On a Mission: Building a Culture of Continuous Growth
We had access to data, but did not utilize it to make changes to instruction. We had pacing guides with no focus on essential standards. Teachers were working hard, but alone and not as a team. We were indeed a school full of “islands.”
Teachers would give an assessment, but then it was “business as usual.” Assessments just marked the end of a unit and not used to intervene with students or improve our own practices. The common theme was, “I taught it, they just didn’t get it.”
We knew that our culture was not built on shared ownership of learning. If a student was not learning, then the student, parent, previous grade, or lack of resources was always to blame. We found excuse after excuse because we didn’t know what we didn’t know. We just knew that what we were doing was not working; enter the Solution Tree PLC at Work process, and our journey toward change began.
We started our journey to become a true professional learning community (PLC) by building a shared understanding of what a professional learning community truly is and isn’t. A PLC is not a meeting time that occurs once a week, where teachers go back to their “island” and back to their old ways of teaching and assessing. It is not a book study or protocol or a template that can be handed out by a principal to implement.
A true professional learning community is built on collaboration, trust, and a shared belief that “all means all.” These are not a set of practices that only happen during a meeting time. It is a complete shift in culture and can be seen and felt not only by the teachers, but by the students, support staff, and community. This is our journey to change a culture that supports continuous growth, collaboration, and, above all, learning and achievement for all students.
Once we established what a PLC was, our next step was to focus on the first of the four critical questions, “What do we want students to know and be able to do?” Collaborative teams started to identify and unpack essential standards. Teachers found this work challenging, if not overwhelming, at times, and didn’t always understand why this was important. The standards were given to us; why did we need to prioritize them?
Over time, through resources such as Learning by Doing, (DuFour et al.), which became our foundation by which most decisions were made as well as the incredible and supportive team of Solution Tree coaches, we built a common understanding of the work and the “why” behind it. We moved from coverage of standards as individual teachers to planning together for deep understanding of the identified essential standards.
It is not enough to simply check a standard off of a long list; the team must study the standard and collaborate on what is most important for their students to master, this work takes time and trust among colleagues. At the end of our first year, we felt that we had built a foundation with a shared mission to ensure the learning and achievement of every student and a start to our collective commitments to reach that mission. We were moving off of our “islands” and collaborative teams built on common understanding and beliefs were taking shape.
It became very evident in year two that the work that was needed to truly affect change could not and should not rest on the shoulders of the principal alone. If teachers were going to believe in the work and be successful, they had to be a part of the decision making process. A guiding coalition was needed to build teacher leadership and gain the momentum for this change. It is crucial that teachers have a voice in the process, and that they know they have the capacity to affect real change in the school culture.
For the guiding coalition to serve as a model for all teams, it must represent the whole school. The guiding coalition, which included a teacher from each subject and grade, a special education teacher, a “specials” teacher, a counselor, and an instructional coach, met weekly to begin to build a shared leadership model as the school continued to grow in the PLC work, sharing successes and data and continued to build capacity among the team.
The guiding coalition addressed the specific needs of each team and roadblocks they were facing, but most importantly, they learned from each other and continued to build a common understanding of the right work and lead their teams. The members of the guiding coalition emerged as leaders of the work and not just messengers for the principal. A culture of high expectations and learning materialized, and the guiding coalition continues to be the model by which all teams operate.
Our school has now been recognized as a Model PLC School, and we still are looking for ways to grow and get better for our students. When we reach one goal, we set another.
The work of a PLC is never over. We are never finished answering the four critical questions. We have faced our fair share of challenges in the last three years. We have planned lessons that fell flat and didn’t produce the data that we expected. We have adjusted and readjusted our instruction, as well as our master schedule, each time we learn more about the work. We have experienced almost as many failures as we have had successes. But with each hurdle, we have also experienced the pride of students when they take ownership of their learning, and the best part is that we share this experience as a team because in a culture that embraces “all means all” one teacher’s success is the success of the whole team.
We look for this success in the form of our own personal growth and the growth of the whole child, not just a data point on a spreadsheet. While this work can be full of challenges, the rewards far outweigh any challenge we have faced. After three years, we could never go back to our old ways. Because when you function as a true professional learning community, and when you realize it is not enough to just know your mission, but to know instead that you are ON a mission, there is simply no other way to work.