Last Thursday I had the pleasure of helping to facilitate our third quarter District Leadership Team retreat. The largest part of the day was spent in a three group rotation sharing our 2013-14 focus for district-wide work in curriculum, assessment, and professional development so Building Leadership Teams can begin planning for the year ahead. The first two hours however, was my opportunity to engage all principals, two teachers from each school, and all district level directors, coordinators, and leaders (80+ people!!) in a celebration of our progress over the past couple of years and a look forward to the work ahead aligning all aspects of the district with our strategic plan. We began in small groups discussing chapter 8 of Learning By Doing and reflecting on our progress implementing a district-wide professional learning community. My journey with this group of leaders began two and a half years ago with a study of this book to begin grounding us in some common language, and it was refreshing to come back to it to check-in and see how far we’d come.
Establishing structures and processes for meaningful collaboration focused on delivering better results is a research supported component of nearly every kind of effective organization. Published in the research describing the correlates of effective schools in the 1970s and 80s, we educators have largely struggled to close the “knowing doing gap” to implement focused, meaningful collaboration due to the assembly line structure of our system and an unwillingness to embrace change as a necessary positive. Our more recent focus on implementing Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) has moved collaboration efforts forward considerably, yet the literature and constant conversations about being a PLC continues to make clear just how much we struggle to change our system to facilitate this kind of work. At the end of the day, real collaboration requires protected routine time for teachers to focus on the student achievement results created in their classrooms. The time needs to be led by effective teacher leaders, and a disciplined culture that doesn’t tolerate the all too common tangent or distraction must be cultivated. 15 – 20 hours each week focused on collaborative analysis of specific lessons, student work, and common assessment results is taking place in other advanced countries and the results are beginning to show. Read more
While it seems there is a common call for more time to collaborate in all school districts, those who dig into the meaningful work of true collaboration discover it is far easier to continue working in isolation. The majority of us learned our trade figuring it out as we went through the enduring pains of trial and error. Being isolated in our classrooms was simply the norm, and the true collaborative work described in PLC literature was unheard of. Today we have clear evidence showing the need for real collaboration, yet the work of doing collaboration is much different from the work we have been good at. Digging into showing our results, aligning our instruction with clearly articulated outcomes and common assessments, and engaging in robust action research can feel like an invasion of one’s craft. The truth we all know deep inside us however, is that truly collaborating in this way is the real work of excellent teaching; it is just very difficult work on many days. Read more
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?
Several years ago a teacher I was interviewing revealed his depth of experience teaching junior high students in a statement made with a very matter-of-fact demeanor. Paraphrased: “Junior high kids are great to teach. Some of them are dead serious about working on real issues and some are distracted by shiny objects – and they go back and forth in minutes!” His love for students, and the challenge of teaching them, came through loud and clear as he wove through each question with a story about a student he had worked with over the years. Read more
As an athlete in my childhood (yes… past tense…) I relished the feelings following a hard-earned victory or long workout that mixed total exhaustion with exuberant energy or excitement. The same feelings emerge after a large musical production following weeks of long, hard rehearsals, and I believe we educators thrive on the ebb and flow of exhaustion and passionate energy in the ongoing cycles of the school year. Today I am both exhausted from two weeks of long-planned leadership retreats and absolutely energized by the excitement of passionate leaders focusing on the right work in ISD 191. Read more
“These highly effective superintendents avoided initiative fatigue by stipulating that building the capacity of staff to function as professional learning communities was not one of many strategies for improving student achievement but instead represented the district strategy for accomplishing that goal” (Learning By Doing, pg. 209). The message was repeated over and over again at the Solution Tree PLC Conference in Minneapolis, MN this past week. Read more
“Leadership is getting others to do what you want them to do because they want to do it.” Dwight Eisenhower’s simple quote defining leadership sets a high bar but one that rings true in the challenges of leading in public education. Michael Fullan’s April 2011 article “Seminar Series 204; Choosing the wrong drivers for whole system reform” offers a 30,000 foot view of how some nations are implementing effective nation wide reforms to increase student achievement and close persistent achievement gaps. Read more
My writing has been very sparse lately and to those who read this blog, I am sorry about that. I believe we all go through what I call “seasons” in life when our hearts make our minds think we have little to share with others that is of much value. I certainly do not believe that is true for myself or anyone else, but my heart of late has been far stronger than my mind and winning the “you need to write” battle. This school district is packed with incredibly passionate and hard-working people who are no doubt being affected by the significant changes taking place, and to be transparent, I have struggled to find ways to express how that weighs on me in this new district level role. I believe I was quite successful as a building principal at sharing in the emotional toil that was created by decisions that had to be made – but that directly impacted individuals we cared about in our school family. Bottom line – they knew that I knew and that I cared about each of them. They understood that I am human and feel pain just like everyone else. Yes I was intentional about showing and speaking to matters of the heart, and yes, I believe that is what great leaders and great teachers do. I have fallen very short of meeting this expectation as a district leader and have been reflecting a great deal on how to make it right. Read more
This morning I was challenged to reflect on how the call to make a signficant, positive impact on our schools and communities demands understanding the deep wisdom of simplicity. The message struck sharply against the grain of constant news feeds, sound bites, sales pitches, and so called “silver bullets.” It pushed me to think about how I communicate and just how trained we have all become to glorify the latest and greatest technology, educational program or professional development package. Real leaders find ways to make the complex simple and demonstrate an unwaivering focus on their core mission – without distraction from all the bells and whistles. I accept that challenge, although I have much to learn about how to do it well, especially in times of light speed change in education. Read more