Key Turning Points
I had read and memorized these words:
“One of the most damaging myths about school leadership is that the change process, if managed well, will proceed smoothly” (DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, 2008, p. 96).
Soon after I started as the principal of Fruita Middle School in June of 2011, I clung to this quote, because I had no idea of the challenges that would await me over the next four years—the time it took for our school to become a national model PLC school.
Prior to 2011, I had experienced many impactful collaborative teams as a teacher and as an assistant principal, and I enthusiastically believed I would have similar experiences at Fruita. However, the “honeymoon” ended a few days after I had been selected in a short conversation with the director of middle schools.
“Congrats on the job, but you need to know that the culture at Fruita Middle is not good,” the director said to me in June.
“Well, how bad could it be?” I replied in the naïve way that an eager-to-change-the-world, rookie principal might ask.
She continued, “In April of this year, the staff took the required culture survey and it is one of the worst in the district.”
She and the survey were right on, and I quickly became immersed in the challenges of attempting to move a school from a place where the only thing teachers shared was a parking lot, to eventually becoming a model PLC school.
While there were so many unexpected and challenging situations along our path, there were eight key turning points in our journey that I believe really made the difference.
1. We started a teacher-leader guiding coalition
It took about a year to identify two change agents on campus who eventually went to a PLC Institute, and returned ready to impact the guiding coalition, who in turn led the staff. Our teachers were highly impacted by respected colleagues.
2. We developed a shared vision that could be pictured
Our beginning shared vision was simple: Our interdependent teams will define, assess, intervene, and extend essential academic skills for the students we serve. When it was written, staff thought it would be impossible to attain, and yet it gave a clear direction of where we needed to go to make our mission more of a reality.
3. We developed a new awards system recognizing student attainment of essential skills
Instead of our usual GPA ceremonies, which seemed too abstract to some of our students, every student who was proficient in all of their essentials in all six of their classes (four core, two elective) were recognized at an assembly with classmates and parents. Students who were one or two essentials away from recognition got a laser focus—this really helped our most struggling learners and those who supported them! This also impacted our most resistant staff, since our rewards system needed every teacher to provide information about what was essential and who was proficient.
4. Our collaborative teams were highly involved in the hiring of new team members
Teams shared their norms, essentials, and desires for meaningful collaboration with applicants during interviews, and were instrumental in the decision process. This investment in the candidate only helped everyone involved be more committed to the success of our new hires.
5. We celebrated photos and stories aligned to our vision at each staff meeting
Staff meetings started with a slide of some part of our mission, vision, or collective commitments missing. Staff paired to fill in the blanks, and then pictures would be shown or stories told by me or our guiding coalition of how that photo or event gets us closer to making our vision our reality.
6. We changed our master schedule only by consensus
On at least four occasions, our master schedule needed changed—mostly to accommodate an ever-improving intervention & extension time. Schedule options that met all 14 of our constraints were put out to the staff weeks ahead of time for discussion and unless the staff reached consensus, the schedule was not changed. Our consensus experiences helped staff work through the inevitable challenges that arose after implementing a new schedule with the mindset of “how can we fix our schedule?” versus thinking, “this was Brig’s schedule.”
7. We conducted a condensed version of the Critical Issues for Team Consideration
We sat with each collaborative team and went item-by-item through the Critical Issues, having team members silently rate their team without discussion. After a few moments to rate their team, each team mate had a chance to say why they rated the item the way they did. This candid item-by-item conversation led to lots of learning and was intended (and used) for teams to develop a six-month improvement goal based on the Critical Issues. This was done in October and February every year.
8. We reviewed our collective commitments together
We developed collective commitments as part of our staff handbook, and at the beginning of each year, new and experienced teachers sat in groups of four to review those commitments. This time of review with mixed groups focused everyone.
Overarching all of these key turning points was the consistency of our school to simply get better at the same PLC process, year in and year out. Perhaps some of the resistance administrators encounter has been earned by the oftentimes revolving door of initiatives that come and go in schools and districts with such frequency that many educators simply retreat to their closed classrooms.
The intent of this blog post is to be short, so I’ll keep this brief, but I don’t want anyone thinking that because of our implementation of these steps, we had no trouble as our culture improved—nothing could be further from the truth. I cannot in this entry begin to describe the challenges we faced that no amount of management could avoid—the very reason I memorized the opening quote.
Culture change is not for the faint of heart, and over the years, we dealt with many who resisted the changes, both in the school and beyond. Here were a few of our strategies for working with them:
- Staff meeting agendas were put out well ahead of time, giving staff the ability to make suggested changes. This was strategic so those who wanted to de-rail our process during meetings were told that we didn’t have time, but would gladly have those discussions after the meeting, in a more private setting.
- We used anonymous surveys often. This was done as there were many loud and strong personalities who believed that everyone felt the way they did, until confronted with survey results showing other perspectives on the benefits of the PLC process. This brought more voices into discussions.
- When ‘All Staff’ emails were sent from an angry staff member intent on humiliating someone or to shoot down research-based ideas with opinions, we ignored it online, but went to the source to confront the issue in a supportive, professional way. During these private meetings, we reinforced that ‘All Staff’ emails were not the way to appropriately express disagreement.
Through my humbling experiences, I have learned to withhold boundless enthusiasm when I work with schools, and to instead acknowledge that the change process will be challenging, and that no amount of management will eliminate all of the turmoil that true change brings.
My goal is to encourage the wonderful educators with whom I work to know that in spite of inevitable challenges, the work can be done—even in schools who start with one of the worst cultures in the district.
DuFour, R., DuFour, R., & Eaker, R. (2008). Revisiting Professional Learning Communities at Work: New Insights for Improving Schools. Solution Tree Press.
Follow Brig Leane on Twitter at @BrigLeane.