Joe Cuddemi

Joe Cuddemi has over 35 years of experience in education, serving as a teacher, counselor, and principal in a wide variety of educational settings, including adjunct professor at Colorado State University.

Creating a Culture of Commitment

We never would have believed that the four critical questions of a PLC could create such a positive impact on our learning environment and student achievement. From these original questions, Kinard Middle School began its PLC journey of continuous improvement that united the staff and students:

  1. What knowledge, skills and dispositions do we want our students to have as a result of this unit, course or grade level?

  2. How will we know if each student has learned it?

  3. How will we respond when some students don’t learn it?

  4. How do we extend and enrich the learning for those students who have already learned it?

In Kinard’s PLC journey, once the teams identified the essential standards for each of their respective content areas, what emerged were questions about how to systematize and coordinate the skills, dispositions and behaviors that we wanted our students to demonstrate.

Questions, such as:

  • “What are the differences between a learning environment based on rules versus a learning environment based on commitments?”

  • “Who should decide what classroom behavior should be expected or taught? The individual teacher? The collaborative team? The entire staff?”

  • “Why do we need school-wide consistency among all staff for student behavioral expectations?”

  • “How do we teach the skills needed to meet the behavioral expectations?”

  • “How will we know our students have learned the skills?”

  • “How will we respond when students don’t demonstrate the appropriate behaviors?”

As we examined these questions and more through the lens of our mission and vision, it became clear to us that we valued a culture of commitment more than a culture of compliance. We needed collective commitments from both adults and students. We agreed that “policing” students to follow rules and then trying to justify adult inconsistencies for enforcing the “rules” were sources of frustration that led to confusion and anxiety. Through our conversations and data analysis, we learned that a punitive learning environment had produced negative outcomes and an increase in student misbehaviors.

After engaging in several cycles of collective inquiry and action research to seek more promising practices for the students that we served, our staff reached consensus (when all points of view are heard and the will of the group is evident even to those most opposed) and decided to shift from a focus on “compliance to rules” to a “commitment of agreed upon behavioral expectations.” We decided to shift from managing student behavior with coercive strategies (i.e. punishing, blaming, nagging, threatening) and shift to managing ourselves and students with non-coercive strategies (i.e. encouraging, listening, empowering, challenging) [NOTE: If student safety was in jeopardy because of weapons, drugs, and fighting, etc., then we responded immediately and appropriately with urgency].

How then, were we going to operationalize these shifts in our belief system to a coordinated system for behavioral expectations and skills?

  1. Starting with the first week of school, we introduced all new students to our “way of doing business.” Instead of telling students about individual classroom rules, the classroom teacher would engage students in a brainstorm for the expectations that students had for the teacher. The teacher would record all the responses, which typically included expectations such as: “treat us with respect, help us when needed, make learning fun, don't just lecture us,” etc.

  2. The teacher would then ask: “What expectations should teachers have of students?” The students’ responses were similar to the question above: “that we treat you and each other with respect, that we do our work, that we come to class on time,” etc., and these were also recorded.

  3. Typically, students generated a few dozen expectations that were then categorized into what we called the 6Ps: Prompt, Prepared, Polite, Participatory, Productive, and a Positive Mental Attitude (PMA).

The 6Ps became our school-wide agreements that ALL students needed to learn and demonstrate successfully. We created rubrics describing what proficiency looked like and sounded like for each of the 6Ps, and then communicated progress to students and parents on the quarterly report cards ( Individual teachers decided how they were to teach the 6Ps, and also determined the specific classroom procedures for their content area. For example, the PE teacher needed to establish specific procedures for dressing out, while the science teacher needed to establish specific procedures for lab safety.

We coordinated our teaching strategies to accommodate the needs of our students. For example, the returning seventh and eighth grade students did not require the introductory 6P lessons like new sixth grade students. Eventually, our seventh and eighth grade student leaders taught the 6P expectations to students new to our school. We performed rituals and ceremonies to demonstrate our commitment to each other. Students and teachers symbolically “stepped into the circle,” publicly demonstrating their commitment to our school culture, agreements and 6P behaviors.

We used the four critical questions of the PLC process to help guide our conversations and coordinate a school-wide set of behavioral expectations and skills. We shifted from a culture rooted in compliance, rules and punishment, to one of commitment and mutual accountability. The PLC process was not linear, and we certainly had our challenges; however, with unity and perseverance, we created a healthy learning environment to ensure that all of our students learned the skills and dispositions that were essential to be successful in school and in life.


Larsen E (2001), The Discovery Program. Longmont, CO: Sopris West Educational Services


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