Jonathan G. Vander Els

Jonathan G. Vander Els specializes in supporting teachers and administrators in schools and districts across the country in developing, sustaining, and enhancing structures to support all learners.

Dr. Josh Ray

What Does Your School’s Success Rest On? The Four Pillars in Action at East Pointe Elementary

Editor’s note: This entry is a joint publication by Jonathan G. Vander Els and Dr. Josh Ray. Testimonials from Dr. Ray, the principal at East Pointe Elementary School, are noted with the initials (JR).

DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, Many, and Mattos in their book Learning By Doing (2016) describe the four pillars of a PLC—the mission, vision, values (collective commitments), and goals—as the foundation of a PLC. These pillars are, unfortunately, often overlooked or skimmed over in schools implementing change, but they are the critical underpinnings that will keep the work from crumbling when the inevitable dips in implementation happen.

Teachers must not only understand and commit to the reasons for transforming their educational system, but must then take action to make that plan a reality. Outlining the mission, vision, values, and goals of the organization collectively helps build a common belief in, understanding of, and commitment to, the hard work that will follow.

Over the past two years, East Pointe Elementary has been involved in the transformation of becoming a Professional Learning Community at Work. As a Cohort 2 school in Solution Tree’s partnership with the Arkansas Department of Education, it has been involved in this change process for the past year and a half. The four pillars have been the ongoing lynchpin of conversations, and we are now seeing the deep connections teachers are making between their day-to-day work and what the four pillars truly represent.

Mission: Why Do We Exist?

The first pillar of Professional Learning Communities at Work is the mission. The mission answers the question, “Why do we exist?” (DuFour et al., 2016). Staff must explore this question together and develop a mission that articulates this Why. There are many successful ways to do this, but staff have to have difficult conversations about long-held beliefs that may need to be debunked while looking toward the future of the true purpose of their work.

Those within a school must be clear on their fundamental purpose of their being, and this should be shared and communicated with all stakeholders (ideally, all stakeholders will be involved in the formulation of the mission, as this provides ownership and a stake in the success of the school’s efforts).

The process of engaging in the work will bring these things to light. In the beginning, we don’t know what we don’t know, but by digging into the work, the various foundational components reveal themselves in ways that begin to strongly resonate and connect for those doing the work.

Principal Josh Ray (JR): “We will provide opportunities for students to be successful.” In one sentence, East Pointe Elementary set off to become a Professional Learning Community while simultaneously and unknowingly revealing the reality of a culture in which a true PLC could never develop. While full of fantastic, hard-working teachers, our culture was built upon an almost contractual agreement with students. “We will teach the lesson, you will be responsible for how well you learned it.”

Behind this statement were two fundamental misconceptions that we are still kneading out of our culture today. The first was our misplacement of the responsibility for learning. We were focused on doing our best, but if we are honest, there came a point when we felt as though we had simply done all we could do. As long as success was dependent solely upon the student, there would always be students who didn’t learn it the first or second time. 

Because teachers were individually accountable for “their” students, they were often desperate to find help outside of their classroom for students we were struggling to reach. As a result, our interventionists were crumbling under the weight of increased numbers of students while feeling guilty that they could not come to the aid of each individual teacher or student that needed it.

The first big idea of a Professional Learning Community is a focus on learning. However, when the school culture places responsibility for learning on the students, as we did, teaching will receive priority. If the responsibility of learning belongs to the student, then the teacher must craft the most engaging, targeted instruction that will entice each student to uphold their end of the deal every single minute of every day. To put it simply, this was not working.

We found that no matter our ability or preparation, no single teacher could be what every child needed. When a school decides instead to focus on learning, the adults become the change agents. No longer is there an expectation for students to assimilate to the instruction. Teams now assume the responsibility to collaboratively adapt to meet the needs of every child.

Our culture shifted, and a PLC began to form on the foundation of two words, “ensure” and “all.” We decided that we were no longer satisfied with some children learning and despite our best efforts, some students would need more help than what a single classroom teacher could provide. This required us to build systems of intervention and form collaborative teams focused on student learning.

Our school now has a mission of ensuring high levels of learning for all students. While at the outset, it may have seemed like a simple reconfiguration or rewording of something to hang on our wall, this quickly became the pulse of our work in becoming a PLC. Until we were ensuring learning, common formative assessments meant less, collaboration was robotic, and teachers were isolated in their individual successes and failures. Now, our master schedule, professional development, and daily practice all reflect the change that occurred by shifting our mission.

Vision: What Must We Become to Accomplish Our Fundamental Purpose?

When we ask teachers to consider what they must become to accomplish their mission, we are asking teachers to focus on what needs to change (DuFour et al., 2016). The school can determine the answer only through honest and open reflection, dialogue, and often, looking in the mirror and determining for itself that things need to change⁠—and the only one(s) who can make that happen is the person in the mirror.

It is not uncommon for schools to come to the realization that much of their focus has previously been on adult issues, rather than issues directly impacting student learning. In a Professional Learning Community at Work, the comfort of adults becomes secondary to the growth and success of children. Once these mindsets begin to change, it opens the door to deeper conversations about practices that may be in conflict with the Vision, and getting the school to be in a position to successfully support their mission. The results of these conversations can be part of the “North Star” to guide the school forward in their journey.

(JR): A school with a new commitment to all students may find, as we did, that their school is actually built upon a structure where some are allowed to fail. At East Pointe Elementary, this realization occurred in a kindergarten collaborative meeting. As the team was examining data, one teacher raised her head and quizzically asked, “who is helping our students in our self-contained special education classroom?”

Teachers were collaborating around student success based on rigorous, commonly created assessments. However, in the midst of our growth as a school, we had failed to realize that a small group of students were missing both their initial instruction and the opportunity for additional support from our kindergarten team in order to receive small group instruction. Our kindergarten teachers felt responsible for the success of these kids, but our system did not allow these students to receive every support our school had to offer.

Our mission reminded us of our purpose, but this conversation came as a result of measuring the success of our students in light of the vision of what we want to become as a school. Years before, we may have spoken of students receiving special education services as “belonging to another teacher.” However, we had a vision of being the leading elementary school in our state by becoming a Professional Learning Community where all students learned at high levels.

In our pursuit of all, our teachers had a desire to be part of the success of every child regardless of need. As a result, our teachers collaboratively redesigned the schedule of each individual student to ensure that they were receiving initial instruction in the kindergarten classroom, targeted intervention, and special educational services to meet their specific needs.

Values: How Must We Behave to Achieve Our Vision?

In our book Breaking With Tradition: The Shift to Competency-Based Education in PLCs at Work, co-author Brian Stack and I quoted Thomas Sergiovanni (2007), who wrote:

“When people are gathered together to share ideas and to commit to these ideas, their relationships change. They make promises to each other—implicitly perhaps, but promises nonetheless. And thus they are likely to feel morally obliged to keep their promises (p. 3).”

This quote captures the essence of values, or collective commitments. The values pillar truly is a contract of sorts in which teachers begin to feel this moral obligation to uphold the commitments that bind them together.

It is important for schools to revisit these commitments as time goes on. The commitments will take on greater meaning as time passes, becoming more than just some words on a piece of paper. Staff will actually begin to live these values, holding themselves and each other accountable to what they’ve created together.

(JR): Values were the lever that helped our building move from compliance to collective commitment. Initially, the work of becoming a PLC was about practicing behaviors. Our teachers heard the reasoning behind our work, they had articulated a new mission and vision for our school, but our values or beliefs were sometimes in opposition to the work.

Changing the master schedule, developing a school-wide system of interventions, creating commonly built assessments, and analyzing data were all things that felt very mechanical at first. We were behaving like a PLC, we could recite the why behind each of these things, but they were still new and cumbersome. It wasn’t until we began to collectively commit to student learning, both at the building and team level, that life was breathed into our work.

Commitment came as we developed interdependence within our teams. Until we valued the collective intelligence of the team over our own, there was no need for collaboration or collective growth and no reason whatsoever to be vulnerable with data. Even before this, we had to determine whether we really believed that all kids can learn at high levels. From this value came a commitment to whatever it takes for every child and to learning and adapting to be what our students need when we come to the end of our current knowledge.

We’ve found that values can be articulated in meetings and posted on walls, but they only take hold after repetitive practice time and again. It is not the summer professional development or the creative activities we use to define our values that make them part of our culture, it’s all the seemingly insignificant day-to-day decisions that we make differently because we are committing to be something other than what we used to be.

Goals: How Will We Mark Our Progress?

The fourth pillar involves developing shared goals (DuFour et al., 2016). Developing school, team, and individual goals is an indicator of progress toward attaining a shared purpose, and aligns teams in supporting a school-wide goal in which they are all accountable for. The process of developing goals requires the school and teacher-teams to confront their current reality, then move toward action, outlining a collective target that they will strive toward collaboratively.

To do this effectively in a Professional Learning Community at Work, we use SMART (strategic and specific, measurable, attainable, results oriented, and time bound) goals. Guiding coalitions, or leadership teams, should develop building-level goals based upon their data. This provides the guardrails for teams, who should then develop their own goals based upon their team data. Individual goals can also be developed based on classroom data (supporting the team goal, which is in support of the building goal).

Often especially at the beginning of the process, teams do not revisit their long-term goals throughout the year. It is imperative that ongoing reflection and analysis happens on a consistent basis. By doing so, teams can make course corrections based upon where they are, and be clear on where they are successfully supporting student learning and where they may need to (collectively) focus to help students who are struggling.

(JR): At East Pointe, our goals have become the glue that is connecting the individual pieces of this work into a system-wide learning community. We are regularly returning to our goals to celebrate progress and provide opportunities for new inquiry around ways we need to improve. Most importantly though, returning to our goals regularly reminds us of the target and scope of our work.

Before weaving conversations about our goals into our work, it was easy for us to become lost in individual pieces of the process instead of how they work together to ensure learning. Consequently, without goals and celebration of our progress, it was much more challenging to feel the value of change. However, as our school is seeing our efforts translate into student learning, we are invigorated and encouraged to continue our pursuit of excellence.

The recognition of the Four Pillars as the foundation of East Pointe Elementary School’s journey as a Professional Learning Community at Work is a great example of these beliefs coming to life in action. While this blog entry highlights one school’s story, every single Professional Learning Community has gone through a similar evolution. When a school commits to becoming a Professional Learning Community at Work it does so with the promise of high levels of learning for all in mind. Defining and living the Mission, Vision, Values, and Goals of your school will provide the framework and catalyst for the life-changing transformation every child deserves.


DuFour, R., DuFour, R., Eaker, R., Many, T. W., & Mattos, M. (2016). Learning by doing: A handbook for Professional Learning Communities at Work (3rd ed.). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Stack B. & Vander Els, J. (2018) Breaking With Tradition: The Shift to Competency Based Learning in PLCs at Work. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

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