Diane Kerr

Diane Kerr, a consultant, was assistant principal at Mason Crest Elementary School, Fairfax County Public Schools, Virginia. She has supervised and led multiple teams, providing services to schools, parents, and students.

Brian Butler

The Misunderstood Pillar

Becky DuFour used the analogy of her brother Russ, the builder, in emphasizing the importance of laying a solid foundation. Becky shared that her brother has built beautiful homes for many years. When building a house, Russ does not start with the roof or second floor. He starts with planning and then building a solid foundation to support the rest of the structure. If the foundation is built wrong or with sloppiness, it won’t be sturdy and everything that is built on top of it, no matter how well it’s created, will have eventual problems. There is no way that Becky’s brother could have stayed in business all of these years without paying attention to and ensuring that all buildings start with a solid foundation. Although you don’t see the foundation, this is the most important step to building a house of your dreams.

Much in the same way that building a solid foundation is so critically important to any building, so is creating a solid foundation for a PLC at Work® school to stand upon. The authors of the PLC at Work process refer to this foundation as the Four Pillars.

The Four PIllars

  1. Mission
  2. Vision
  3. Collective Commitments (Values)
  4. Goals

As former administrator teammates from the first-ever DuFour Award recipient, Mason Crest Elementary (2016), we were keenly aware of the need to involve and include all staff members in building our foundation to ensure that our school culture stood on solid ground. Although at the beginning of each year we revisited all four pillars and co-committed to them, we knew that we could never fully live our mission (why we existed) and realize our vision (what we hoped to become to accomplish our mission) unless we were crystal clear on the third pillar, the values or what the PLC at Work architects refer to as school-wide collective commitments which answers the question, “How must we behave?”

We have both since left Mason Crest and work with schools and districts around the world. We are encouraged that most schools have mission statements that are focused on student learning and many schools have vision statements that paint a picture of a better future for the students, staff and community. Most schools have schoolwide student achievement goals and teams have SMART goals aligned to the school’s goals. What we are finding is that most schools and/or districts that we work with have either:

  1. Not co-created schoolwide collective commitments
  2. Have misinterpreted those collective commitments and have written them in the same way that they write teams norms

They are not the same. Team norms are commitments or working agreements that the team has co-created to guide its behavior in accomplishing its goals. Schoolwide collective commitments, although stated as behaviors, are meant to explicitly address the work of teams—those things that must be accomplished on a daily basis in order for the school to achieve its mission. The Tight Elements of a PLC should be reflected in your collective commitments, the non-discretionary work of schools functioning as a PLC at Work. How are norms and commitments different? Examples of norms that we often see include: “We will start and end our meetings on time” and “We will respect and consider all points of view.” These are important and necessary; however, collective commitments reflect the work in which we promise to engage.

For example, we will:

  • Create both common formative and summative assessments and administer them according to the team’s agreed upon timeline.
  • Use the results from our common assessments to improve our individual and collective practice and to meet the extension and intervention needs of our students.

Teams must have norms to help clarify how they are going to accomplish their work and schoolwide commitments which clarify what the work is.

The entire staff must understand the importance of and make a commitment to engage in these behaviors daily. Unless everyone on staff (ALL instructional staff), are engaged in co-creating, revisiting, and recommitting to these schoolwide collective commitments at the beginning of each and every year your school will not have the solid foundation necessary to grapple with the many challenges that lay ahead.

The process we undertook began with learning together and gaining clarity around why collective commitments are important (Learning by Doing, 3rd edition, page 43) and how they are different from team norms. Then we followed a specific process for our staff to co-create our schoolwide collective commitments. The two resources that guided the process are:

Additionally, we provided exemplars of other school’s collective commitments (Boones Mill and Anywhere High School in Learning by Doing, pages 44–45). Utilizing these resources, our guiding coalition developed a draft set of commitments and then took those to the entire staff for feedback and revisions. This process of revising and obtaining feedback continued until we had a document to which all staff members could commit. We used the Fist to Five strategy to determine the will of the group/consensus (see Learning by Doing, page 32) and then finalized our commitments.

Becky DuFour often shared another analogy regarding the foundation. Her analogy is to have educators think of a stool that has four legs. Now think of that stool with one leg missing, and another. Would a stool missing one or more of its legs be wobbly? Of course. We would not want to put any child let alone ourselves on that stool. Now think of a PLC at Work school resting on the shared foundation/four pillars. What would happen if one or more of these pillars is missing? How solid is your foundation?

For an in-depth examination of the shared foundation, we recommend Learning by Doing, DuFour Et. Al, Third Edition, 2016.

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