Jed Kees

Jed Kees has been an educator for over 22 years, and a school-based administrator for 15 years. Jed has a passion for middle level education, and is currently the principal of Onalaska Middle School in Onalaska, Wisconsin.

Learn from My Mistakes

When our school district took our first step on the PLC journey, I remember thinking, “ I wonder if anyone who has done this before could tell us what pitfalls to avoid?” I quickly learned what “Learning-by-Doing” really meant. 

The PLC process is as it says: a learning community. The concept of learning by doing is the foundation of ensuring high levels of learning for all and going through this process is the greatest teacher. 

Having said that, here are some of the missteps that we made and how to avoid them.

Develop an Understanding of What a Guiding Coalition Is and Form One!

For decades, my building had a building leadership team, better known as a BLT. That group tackled important tasks such as:

  • “All detentions must be served before school.”
  • “All requisitions MUST be signed.” 
  • “Jackie has copies of all of the keys.”

The purpose for the group existing was to tackle managerial tasks and be a conduit for concerns and complaints from the different grade levels. We were focused on the management of the building and not building a culture of collective responsibility to ensure high levels of learning for all.  We needed to become a Guiding Coalition to lead the learning of the adults in the building so that they would impact the achievement of our students in a positive way. 

The idea that one dynamic leader can enter a school and make changes that are sustainable, has proven to be a myth throughout time. 

“A broad and longstanding consensus in leadership theory holds that leaders in all walks of life and all kinds of organizations, public and private, need to depend on others to accomplish the group’s purpose and need to encourage the development of leadership across the organization.” (Wallace Foundation, 2013, pg. 9)

If deep, sustained structural and cultural change is what is necessary in order to ensure high levels of learning for all, then a group, or a Guiding Coalition, is required.

“A true Guiding Coalition is an alliance of key members of an organization who are specifically charged to lead a change process through the predictable turmoil.  Members of the alliance should have shared objectives and high levels of trust.” (DuFour, DuFour, & Eaker, 2008, pg. 467)

Defining, assembling, and giving purpose to your guiding coalition is the first crucial step in beginning your PLC journey. 

Establish a Foundation

One of the first and most foundational things a Professional Learning Community needs to establish is its purpose. Leading your staff through the creation of your mission is the first step and not only ensuring high levels of learning for all but effectively shifting your culture 2 that mindset as well.

When I became principal at my current building, the school’s mission had been established for a while already. The mission itself had the correct words in it, but our Guiding Coalition and I were not part of the process of creating that mission. There was not a level of ownership that allowed our mission to take hold. Additionally, not enough learning had occurred during that process, that would have benefited us so greatly, as we tackled the next steps of becoming a high-functioning PLC. 

Whenever a school begins the journey of becoming a PLC it is imperative that the leadership group is part of the process of formulating and building consensus around the mission, vision, and collective commitments.

Follow the 4 questions….in order!

These four questions, established in Learning by Doing, are the guide for everything a PLC should be doing: 

  1. What knowledge, skills, and dispositions should every student acquire as a result of this unit, course, or this grade level?
  2. How will we know when each student has acquired the essential knowledge and skills?
  3. How will we respond when some students do not learn?
  4. How will we extend the learning for students who are already proficient? 

When we began our journey, the first thing we did was establish time in our day for students to relearn what they had not learned the first time. We then told our teachers to provide interventions for all of the students. Needless to say, the teachers’ response was one of frustration, anger, and resentment. 

We were so worried about answering question number three that we never even considered answering question number one!

The issue that became very clear very quickly was that we never established the process for collaborative teams to determine, with great specificity, what students needed to know and be able to do. In other words, answering the first question.

After a school establishes their mission, vision, and collective commitments, they need to implement a process that teaches collaborative teams how to identify what is most essential for every single student to learn. Without that knowledge, the rest of your structure will fall apart. Answering the four questions in order is imperative to creating structures that will lead to all students learning at high levels.

While experience and learning by doing are the greatest teachers, following these few guidelines will ensure that your Professional Learning Community will get off to a great start.


Wallace Foundation. (2013, January). The School Principal as Leader: Guiding Schools to Better Teaching and Learning. New York: Author.


DuFour, Dufour, Eaker, Many, & Mattos (2016). Learning by Doing – A Handbook for Professional Learning Communities at Work. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.


DuFour, DuFour, & Eaker, Revisiting Professional Learning Communities at Work (2008). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.



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