting to implement professional learning communities.

Here’s two:

Principals that are successfully STRUCTURING PLCs spend time listening to their classroom teachers about the challenges of implementing new processes and practices.

I have been around the PLC movement long enough that I’ve sadly seen PLC implementation done wrong far more often than I have seen it done right.

And the failure that I see the most frequently is school leaders who mandate new practices from the principal’s office—collaborative meetings, SMART goal writing, data collection and analysis, identifying essential objectives—without ever listening to their teachers.

The result:  Overwhelmed teachers buried under new behaviors that they are poorly prepared to implement.

When they raise concerns, however, their painted as whiners or resisters or fundamentalists.  Heck—popular thinkers go as far as to argue that they should be thrown off the collective bus when they don’t comply with school directives.

That kind of stubborn refusal to listen to practitioners has gotten hospitals nowhere, hasn’t it?

With average rates of hand washing compliance hovering around 70 percent—even as hospitals hire compliance experts to make “hand washing interventions” on every floor—inadvertent infections are appallingly common.

Perreiah’s approach was different, though.  Instead of falling into the “leadership by harangue,” approach so common in hospitals he took the time to learn from practitioners—and then aggressively attacked the implementation challenges that they identified.

And that’s what YOU should be doing, too. 

Trust the knowledge and opinions of your practitioners because that knowledge is the closest reflection of the current reality in your building that you have.

And then make it your job to aggressively attack—rather than openly doubt or willingly ignore—the PLC implementation challenges that they identify.

THAT’s what leadership REALLY looks like in action.

Principals that are successfully SUSTAINING PLCs develop organizational leadership skills within their faculties.

The story of Perreiah’s success is really nothing more than a story of failure, isn’t it?  After all, the progress made on his original unit wasn’t sustained. 

Sure, reducing infection rates by 90 percent for two years is pretty darn admirable work—but if the change can’t outlive the leader, was it really a change at all?

Sadly, successful PLCs often suffer from the same kinds of stumbles when they lose their leaders—and that’s because the leaders of PLCs generally do a poor job planning for their own departures.

How can you avoid making the same mistake?

The most important step is to start to distribute leadership from the day that you get hired.  Find teacher leaders and cultivate them. 

Build their knowledge around leadership and PLC concepts.  Put them in charge of important committees.  Allow them to make key decisions—even when you aren’t completely sold on the decisions that they are invested in.

Ask them to act like leaders. 

Have them defend the rationale for choices that they believe in based on your school’s mission and vision. Encourage them to be influencers—developing relationships that they can use to drive change later.

And then document EVERYTHING that your faculty believes in.

Tie your building’s choices to detailed rationales that can be shared with new principals when they replace you.  Make time to sit down with those principals—as well as the influential teachers on your building—early in their tenure.

By engaging in these practices

3 thoughts on “What Can Principals of PLCs Learn from Hand Washing?

  1. Bill Ferriter

    Nancy wrote:
    I think building knowledge around PLC concepts is an important one. Our
    district has implemented the PLC concept but it is lost on most of the
    teachers. Partly, I think this is the result of little training and
    education. The administrators went to conferences on PLC along with a
    handful of teachers from the district during the summer break.
    Upon return, all were asked to create PLCs. Even with a brief
    explanation of how PLCs work, for those that didnt attend the
    conference, the power of collaboration and the intended purpose wasnt
    quite clear.
    First, Nancy, thanks for stopping by the Radical! Its good to see you in this space and I appreciate your willingness to jump in the conversation.
    And I couldnt agree with you more about the need to build knowledge around PLC concepts as a key first step to successfully structuring and sustaining PLCs. I also think it is an area where schools stumble because they most frequently focus on how PLCs will help students succeed INSTEAD of focus on how PLCs can help teachers to do their own work more effectively and efficiently.
    While the end result of schooling should always be to improve student achievement, if thats the only rationale that administrators give to teachers for implementing PLCs, then PLC initiatives are doomed to fail. Its not that teachers dont care about student achievement—-its that weve got a TON of other things to do, and MOST of them are already connected to student achievement.
    When I work to convince teachers that PLCs are worth their time, I usually point them to this bit I wrote that explains why teachers should care about PLCs:
    It takes a more teacher-centric view of the benefits of giving PLCs a whirl.
    Anyway….thanks again for thinking with us,

  2. crazedmummy

    Indeed, at our school, a “PLC” is lacking community, it is merely another meeting where teachers receive more orders that make no sense. The teachers already had a community, who worked together to help each other and the students. Surprisingly, we can all read. It would be much more efficient if the weekly edicts were simply sent out by email. Our concerns could then be sent back by email, and sent straight to trash. Also, the time stamp on the email would let us know which of the conflicting orders we are currently supposed to be following.
    As a followup on your analogy, it may appear that the change failed, but if you enter any hospital today, you will see a stethoscope at every bedside, gown and glove stations, and hand sanitizer stations every 20 feet. Sometimes it just takes a small change in the standard of care and a couple of lawsuits…

  3. Nancy C

    I think building knowledge around PLC concepts is an important one. Our district has implemented the PLC concept but it is lost on most of the teachers. Partly, I think this is the result of little training and education. The administrators went to conferences on PLC along with a handful of teachers from the district during the summer break.
    Upon return, all were asked to create PLC’s. Even with a brief explanation of how PLC’s work, for those that didn’t attend the conference, the power of collaboration and the intended purpose wasn’t quite clear. Building a PLC was considered ‘another thing we have to do’.
    Professional Development around the PLC ‘way’ would be beneficial for all. Continually learning how PLC’s work and revisiting how things are going are key to their success as well.
    Love (and saddened at the same time) by your analogy.
    Thanks for a great post.

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