Brian Butler

Brian Butler was appointed principal of Mason Crest Elementary, a new school in Fairfax County, Virginia, which opened its doors for the first time in September 2012.

Diane Kerr

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.

References:

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

Comments

Abbie Spitznagle

I am a firm believer in people not realizing what they had until it is gone. A lot of our staff complains about our principal and how she pushes us. Her job is her life. She works late at night and is very prompt to answer any calls or emails regarding school. While this is overwhelming for some and they complain it is bombarding, I see the good in it. We have a principal who is dedicated and devoted in the students best interest. Our school grade has improved and remained at an 'A' under her leadership. A lot of the people complaining our older teachers who do not like to be pushed outside of their comfort zone. Some of these teachers want our principal gone, but what would that do to our school? Our students? I think those teachers would have a real rude awakening at realizing what they use to have if she were to leave.

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Kelly Newman

I love the idea of having a team-centered model rather than a top-down style of leadership. I feel as though this would benefit my school immensely. As a teacher, there's not a whole lot I can do when I see the strife between parents and administration. It's almost as if the teachers are caught in the middle. If we had a PLC, we'd all be given a voice and have a shared viewpoint, providing a united front. PLCs make so much sense to me, because, as teachers, we already want what's best for our students and by extension our school. It seems like such a natural fit. Thank you for these ideas and examples of how successful a PLC can be!

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Paige Triana

I found this post very interesting and motivating as a educator who does not have the best leadership in a building. I recently moved from a job where I loved my boss and loved the atmosphere. Everyone I worked with had a great attitude and were willing to work together for the better of the students. At my new job, my boss has been in the educational industry for a very long time and is waiting for retirement. As an effect, you can tell that he is not all there and it trickles down to some other staff members. It is good to hear that individual teachers or groups of teachers can make an influence even if the leaders above do not necessary make a good leader.

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Brian Butler

Kate,

Thanks you for the questions.

#1) How do you manage having so many leaders?

We believe that many people think of 'leaders' with the following definition taken from the Oxford Dictionary, "The person who leads or commands a group, organization, or country." When we talk about dispersed leadership and having many leaders, we are referring to the many people in the organization who, at any given time influence others and help the team(s) pull together to achieve a common goal. We are not referring to select individuals who are pulling in their own direction and trying to be the one 'commanding' the group. These leaders can be any staff members who help the organization move forward with our mission of high levels of learning for students and adults. Our job as principals is to provide each staff member with the tools and resources to make their ideas and efforts come to life. These leaders don't require managing, they require encouragement and support. How do we do that?

As the architects (Rick and Becky DuFour, Bob Eaker and Mike Mattos) of this process and others have shared, it starts with learning together-building shared knowledge as a team and staff. Having access to the same material/information at the same gives a staff a better chance to come to the same conclusion. The question that your staff may want to ask itself is this: Can we make the promise to every parent that no matter what teacher their child has that the school will guarantee that they will receive the additional time and support need to learn at high levels (grade level or better and/or high school plus)?
By asking this question and by learning together, you will have a group of educators pulling in the same direction for the same purpose-a common goal.

You mentioned that all people have to be on board for this to work and we would respectfully disagree. In his final keynotes over the last few years (before leaving us much too soon), Rick DuFour said many times:

"If you are a school board and you are waiting for policy changes from our political leaders they may not come you lead them, if you are a superintendent waiting for the school board to lead, it may not happen so you lead them, if you are a principal (or principal team) waiting for the superintendent and central office office to lead it may not come so you lead them, and if you are a school team waiting for the principal (or administrator team) to lead and they are not ready or unwilling to lead you lead them. Be the lighthouse that shines so brightly because you have embraced this process in such a way where the results for the students and educators are so compelling that others will have to take note and ask your team to teach them about the Professional Leaning Communities' at Work process." As Tim Kanold in his book HEART shares, "be prepared to lead North to those who may have a "title" that is higher than yours but may not have the knowledge, skills, tools and/or experience to lead this process." Rick said all teachers are leaders and all leaders are teachers. You don't have to have a title to be a leader if you influence your colleagues in a positive way to take steps toward embracing the PLC at Work process in which you all abandon the idea of the isolated classroom teacher in favor of collaborative teams of teachers who take collective responsibility for every single student's learning. These teams must focus their efforts on those four critical questions of learning:

1) What is it that we want our students to learn?
2) How will we know if the students have learned it?
3) How will we respond when some students have not learned grade level or course essential standards?
4) How will we extend the learning for those students who are already proficient with grade level of course essential standards?

There are a number of resources that we suggest will help you and your staff build shared knowledge around the Professional Learning Communities at Work concept in order for you to build common language, common knowledge and common expectations in order to as Rick would say "Row as One" team/school/district.

Our favorites are:

Learning by Doing, 3rd edition

A School Leaders Guide to Professional Learning Communities at Work

Frequently Asked Questions in a PLC at Work

Starting a Movement-Creating a Culture of a PLC at Work from the inside Out

Transforming School Culture-How to Address Staff Division

#2) I would love to learn more about the principal team idea. I have only ever known of having one principal and an assistant principal. We have instructional coaches for the teachers, is it similar?

Mason Crest Elementary School started with one principal and one assistant principal and as our school grew, we were lucky enough to add a third assistant principal. These positions are in title only. We believe that no matter who has the title of principal, a team can be created in which a true partnership is formed and the hierarchy is abandoned. The days of 'I said so' leadership and the principal having to be the walk-on-water, do-it-all leader should be long gone. The principal team should play to each other's strengths and help each other learn. There should be transparency and a willingness to be vulnerable with each other and willing to embrace the growth mindset. Although Brian has the title of principal he had to be willing to give up some traditional ideas in order for this to work. He was relieved to give up the unattainable idea that he needed to be everything to everybody and the true principal team would take collectively responsibility for creating a loose-tight culture that focuses on the three big ideas of a Professional Learning Community at Work, a focus on learning (answering the four critical questions of learning), a collaborative culture, and a focus on results. Again, there are no excuses and if your principal or principal team is not embracing this there is nothing preventing your collaborative teams from answering those questions in order to help move the process forward.

The goal should always be for the Professional Learning Community at Work process to be a school-wide process. This is the only way that we can avoid an educational lottery and for all students to have a chance to have, as Mike Mattos says, an opportunity to have a life filled with endless possibilities. So although your team may be the only one embracing this process your team is not a PLC it is a collaborative team (grade level or subject) or just team (see Brian's blog It's Not a Meeting- http://www.allthingsplc.info/mobile/blog/view/331/its-not-a-meeting-its-a-way-of-being)

Your ultimate goal is to have your collaborative teams become so successful that the entire school embraces the process. This always begins with creating the foundation (the four pillars) of developing your mission, vision, collective commitments/values and goals. When this is collaboratively done, your entire school will start to feel the magic that the Professional Learning Communities at Work process produces for all students and adults in your school!

Best of Luck,

Diane and Brian

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Sarah Melnek

My school has had three principals just in the six years that I have been there, and many more in the years before I arrived. It has definitely taken a toll on the Professional Learning Community culture that exists within my school building. In fact, it has really created a culture where teachers just keep their heads down, do their own thing, and wait for the next principal to come in with their new way of doing things. This post encourages me, because it makes me realize that the teachers that have worked in my school for years truly have the capacity to be the leaders that keep our school moving forward. Yes, we absolutely will work with the principals that come in and incorporate their ideas, but it is up to us to make sure that our PLC is what we want it to be for the sake of our students. I hope that our administrators would think similarly to the principals of Mason Crest, and want us to be the leaders of our school, so that we can all work together as a team.

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Kate Hickner

My school has also recently undergone some shifts in leadership. Over the past decade we have had at least 4 different principals. This has caused some issues for our school because we have not moved to a PLC model. We are in the process of moving in that direction currently. We have had many talks within our staff about "changing the culture" and making our school a great place for students and staff alike. I have noticed the closer we get to a true PLC model, the easier it is to transition. Staff will always change and shift, but if we have leaders who allow their fellow employees to speak up and voice their opinions and think outside the box, then we will create an environment for learning and improving. Everyone has to be on board though. I am left with a few questions: how do you manage having so many leaders?
Also, I would love to learn more about the principal team idea. I have only ever known of having one principal and an assistant principal. We have instructional coaches for the teachers, is it similar?

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