Professional Learning Communities: An agent for Change in School Turnaround

It is no mystery that a key to a solid school structure is dependent upon a strong leader. For the past seven years, I have been a member of a school that has experienced a change in leadership both in its Superintendent as well as its Principal. Throughout this journey, it has been evident that when a leader is willing to empower their staff, treat them as professionals, and provide them with the opportunity to plan for change, change can and will happen.

One year ago we were faced with a challenge, a challenge that had taken life many years in the past yet hadn’t received the attention it demanded. However, with a new Superintendent willing to take a risk, and a school principal willing to advocate for the needs of her school, stakeholders began to stand face to face with the elephant in the room and no longer look beyond it. How did this all begin to unfold? The principal. Beginning with the first day of school, she began to treat her staff as professionals, ask them questions, engage them in discussions that had purpose, help them believe that they were partners in the leadership process. She built capacity. Collectively we all knew that we needed to raise student achievement. We sat through data meetings, book talks, staff meetings, grade level meetings, the lunchroom and always came to consensus with the means. We needed to ensure and require a high level of learning for ALL individuals within our community. Not just the learning for our students but the learning of those educating them. But it was a means without an end, because without the right resources and support from the decision makers, we were never going to have the means to support the end. What was the agent of change?

It all began with the adoption of a practice known as Professional Learning Communities. Richard Dufour and Robert Eaker’s work focused on reculturing a school to function like that of the business world. Professional Learning Communities is a mindset that must be taught. The structure, culture and structure of a school building need to be redefined. These three norms must apply:
1. Developing and Applying a Shared Knowledge
2. Sustaining the Hard Work of Change
3. Transforming School Culture.
More simply stated the school Structure, Culture, and Instructional Practices must be developed. A promise to believe that learning is for all vs. teaching for all. Educators must work towards a collective capacity vs. individual development.
The community must embrace a collaborative culture vs. that of teaching in isolation. The principal must relinquish control and conform to the practice of sharing leadership vs. that of charismatic leadership and work to develop a collective capacity vs. that of individual development, build self-efficacy vs. dependency. Instruction should be focused on results vs. a focus on activities and Assessment for vs. Assessment of.

Again, in theory, this all sounded great, but would it take shape? Having a leader that made a valiant effort to adopt a promising practice that would transform the culture of her school building was the lynchpin that began this change. By building capacity, empowering her staff, and believing in this important work, we are now one year into a Redesign Effort that was built on the belief of a PLC. The plan for redesign came from the voices of the teachers in the trenches and their recommendations and plans for change placed the student and instruction at the center. It is my belief that developing a professional learning community is the key to redefining the role of the educator in the decision making process for school turnaround and student achievement.

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  1. Robin Talkowski said:

    Thanks for sharing this “insiders” story on the change efforts at your school. You should definitely be keeping a journal … It would be wonderful to hear more about change efforts like this from the teacher’s perspective.

  2. Kyle Schutt said:

    Marybeth- I very much enjoyed reading your post. Having gone through this very same transition, I know how amazing of an experience it truly can be. Keep sharing! We’d love to hear more.

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