Who Is Steering Your School’s Bus?
In Revisiting Professional Learning Communities at Work™, the authors comment on common mistakes made in attempting to build consensus around a new vision of learning:
“It is a mistake to move forward with substantive change without a group to guide the process” (DuFour, DuFour, & Eaker, 2008, p. 123).
Too often, schools rely upon preexisting “leadership teams” to guide the cultural change necessary to operate as a PLC. Members of these preexisting teams have been selected around old paradigms and ways of thinking that are anathema to the real work of PLCs. Even worse, principals sometimes go it alone in attempting to change the culture of their schools, or they only involve staff in ways that appear to be symbolic rather than substantive.
In his book Leading Change, John Kotter uses the term guiding coalition to describe the kind of powerful group needed to sustain major change. More importantly, Kotter suggests that we consider four key characteristics in assembling such a coalition:
- Position Power—Are enough key players on board so that those left out cannot easily block progress? While a high school principal might not want to include every department chairperson, involving none of the department chairs in the guiding coalition makes it easy for them to coalesce against the group and thwart its every move.
- Expertise—Are various, relevant points of view (in terms of discipline, work experience, gender, ethnicity) adequately represented so that informed, intelligent decisions will be made? Beyond representing the faculty demographically, it is important for the guiding coalition to include those who ask challenging questions and think independently. This helps to ensure that others regard the recommendations of the guiding coalition as having been thoroughly questioned and debated.
- Credibility—Does the group have enough people with good reputations in the school so that its pronouncements will be taken seriously by other staff? In most schools, there are “E.F. Hutton” teachers—when they do choose to speak up, everyone listens. While this kind of teacher often eschews “committee” work, they are essential to a guiding coalition if it is to be taken seriously.
- Leadership—Does the group include enough proven leaders to be able to drive the change process? Often, leadership teams are full of managers, people who can organize and prioritize the work but are not able to get others to follow them in what they have created.
An activity from our recently published book Simplifying Response to Intervention helps principals consider the personal characteristics of their current leadership team in light of the four characteristics above in order to determine if that team truly possesses the balance necessary to sustain change over time (Buffum, Mattos, & Weber, 2011, pp. 25-26).
Another great resource that helps others understand the dynamic role of the guiding coalition is a talk given by Derek Sivers at a 2010 Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) Conference (see video player above.)
Kouzes and Posner remind us, “Without people we can’t get extraordinary things done in organizations” (2003, p. 20). How true, but Kotter goes further in helping us to ensure the right people are steering the bus.