Changing the Oil Before the Journey - Routine Maintenance!
The PLC journey can be like a road trip… A journey of exploration, discoveries, unplanned stops, and some unfortunate mishaps along the way! To avoid some of the most annoying mishaps such as a car overheating in the middle of nowhere (talking from experience!) one of the best precautions to take is to check the oil before you embark on the journey!
Once while waiting for a tow truck, I thought about the principals I was working with and how they were preparing for their upcoming school year, continuing on their PLC journeys at their schools. Now understanding how oil was essential to the workings of the motor in a vehicle, it became clear to me that, in some sense, the culture of a school served the same purpose as oil would in a motor. This became even more evident as I was searching for information on changing the oil in a car and came upon this website called Wonderopolis (Where the Wonders of Learning Never Cease). As I was inquiring about changing oil in cars, I came upon this paragraph:
Automobile engines have many moving parts. As these parts move and rub against each other, the force of friction creates heat. Oil lubricates the engine and absorbs heat, allowing the internal parts to work together effectively without overheating.
Over time, engine oil breaks down and wears out. When it does, it becomes less effective at lubricating the engine and absorbing heat. As an automobile owner, your goal is to change the oil in your engine before it breaks down and causes major engine troubles.
As I was reading this information I could not help but change some of the words and think about the work of principals in my district.
Schools have many moving parts. As these parts move and rub against each other, the force of friction creates heat. The culture lubricates the school and absorbs heat, allowing the internal parts to work together effectively without overheating.
Over time, culture breaks down and wears out. When it does, it becomes less effective at lubricating the school and absorbing heat. As a principal, your goal is to change the culture in your school before it breaks down and causes major school troubles.
As drivers check their oil before heading out on a road trip, so must principals check the culture of their school as they embark on their PLC journey. In order to prepare for this journey, here are three questions principals should ask themselves before heading out.
1. What is the current state of the culture in the school?
In order to move forward, it is important to understand the current reality in which the school functions on a daily basis. In their book Starting a Movement Kenneth Williams and Tom Hierck (2015) reiterate the importance of the four pillars from the seminal book Professional Learning Communities at Work (2008) by DuFour, DuFour, & Eaker, as essential components in creating authentic alignment within the school culture:
Pillar one: Mission - Why do we exist?
Pillar two: Vision - What do we hope to become?
Pillar three: Values – What commitments must we make to create the school or district that will improve our ability tu fulfill our purpose?
Pillar four: Goals – What goals will we use to monitor our progress? (p.166)
If the mission, the vision, the values, and the goals are part of the culture of the school then the first indication would be that all adults in the building would have consistent answers to all of those four pillars. As a superintendant working with many schools, my principals would often invite me to their school by the end of September and encourage me to ask the staff about any of those four pillars. Principals would smile at me as they would all answer in the same way, from teachers, secretary, custodian, to students and parents.
The Litmus test: What percentage of your staff, students, parents know the four pillars of your school?
2. How often do you attend to the culture in your school?
Writing up the mission vision statement is not a one-time activity that is forgotten by the end of that meeting. Sadly, many schools have invested time, energy, and financial resources into developing these statements, but rarely go back to them on a regular basis. I have seen schools that had engaged in such a process, creating a beautiful binder with bright colours and snazzy wording… five years earlier. Only three out of the twenty-eight staff members had engaged in that original process! Williams and Hierck (2015) call this problem the «Share and Shelve» or «Have All Fluff, and No Stuff» (p.58).
Engaging all staff in determining the four pillars is only the beginning. These important statements must be the basis for all conversations and decision-making within the school throughout the year.
The Litmus test: Are there planned times during assemblies and staff meetings that are dedicated to explicitly attend to the four pillars throughout the year?
3- Are you sustaining the culture in your school on your own?
Although principals are the primary drivers on the journey of cultural transformation, in no way can they sustain the effort on their own. As it would be foolish to think that one person could drive from Santa Monica to New York City non-stop, it is also unwise to think that the principal would have the sole responsibility of nurturing the culture in a school. That is why many authors suggest that principals surround themselves with influencers of the cultural change. Some may call this group a leadership team, the first team, or a guiding coalition. Williams and Hierck (2015) remind us of the composition of a guiding coalition:
When developing the guiding coalition at a school, you shouldn’t include only people with whom you find it easy to work. Teams need critical thinkers and visionary thinkers as well. (P.31)
The Litmus test: Is there a guiding coalition in your school composed of critical and visionary thinkers that help you sustain the culture?
So as you prepare for a new journey in 16-17, these three questions should guide you in being well-prepared for the exciting road ahead.
DuFour, R.; DuFour, R. & Eaker, R. (2008). Revisiting Professional Learning Communities at Work : New Insights for Improving Schools. Bloomington, IN : Solution Tree Press
Williams, K., & Hierck, T. (2015). Starting a Movement : Building Culture From The Inside Out In Professional Learning Communities. Bloomington, IN : Solution Tree Press