Austin Buffum

Austin Buffum, EdD, has 38 years of experience in public schools. His many roles include serving as former senior deputy superintendent of the Capistrano Unified School District in California.

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.

Guiding Coalitions

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.



Raeviolet, I think I'm feeling your pain. We were on the right track at our school, but this year the district changed the testing model, I was moved from 6th to 7th grade, and our school got a new pricipal. When we meet during our PLC time now it's by team, not by teaching discipline, so myself and the rest of the 7th grade language arts teachers are left to find time before or after school. I am used to a very high amount of collaboration with other language arts teachers and this has not been my experience so far this year. What we do in our team meeting time is talk about behavior issues and decide maybe what students deserve to student of the month. I really miss the collaborative lesson planning and talking about how the students did on the assessments, discussing what we might do with the students who did not get it, figuring out what to do with the students who did and were ready to move ahead.

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I have been apart of a guiding coalition and was amazed as to how much work was done and positive collaboration happened. I believe that your leadership team has to be strong and looked up to by the teachers in the building. Some positions on the leadership team should be appointed by the principal at their discretion. Many times principal are molding teachers into great leaders by hidden potential. Great schools are run by awesome and administrators and a strong leadership team.

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Thank you for this blog post! I really enjoyed the video of the young dancers and the reference to leadership. You have given me some great food for thought when participating in PLCs. I feel the pain of hfa64. What a shame that the board did not see the value in the way the principle was conducting the PLCs.

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I absolutely loved the idea of this video. It was a great visual of how leadership begins. I believe a lot of times we are afraid to join that one "lone nut" because we don't want to be ridiculed or shunned in our school community. In reality, we actually lose out on making positive changes when we are afraid to stand up for what we believe in. Although the leader was the initial person to start the movement, once the followers began to rush in and join, there was no longer a visual leader therefore everyone is credited for the movement. Great video! I cannot wait to share this!

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Wow hfa64. How frustrating. Is there anyway you could, as a staff, meet on your own as teams to work on developing good learning community? Maybe if you stated at grade level and expanded by adding the grade above/below to join you. It is a shame that the ignorance of a school board and the lack of leadership prevents your staff from benefiting from this practice. Maybe others will have ideas for us to work on this on our own. I guess we have to take baby steps to reach our goal. Good luck Raeleen

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Good question, Raeviolet, I am wondering the same thing. Two years ago, our principal, our leader, was replaced. We were on the right track to becoming an effective PLC. We had the shared vision, the expected learning outcomes, and the formative assessments built. Unfortunately our school board viewed our principal as a "Lone nut" even though the entire staff supported all of her efforts and appealed to them numerous times to allow us to continue this work that we believed in . As this post has made clear to me, we were missing characteristic #1, Position Power, the group left out, in this case, the school board, blocked all of our progress. Actually, the principal invited the board members to numerous PLC conferences, and they refused. They were not left out. Now we have a "traditional" principal. We no longer colaborate. We teach in isolation and are back to square 1. Very frustrating.

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Our school is doing exactly what this blog says not to do. They are using pre-existing leadership teams to lead us no where. We meet monthly as a team, the leader says, "We don't have much to cover today, We can get out of here quick." The only things covered are what is not working and what is working well. How do we change this? I loved the video and believe that it needs to start at the top with the principal. Then we need that first follower to get us going. Does anyone have any suggestions of how to give the principal a nudge in the right direction?

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I love this video! We all focus on the leader to lead us, but as this video shows us it takes that first follower to turn that leader into a leader. Leaders also have to remember that without followers they are just "lone nuts". I can't wait to share this video. Thanks!

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I love this post. The video was a great visual of leadership. It proves that it takes courage and dedication to be a leader. As a leader you must at some point stand out, and not give up, in hope that someone will be inspired by you. I have seen many times where principal stand out hoping to implement change without first trying to convince others of their plan. They however suggest that they are the leader of the school, and therefore expect others to follow in their path. I think it is important that when selecting members and or leaders, to make sure that all teachers have an opportunity to be selected to assist in accomplishing a task. This is a great strategy to use when trying to get teachers on board to accept change. It makes all teachers feel as though they matter. When becoming a leader we must keep in mind that it takes a village to raise a child, and within that village it is important to have all on board. Great post Ted!


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Thanks for sharing this Ted talk with us. The video does indeed demonstrate how a little courage can create a movement. One of the hurdles I continue to face as an elementary school principal is finding the right mix of leadership. About the time I get a strong core leadership group who can "invite their friends" they move onto new experiences "promotions". Additionally, developing first-year teachers, who are overwhelmed and intimidated by more experienced teachers, presents another hurdle I am working to overcome. Again, the video was a powerful representation that as a leader my role is to get a few followers to focus on every student and soon the rest will come.

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