Bill Hall

Bill Hall is former director of educational leadership and professional development for Brevard (Florida) Public Schools and past president of the Florida Association for Staff Development.

When It Comes to Change, Are You a Committed Sardine?

When schools and districts transition from teachers working in isolation to working in cultures of collaboration, one of the most frequently asked questions is, “What do we do if every teacher is not on board with making this change?” Leaders waiting for all teachers to embrace working in teams may hesitate taking the first step to becoming a professional learning community. It is extremely rare for groups to be naturally collaborative. Working collaboratively is a difficult and highly sophisticated process that takes tremendous effort, energy, and trust. Teachers must be given resources, tools, support, and time to learn to work together. By changing teacher behaviors first, principals of PLC schools have seen attitudes change and have witnessed teachers become more receptive to working in collaboration. So, do you wait for everyone to be on board with the idea of working together in collaborative teams, or do you move forward without total support and commitment?

Ian Jukes, codirector of the 21st Century Fluency Project, illustrates why expecting unanimous support of becoming a PLC is initially unrealistic. Jukes uses the powerful metaphor of the “committed sardine” when describing schools attempting to improve their cultures. When massive schools of sardines change direction (like schools change direction from teachers working in silos of isolation to working collaboratively), 100 percent of the sardines do not turn in the new direction at the same time. Only a very small number of sardines, 10-15 percent, committed to leading the change cause the entire mass to move in the new direction. Once the few make the turn, the rest of the school follow. Successful implementation of professional learning communities can be accomplished similarly with “committed sardines” willing to lead the change (Jukes, 2011).

At the beginning of the process, principals should identify a guiding coalition of teacher leaders and administrators who are willing to lead their schools toward becoming a PLC. This small group of committed sardines can facilitate, advise, and lead the cultural changes that need to occur. Like the school of sardines, once the benefits and results of implementing PLC concepts are seen as positive changes being made for the right reasons, the rest of the staff will follow.

Noted anthropologist Margaret Mead once wrote, “Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world—indeed it is the only thing that ever has.” That’s why we must depend on that small group of committed sardines willing to lead and support cultural changes necessary for their schools to become successful high-performing PLCs.

Are you willing to do whatever it takes to become the school you envision? Are you a committed sardine?


Jukes, I. (2011).  21st century fluency project: The committed sardine blog.  Retrieved from



Our district has had pockets of successful implementation of PLC concepts for several years. These pockets were led by visionary leaders who saw the benefits of teachers working together. They saw the power of collaboration and created school cultures that focused on student learning, trust, and communication. But there was no systemic support of this implementation. It was not until this school year, when we provided district-level support, professional development, tools, and resources on a regular basis that we saw a dramatic increase in interest and implementation. Great school leadership complemented by on-going, quality district support is a powerful combination.
Requiring schools to have PLCs without providing support and resources is a recipe for frustration and failure. Through our systemwide support system, we have provided regular monthly support sessions for schools and school teams. We have worked with school leadership teams and whole-school faculties on understanding the process of becoming a PLC. We have focused on the five foundational pieces of PLCs that have help our collaborative efforts take root – culture, celebration, collaboration, common work/common products, and continuous improvement. To get you and your teams started, there are many great resources and tools available through and

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You have asked one of the toughest questions of all - "How do we get resistant administrators on board with implementing PLC concepts, and how do we convince them to protect time for us to collaborate?" Unfortunately, there as many different solutions and strategies as there are administrators who willingly or unknowingly stand in the way of teachers working together. Many times, the non-believers simply need to see the positive results and benefits of working in collaborative teams. Perhaps you and like-minded sardines could “lead from within” and work as a collaborative team. When you see your hard work pay off, you can share this information with your administrators and say, “Here’s where our students were at the beginning of our implementation of PLC concepts and here’s where we are as a result. This work does make a difference!” I know this is much easier said than done; but if I were an administrator who had enthusiastic teachers try something new that made a difference in student learning and teacher collaboration, I would certainly be more interested and amenable to supporting the effort. So perhaps, a “lead from within approach” might work.

More challenging would be the administrator who openly and purposely opposes implementing PLC concepts. Most likely, this type of administrator would not be open to any kind of change so it might not be about PLCs at all but the whole idea of bringing on something new. This resistance could come out of fear or lack of research, data, and information. I would suspect how you proceed with this type of administrator will depend on your relationship with him/her and what might be at stake. If nothing else worked, I believe at a minimum you could work with other “committed sardines” at the grade level or department level where you are to make a positive impact. You can embed concepts of collaboration into your immediate surroundings with those who work closest with you.

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I believe that I am indeed a "committed sardine". The challenge of getting all of the other sardines to turn is what I am struggling with. Our district requires schools to have PLC's, but I would love to see our PLC be everything that I am reading that research says it should be. Our grade level team has the potential to be a really powerful team if we could effectively collaborate and build our trust. I plan to start the next school year with the goal of "leading the cultural change" that needs to occur in our PLC.

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I am in a school that mouths the words Professional Learning Communities but it is not the same definition as what I am learning about now. When the new schools were built two years ago, they clustered a classroom/teacher from each of the four cores (high school) together in the halls. We do not work cross-curriculur and now even our grade level teams - for English II for instance- are scattered throughout the three story building. I can see that the hardest part of our professional learning communities will be to excite rather than require teacher participation. I agree that it is an overused or misused terminology and I would like to be part of the vehicle that will be focusing on teacher learning/practices and thereby student achievment. I will have the same endeavor as mkoval- getting administration to understand the importance and to provide the needed support.

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I love that you call it a "committed Sardine." I thought that my school district and my department could never get to a level of professional learning community because so many coworkers don't feel the same way as I do about students learning and achievement. You have made me a believer! Thank you. I do have a question for you though, some of these nonbelievers are the administration. How do I get them on board? How do I get them to give us time to collaborate together?

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There are a number of references in "Learning by Doing" (2006) as to what a guiding coalition is and why creating one is a critical initial step in the process to becoming a PLC. You may also wish to look into John Kotter's work about guiding coalitions. Here is a link that may prove helpful and get you started -

Guiding coalitions need not be comprised of the principal and department chairs. It is far more important for this leadership team to meet the definition of what a guiding coalition is and what it does rather than simply following the traditional top-down structure of most department chair-heavy teams. According to the definition of a guiding coalition found in "Learning by Doing”, it is critical that these members “have shared objectives and high levels of trust.” Not all traditional leadership teams (principal and department chairs) meet these two criteria.
The roles, responsibilities, and importance of department chairs are still critical to the success of a school. These positions serve a very important role that cannot be understated or overlooked. The key point in determining who should serve in what positions is, “What are you trying to accomplish, and who can best fill critical roles to accomplish it?” Not all department chairs make good guiding coalition members. Not all guiding coalition members make good department chairs. The roles, responsibilities, and skills sets needed to be successful in these roles are very different – the good news is both are absolutely necessary.

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Carmen Herea

How is the relationship Principal-Math Department Chair- PLC Coach defined?

What is expected from the department chair in this leadership journey? It seems to me that most of the leadership opportunities that a department chair could have before, when having a PLC coach those responsibilities are carried out by the coach. Maybe there is no need for department chairs in this structure at all. Teachers can talk about all the topics they used to talk in a math department meeting during their PLC days and save the time to stay after school for another meeting.

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