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September 25, 2011

Principal Collaboration or Principal Coblaboration?

by Chris Lindholm

Chapter 5 of Learning By Doing by DuFour, DuFour, Eaker and Many makes very clear that true collaborative teams working as professional learning communities (PLCs) are disciplined and focus intensely on doing “the right work.”  The right work for staff operating as an effective team is focused on the four questions of a PLC:

  • What is it we want all students to learn?
  • How will we know if each student has learned it?
  • How will we respond when some students do not learn it?
  • How can we extend and enrich the learning for students who have demonstrated proficiency?

The chapter also outlines the work of effective administrators who organize staff into meaningful teams and who implement protocols, structures, deadlines, and processes to facilitate this work efficiently and successfully.  For most of us, holding up the routine work being done in our own schools against the clear descriptions of “the right work” in chapter 5 shows us a signficant knowing – doing gap.  Research is very clear that closing this gap at the building level relies on the effective leadership of building principals who insist that “the right work” becomes the routine work.  For fellow superintendents and district administrators this presents a very obvious question:  How do we make sure that our building principals have the capacity to – and ultimately deliver on – closing this knowing-doing gap?

Chapter 8 of Learning By Doing (2010) and two more recent publications, Aligning School Districts as PLCs by Clay, Soldwedel and Many (2011) and Leaders of Learning by DuFour and Marzano (2011), outline descriptive approaches to this challenge.  In ISD191 our approach has included reading Learning By Doing as an administrative team while engaging in multiple conversations about the challenges of closing the knowing-doing gap in our own schools.  We developed a starting point for creating school improvement plans focused on student achievement including action plans to address core instruction, climate, community engagement and establishing a system of interventions/enrichment – all supported by strands of professional development.  Principals established representative Building Leadership Teams to develop and implement these plans, and in August we gathered the District Leadership Team (representatives from each BLT) to begin developing common language and expectations for this work on continuous improvement.  Most recently, we’ve dedicated 2 – 3 of our weekly administrative meetings each month to building the capacity of our team to lead professional learning communities.  Administrators will meet in vertical collaborative teams for the second meeting of each month at a selected school site to help that principal and leadership team clarify “the right work” at their site.  The evidence collected for school improvement plan goals will be the heart of our conversations and learning how to improve our work as a collaborative team will be the ongoing journey.  This work will be continued in horizontal collaborative teams each month during week three facilitating continuous efforts to align our work across the system.

One of the protocols last Thursday in horizontal teams required each principal to create a simple timeline of their work thus far on creating their leadership team, establishing collaborative teams at the building level, and crafting school improvement and PD plans.  We then shared our highlights and struggles and began the real work of establishing the trust necessary to participate in collective responsibility.  It was very rewarding to hear principals sharing positive reflections with each other and developing a better understanding of what is happening in each others’ schools due to their effective leadership.  Some of the reflections included:

  • An appreciation for doing improvement planning in a meaningful leadership team structure that feels authentic rather than mandated by bureaucrats
  • Highlights of creating a data wall tracking the achievement of each student
  • Highlights of collaborative team structures that feel more meaningful to teachers
  • The successful launch of PBIS efforts in many of our schools
  • Use of the “5 why” protocol (modeled at a previous admin meeting) with teachers to better understand their data
  • Teachers doing a great job collaborating and engaging in rigorous, professional conversation about improvement
  • Literacy work being done in music classes
  • Meaningful teacher leadership teams doing great work during opening workshops
  • The launch of math interventions in secondary sites that add instructional time and focus on pre/post teaching challenging concepts

Our work then moved into better defining the work of collaborative teams versus the time we spend on professional development.  While dependent upon each other and meaningfully intertwined when done well, DuFour is very clear on the right work of collaborative teams in a professional learning community… they focus on the 4 questions above.

Once again, merely assigning teachers to groups will not improve a school, and much of what passes for collaboration among educators is more aptly described as coblaboration, a term coined by David Perkins (2003)…  In a PLC, the process of collaboration is specifically designed to impact educator practice in ways that lead to better results.  Over and over again, we have seen schools in which staff members are willing to collaborate about any number of things – dress codes, tardy policies, the appropriateness of Halloween parties – provided they can return to their classrooms and continue to do what they have always done.  Yet in a PLC, the reason teachers are organized into teams, the reason they are provided with time to work together, the reason they are asked to focus on certain topics and complete specific tasks, is so that when they return to their classrooms they will possess and utilize an expanded repertoire of skills, strategies, materials, assessments, and ideas in order to impact student achievement in a positive way…  One of the most effective ways to enhance and monitor the productivity of a team is to insist that it produce.  In this case, it must produce artifacts related to the team’s collective inquiry into the critical questions that reflect the right work (127-128). 

Like most everyone else, we have a long way to go in ISD191 toward being a well aligned professional learning community.  I am convinced however, that the steps we have taken in the past year are significant and will produce results.  Meaningful teacher leadership structures are now aligned to the “3 Big Ideas” of a professional learning community – results orientation, learning, and collaboration.  Building teams are now empowered to create and implement their improvement plans aligned to our district mission, and we have  shifted the focus of our administrative meeting time to focus on building capacity by modeling the work of a collaborative team.  I believe our passionate, dedicated administrators and teachers will make magic when empowered to do so, and I am excited to witness the days ahead for our students.  The best is yet to come!!

Image from Happy Developer
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