Leading a Culture of Collaboration
The Arkansas Department of Education and Solution Tree have established a partnership to develop and expand the Professional Learning Communities at Work® process within select schools. These schools will serve as working laboratories of the PLC at Work process, conducting action research and sharing best practices with other schools throughout the state. Josh Ray is the principal and Faith Short the assistant principal of East Pointe Elementary in Greenwood, Arkansas. Their school was selected to be in the second cohort of this partnership.
When we began the 2018–19 school year, we knew as administrators that we were beginning a journey that would change the way that we do things at East Pointe Elementary. We understood that the work toward becoming a true professional learning community was going to be hard but that the effort to maximize learning for every student would be worth it. What we didn’t completely realize was the depth to which we would experience those difficult moments nor the magnitude to which we would appreciate those hard earned victories. One year later, we have so much left to accomplish, but children are learning at high levels, lives are being changed, and our school is beginning to see the vision of who we can become take shape on the horizon.
The adult learning and growth that has occurred this year within ourselves and within our staff has far surpassed what we imagined. When we began, some members of our staff didn’t truly know what a PLC was. What knowledge we had was varied and often inaccurate or incomplete. Many of our initial struggles dealt with revisiting our prior learning and correcting any misconceptions. The paradigm shift from PLC lite to becoming a true professional learning community was an unforeseen obstacle and the source of many frustrations throughout the year.
Even so, we were able to work collaboratively to create a mission for our school that embodies what we truly believe. We have created a vision that provides a clear picture of who we want to be and we have created collective commitments to hold ourselves and one another accountable to staying true to the work and focused on what is best for our kids. Through the efforts of a strong guiding coalition leading the charge and serving as the primary catalysts for change, our school has taken great strides toward collective responsibility for all students.
In the pursuit to ensure high levels of learning, our collaborative teams have found themselves coming back to the “why” behind the work, over and over resorting to asking the first critical question of one another: “What is it that we want our students to know?” By focusing on this foundational question, our grade-level collaborative teams have worked through determining essential standards and the essential learning targets in which we want students to become proficient. In-depth review of student evidence from formative assessments and other assessment data has led to collaborative teams stating that they now know our students better than they ever have before. With this knowledge, we are learning to be hyperfocused on where students are in relation to each essential skill and establishing strategies to respond to their individual learning.
We have found ourselves recognizing on more than one occasion how easy it would be to quit and go back to business as usual. Even in the midst of support by amazing Solution Tree coaches through the inclusion of the Arkansas PLC at Work Cohort 2 Project, there were difficult times. Establishing our school as a professional learning community has encompassed a series of decisions that have taken us two steps forward and one step back on multiple occasions. In many instances, we encouraged and supported our teams in doing what we deemed to be the right work only to later realize that there was a better way.
At first, this was a hard pill to swallow as administrators. We felt the weight of ensuring success for our teams and felt an overwhelming burden to lead them in the right direction. When our teams became discouraged, we felt responsible. When teams shed tears and professed that the work was just too difficult, we stood resolute on the hope of high levels of learning for every child.
As hard as those times were, they were the fire that forged a truly interdependent administrative team aware of and completely dependent upon the ability to recognize, appreciate, and rely on one another’s strengths to be successful. Learning by Doing has become more than just a book for us. It has become a mantra that we hold fast to, realizing that we continue to do the best we can, lead the best we can, and guide the best we can until we know a better way.
We spent the majority of the first semester longing for the day when we no longer had to sell hope to our teachers. We knew this was the right work, but we were cognizant of the strain the new learning was putting on our team and our inability to do it on our own. Then, successes began to pop up around our school almost like the first bubbles of a boiling pot. A second-grade special education teacher invited us to her room to celebrate with her students as they charted their growth in their reading unit. Kindergarten teachers met us in the hallway to tell us how many more students were recognizing all of their letters. Then, our fourth-grade team worked into their lunch to determine their essential standards, our first-grade team got crystal-clear on expectations for their students on a common formative assessment (CFA), and our third-grade team started designing creative ways to teach each other’s students in support of learning for all. Paraprofessionals became critical pieces of our RTI system and joined in with the teachers in the excitement of student learning, and extra-curricular teachers went outside of their comfort zone to provide reading support for students across the school.
Suddenly, our role was to recognize the successes of staff leadership rather than to simply champion the hope that it would one day happen. Student learning was the byproduct of adult learning which was achieved through the incredible work of an amazing group of educators who never quit.
As we reflect back upon this year, we know that we are looking back on what is becoming the new norm for East Pointe Elementary. We learned that we can never spend too much time on “what we want students to learn,” that PLC lite is almost harder to overcome than nothing at all, and that there will be times when every leader who embarks on this process will feel frighteningly alone.
However, what will forever remain are the memories of teachers celebrating the successes of students and teammates, of children meeting us in the hallways to tell us they met their goal, and the realization on the faces of teams who accomplished SMART goals that we thought we may never reach. These abundantly growing victories are what continue to propel us forward as we strive to do better for our students. Because of this, we would not change where we are, what we are doing, or who we are becoming if given the opportunity. We would emphatically choose to do it all again without a moment’s hesitation.
We went in to this process with the goal of increasing and ensuring high levels of learning for all students. Instead, we will end this year with far more. We have been a small part of something unbelievably great at East Pointe and have witnessed high levels of learning for all. Has the process been easy? Not at all. Has the work been worth the effort? Without a doubt.