Shawn Blankenship — a building principal buddy of mine who goes by @dms_principal on Twitter — reached out this week with a really interesting question about professional learning communities.
I would love to hear any advice, successes, and/or failures you have experienced regarding the building of a strong professional learning community.
Turns out that Shawn is starting a brand new middle school next year and he really wants to build a solid foundation for his new collaborative community.
Having started a brand new middle school as a professional learning community myself almost a decade ago, I’ve got some pretty strong opinions about the kinds of first steps that are worth taking. Heck, I wrote a book about it!
The most important suggestion, though, is to take the time to write — and then commit to — clear sets of vision and values statements that describe what your learning teams would actually be DOING if they were meeting your core mission.
A vision is a realistic, credible, attractive future for an organization. Vision answers the question, What do we hope to become at some point in the future?
Collective commitments (or values) represent the promises made among and between all stakeholders that answer the question, What must we do to become the organization we have agreed we hope to become?
Even though my school worked through a powerful process to write a shared mission statement, we never articulated our vision and values when setting up our PLC — and the results were disastrous.
You see, our mission statement — like most school mission statements — includes relatively vague terms and phrases. It states that our school:
- is a collaborative community
- ensures high student achievement
- values the unique needs of every learner.
Individually, those kinds of statements are things that most teachers can agree to. They are also the kinds of statements that really do define the core beliefs of professional learning communities.
The problem, though, is that there is a TON of room for individual interpretation in those statements — and that interpretation can cause teachers and teams to THINK they are walking in a shared direction when in reality, there is little consensus around the kinds of actions and behaviors that a faculty believes in.
Here are some examples:
The team that meets once a month to plan shared field trips AND the team that meets every week to look at student learning results — two very different purposes for meetings — can both argue that they are “a collaborative community.”
The team that gives zeros for every missing assignment AND the team that allows students to rework everything for full credit — two very different grading policies — can both argue that they are “ensuring high student achievement.”
The team that develops one student choice activity during the course of the school year AND the team that uses pretests to determine the lessons that individual students will be exposed to during the course of every unit — two very different approaches to planning instruction — can both argue that they are “valuing the unique needs of every learner.”
Vision and values statements force schools to provide clarity and definition to the vague statements spelled out in their shared mission — and that clarity and definition is remarkably important for pushing schools forward together.
They can be hard to write simply because they force teachers and schools to wrestle with issues that we’ve comfortably avoided talking about for years, but once they are written, they give EVERY team a set of specific steps that they should be taking at some point in their collective development.
Over the past few weeks, our school has started to craft a set of vision and values statements — which we are calling collective commitments and action steps — to define the behaviors that we hope every team will master in the next 3-5 years.
You can check them out here:
The first document defines our vision statements — the ideal future that we are working towards together — which are drawn directly from Learning by Doing . The second outlines a set of specific tasks that teams would take if they were meeting our vision. The remaining documents are planning tools that teams will use to guide their work.
What I like the best about all of this work are the action steps that we’ve developed for teams. They are tangible — which will help struggling teams to understand exactly what they’re supposed to be working on — but there is room for experimentation that accomplished teams will appreciate.
While these steps will essentially define the core behaviors of collaborative teams in our building, teams may come up with different solutions to the same core behaviors. What’s more, teams will have the flexibility to choose the specific core behaviors that they are ready to work on in a given year.
That’s what DuFour likes to call “loose-tight leadership,” y’all. Our action steps provide just enough definition to ensure that our teams are moving in the same direction and just enough flexibility to allow teams to innovate and experiment with new solutions.
Once our faculty signs off on our vision and values statements — something that will happen only after teams look at the statements individually and the whole faculty has the opportunity to suggest revisions, additions and deletions — they will become THE most important documents in our school.
They will be used by teams to plan their upcoming collaborative work. They will be used by administrators to plan professional development days. They will be used by our hiring committee to find candidates best suited for adding to our building. They will inform our purchasing decisions.
Does this make sense?
Essentially, my suggestion to Shawn — and to any principal who wants to get their PLCs off on the right foot — is to collectively define the kinds of things that teams and teachers would be doing in the next 3-5 years if they REALLY believed in your building’s core mission.
Doing so will help to ensure that everyone is moving in the same direction — and moving in the same direction can be incredibly difficult in a profession where closing classroom doors has always been the preferred method for coming to consensus.
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