Strategies Used by Principals to Develop Professional Learning Communities

These three principals used similar strategies to achieve increased staff capacity. Their teachers responded by engaging in and initiating activities that reflected the practices of those same strategies. These strategies are concerned with collegial staff relationships, a focus on student success, continuous learning, teachers as decision makers and implementors, and new ways of operating.

Developing Collegial Relationships with Staff

The staff members in these schools had the benefit of close professional interactions with their principals as co-professionals rather than simply filling the traditional roles of supervisor and subordinate. Barbara, Patricia, and Linda invested the time and energy necessary for teachers to understand that collegial relationships between principals and teachers are possible and productive. Patricia's philosophy was to always work on both the task side and the people side of any staff undertaking. Barbara constantly shared journal articles and other sources of information with her staff members, treating them just as she would her graduate school classmates.

These principals were able to serve along side of teachers without "pulling rank" in order for their individual views to prevail in a group. They worked elbow-to-elbow with their teachers to identify and meet the needs of their students. At times they would put aside their own preferences in agreeing with the larger group's consensus for action. Each teacher had stories of his or her princpal's efforts to interact personally with each teacher to learn more about the individual's philosophy, concerns and interests regarding teaching and learning. The teachers in Patricia's and Linda's schools understood that their principal would be supportive and help them correct any mistakes they might make which led to the belief the principal trusted and respected them as professionals.

Focusing Staff on Student Success

Within their schools, the principals led their teachers to work with a common purpose. At Linda's school, every member of the staff identified the vision for students and the school, and they were clear on their roles in working to make that vision a reality. Barbara's school had become so successful with their focus on students that real estate agents in the community could rent or sell properties near the school based on its reputation for student achievement. The teachers in all three schools followed their principal's lead and displayed values that concerned students and student success. For example, Patricia's teachers often mentioned "the first filter" which was: "If it's good for kids, it's possible. If it's not good for kids, we don't need to do it" (Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, 1998). This served as something of a mantra when the staff undertook new issues and problem solving.

Making Opportunities for Teachers to Learn

The principals structured gatherings for group learning that involved the whole staff. While these took slightly different forms at each school, the intent was the same: involve the teachers in learning more and sharing that new knowledge with each other. Linda's teachers knew that she directed as much money as possible to staff development. Barbara set aside a half day each month for Faculty Study which was an all staff event.

The teachers at all three schools developed vibrant practices of group learning which included research, synthesis, and discussion of information on topics related to school operations and instruction. These practices were evident at staff meetings, study groups, and committee operations. The teachers at Patricia's school joked that if they walked into a room and saw multiple chart pads on easels, they automatically divided themselves to include both genders, all races and each grade level at each chart pad. Teachers knew also that their participation in conferences and workshops off campus included responsibility for bringing back information to actively share with their colleagues. This sharing often included formally structured presentations to and discussions with the staff, as well as the informal information exchange between classes and in the teachers' lounge. The genuine enthusiasm for collective learning was palpable at these schools and the principals nurtured it by modeling their own learning and providing opportunities for all staff to learn.

Inviting Teachers into Decision Making and Implementation

The three principals shared decision making responsibilities with their staffs. In each case, she developed her own organizational structure to incorporate and support staff involvement in decisions for the school. These tended to be in the form of committees with specific charges for operation and/or instruction. It also included whole staff decision making about the goals for each school year. Linda had a two-tiered approach for including teachers. In this approach, the teachers participated in design teams that focused on a specific issue. The chair of each team then represented the team in the School Leadership Council where decisions were made to guide the development and implementation of the school's priorities. The staff at Patricia's school each spring term chose a theme for the following school year. That theme guided the staff teams that determined what the curriculum and instruction would be for the coming year. Barbara did not have a formally structured process, but her teachers believed that she consulted them about pertinent decisions such as schedules for and departmentalization of the school.

In order to make these strategies work, the principal sometimes agreed to accept a staff or committee decision that was different from what she would have chosen herself. These acts of trust were consistently rewarded with good results. Not only were those staff and committee decisions effective, the staff members involved in them were encouraged to invest further in their school. Thus, this strategy increased both the capacity and the commitment of staff for taking responsibility for their schools. A teacher in Linda's school summed it up for staff members at all three schools, "With this principal we have a voice in deciding what is best for students and how we can best meet their needs. It's really kind of exciting because you have more interaction. It's more meaningful" (Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, 1998).

Nurturing New Ways of Operating

The principals made concerted efforts to create conditions that were optimal for teachers to adapt to new ways of working in the school. These efforts were along two lines: structures within the school, and relationships between people at the school. An example of changing the structure of the school was Linda's decision to move the Special Education Department from an isolated area of campus into the main building of the school. This increased the degree of interaction between Special Education teachers and all other teachers which led to other positive changes. Patricia also rearranged her school by placing same grade level classes in the same hallway to increase teacher collegiality and support between classes and during breaks.

A powerful example of this strategy across all three schools was arranging for early release time to allow whole staff planning and meeting time. Each principal used her creativity in order to make the arrangements necessary to change the school schedules. Of equal importance is that each woman also prepared her teachers to make good use of the time they would be given for whole staff learning and planning.

The building of relationships was continuous and reinforced the other strategies. At each school, the principal initiated relationship building by modeling with all teachers individually what it meant to trust, support, and encourage others. As teachers then supplied support for each other, they became more concerned with finding strategies that worked than with fearing failure. One teacher explained, "The principal strongly encourages the teachers to identify and try new things that they feel might be beneficial to students. When she does this, the teachers feel no threat of failing for the principal gives them full support under any conditions" (Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, 1998). Staff relationships were also nurtured through the communication methods that included formal systems such as newsletters and daily announcements in written and verbal forms as well as fostering informal networks such as lunchroom sharing. As the PLCs developed, staff increasingly took responsibility for strengthening their relationships.

Next Page: Teachers Respond to Principals' Model

Published in Issues ...about Change Volume 7, Number 2, Principals and Teachers: Continuous Learners (1999)