Does a Change in a School’s Leadership Always Result in a Change of Direction?
As two of the three co-principals of Mason Crest Elementary School preparing to leave the first ever DuFour Award–winning school (2016), we do so with an extremely optimistic view for its future. This optimism transcends all of the emails that have inundated our inboxes, text messages that have been sent, and concerned conversations over the last few weeks; well-meaning comments like, “no one will ever be able to fill your shoes” or “what will happen to the culture and processes we have for our student and adult learning if the new principals don’t understand the Professional Learning Community at Work (PLC) process?” Many of these conversations with parents and staff revealed a palpable fear that the culture will change and that the direction of our school will veer off in a way that doesn’t align with our mission of high levels of learning for all students and adults. Despite these emotional and overwhelmingly real feelings, our optimism thrives. It thrives because a true Professional Learning Community at WorkTM has dispersed leadership. Everyone is a leader and each of those leaders will keep the school moving forward on their learning journey.
In their book The School Leader’s Guide to Professional Learning Communities at WorkTM, Rick and Becky DuFour ended a section where they cited the need to “Build the Leadership Capacity of the People Throughout the School” with the following:
“The real test of a principal’s leadership will not be limited to how well students achieve during his or her tenure. The ultimate test will be how many leaders that principal has left behind who are capable of and committed to continuing the school improvement journey. Ironically, your skill as a leader will not be fully revealed until you are no longer leading.”
In his book Good to Great (2001), Jim Collins wrote about the different levels of leadership with the goal to become a Level 5 leader. He mentioned a number of Level 4 “me” first leaders who failed to set up the organization for enduring success—what better way to demonstrate your personal greatness than if the place falls apart after you leave (sarcasm font). Collins’ version of a Level 5 leader is of leaders who have ambitions not for themselves but for their organizations. They want to see their organizations become even more successful in the next generation. He said that level 5 leaders were a study in duality. They are almost to a fault extremely modest and on the other hand they demonstrate an unwavering resolve to do whatever must be done to produce the best long-term results, no matter how difficult.
We don’t want to suggest in any way that we are the model of Level 5 leadership but we have tried to model ourselves after two true level 5 leaders. Rick and Becky’s former schools have had multiple principal changes since their departures and both schools have continued the PLC at Work journey and student and adult learning have continued to improve in their absence.
When we (Diane in November & Brian in May) announced to the staff and community that we would be retiring and leaving Mason Crest at the end of the school year for some staff and families there has been a fear that it may represent a possible change in direction. This would be accurate if we were the only ones who championed the PLC process. But we are NOT! We have always been attentive to building the capacity of all of the staff at Mason Crest, to creating collaborative processes to make decisions, rejecting the top-down vertical leadership model, and flattening our organization by allowing our teams to lead. Throughout our tenure, we have practiced a co-principal model, Brian was principal in title only and the principal team consisted of Sherry Shin, Diane Kerr, and Brian Butler. As long as key members of the staff continue the journey and the co-principals who join Sherry on the administrator team are humble and willing to learn from and with the staff in order to continue on the journey, our expectation for Mason Crest is that with these new team members, the school will aspire to even greater levels of learning for all. Additionally, our staff and parents have petitioned the district leadership to ensure that that the new principals are totally committed to continuing the PLC process.
In Brian’s letter to the community to share that he was moving on he wrote the following :
“…Every single staff member at Mason Crest has been and will continue to be important in adhering to our mission of ensuring high levels of learning for both students and adults. We have prided ourselves on dispersing leadership where all staff members are seen as leaders. Although Ms. Shin, Mrs. Kerr and I are the principals we see ourselves as only one part of the entire staff that makes our school so excellent. I am confident as Mrs. Kerr and I move on that Ms. Shin and her new principal partners will continue the co-principal model where the principal team collaborates to ensure high levels of learning for all.
I want to assure you that Mason Crest will not miss a beat as Mrs. Kerr and I move on because it has never been about her or me. It has always been about WE—the entire staff—and they will continue with the Professional Learning Communities at Work process where the focus is on the collaborative teams of teachers taking collective responsibility for all of the students! Our model adheres to the belief that the key to high levels of student learning is ongoing job-embedded professional development and learning by the staff. The PLC process is a never-ending continuous Improvement cycle. The focus on learning, our culture of collaboration and the practice of using evidence of student learning (results) to drive improvement is deeply embedded at Mason Crest and is in no way dependent on one person. The system is much bigger than one or two people. It has been and will always be about the TEAM.” —excerpt from Brian’s letter to parents, May 2017
Although we are so sad to be leaving Mason Crest, we have no doubt that we are leaving a staff full of leaders who wholeheartedly believe in the PLC at WorkTM process and will continue to honor themselves, our profession, and most importantly the students they serve by staying true to the process. The staff will champion the process and teach those new to the school about the process through learning by doing and to always share WHY it is so important. They will stay true to the process in order to give our students what Mike Mattos often says in his keynotes, “an opportunity to have a life filled with endless possibilities.”
That’s all that we can ask of them and it is what Rick DuFour would expect of us.
Collins, J.(2001). Good to great: Why some companies make the leap-and others don’t. New York: HarperBusiness
DuFour, R., DuFour R.(2012). The School Leader’s Guide to Professional Learning Communities at Work. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press