Shared Values and Vision
Within professional learning communities, a shared vision among the staff supports norms of behavior and guides decisions about teaching and learning in the school. A fundamental characteristic of the vision is an unwavering focus on student learning. Hord (1997) notes the importance of staff involvement in developing a shared vision, making decisions consistent with the vision, and promoting accountability for actions. The stories were categorized into three areas:
- developing a formal vision,
- building a commitment to change, and
- identifying initiatives that are indicators of values.
In some cases, at the request of the school, the Co-Developers helped the school staff develop a vision. In other cases, Co-Developers did not immediately attend to the vision because the staff maintained that they already had a schoolwide vision in place and needed the Co-Developer to help them with what they perceived as a more pressing issue that the staff had identified. In these cases the Co-Developer focused on building a commitment to that issue.
Developing a Formal VisionA small number of Co-Developers reported that formal processes had been used at their schools to examine shared values and create a shared vision. For the most part, it appeared that if this process had been employed at all, it had occurred before the Co-Developer began working with the school, and with varying degrees of genuine involvement by the whole staff and other stakeholders. There were, however, instances of awareness of the need to engage in the process.
The principal at one school expressed interest in having the Co-Developer lead the faculty in examining their shared values related to their work with students.
The principal has suggested I might facilitate some "values clarification" strategies -- in thinking about what we really believe as a faculty about kids and our jobs. (Co-Developer I)
One Co-Developer conducted a Search Conference method (Weisbord & Janoff, 1995) to develop a common vision. This approach was part of strategic planning with the staff. The principal of another school discussed the need to "revisit" the vision that had been developed some years ago in order to provide new staff members with the opportunity to have input and to check its congruence with middle school philosophy.
[The principal] reasoned that the school's vision was something that those that were there from the beginning certainly bought into (it was OUR vision), but the newer staff needed to discuss that vision and have an opportunity to mold it to their own. She asked a middle school expert to present the middle school philosophy to the staff and to discuss young adolescent development. She then engaged the staff in a discussion of how well [the school's] current goals and procedures fit with this "vision" for our middle school. (Co-Developer J)
In another school, the Co-Developer, the principal, and the lead teacher discussed with the leadership team the need to develop a vision for their school.
During a brainstorming session over concerns in the building, the leadership team identified such needs as establishing building norms (work ethic), establishing a culture of professionalism, and building trust and loyalty. Comments such as these were made during leadership team meetings: "We need a shared vision"; "We have to define what we believe so everyone has ownership"; "We need to do some goal setting"; "We need to define what binds us together as a faculty." (Co-Developer H)
Building Commitment to Change
Building commitment to change is closely related to creating -- and eventually achieving -- a vision. Ideally, this commitment is communicated from the highest district level. Consequently, several Co-Developers and principals attempted to direct the attention of the school boards to the project, in order to communicate the potential it had for school improvement.
Co-Developers also recognized the value of the superintendents' being aware of the project. In fact, one Co-Developer selected her school site on the basis of what she knew about the values held by the superintendent. In some instances, Co-Developers found school boards and superintendents receptive to the project; in others, they discovered less awareness of or enthusiasm for professional learning communities and the impact they could have upon student learning. One Co-Developer, a district administrator, recognized the depth of commitment needed from both the district and the school to achieve the vision of a professional learning community. He expressed his concern about the district's and the school's commitment to take on such a project because he was aware of the degree of change it would require.
The primary concern of those who had been involved in the district was that of time and energy. There was no doubt in anyone's mind that the project concept was of value to the district. The main concern was if the project fit into the district focus at the time, and if it did, would it receive the necessary commitment from those involved. (Co-Developer H)
At the school level, several Co-Developers reported that a commitment to students was a part of the vision held by the staff and that this focus on students guided their decisions. One principal Co-Developer reported:
The key ingredient is kids. Making things better for students to achieve and becoming true learners. The majority of the teachers possess this element, and I truly believe that the naysayers will respond under the pressure of positive nurturing conditions. (Co-Developer K)
Another Co-Developer described an interaction at his school with a veteran teacher that demonstrated the depth of commitment of some teachers toward improved student learning opportunities.
He was pleased to share with me a list of names he viewed as truly dedicated teachers. These teachers, he said, worked hard for the children every day; they would never give up in the face of discouraging labels or any other threat to progress. While he spoke, his face showed deep concern, and he spoke in worried tones about the problem of inconsistent classroom management and discipline, but he had not faltered in his belief that the goal of a solid education for his students could be met. (Co-Developer L)
Identifying Initiatives That Are Indicators of Values
In some respects, school staff values were reflected in the improvement initiatives that schools chose to select. Creating a vision is distinct from selecting an improvement initiative. This, however, is the point at which a number of Co-Developers began working with their schools. For example, one Co-Developer principal reported that teachers felt that students should take more responsibility for completing their homework. As a result, they designed a noontime study session for those students who did not complete their home assignments. Reflected in this initiative to address the homework issue is a value for developing responsibility on the part of students.
Another Co-Developer guided the staff to focus on increasing students' technology skills as an improvement initiative. This suggestion was made after listening to staff comments indicating the value of such skills for helping students grow into productive citizens. Reflected in this initiative is a vision of preparing students for the demands of the real world.
I met with every academic team during their team planning time. The need to identify a schoolwide issue was used as the topic of discussion. . . . As the topics were introduced, I took notes on the general areas mentioned and periodically probed for a definition or example to assure my understanding. . . I made the case for the idea that technology could easily be used to address the vocational skills area. With the relevance of technology to today's teens, students' attitudes and motivation would likely be influenced in a positive direction with increased use of technology for teaching and learning. (Co-Developer F)
At another site, a process for identifying the school's focus led by the Co-Developer revealed the individual values held by teachers that had to be put aside in order to identify shared values.
From our processing, the faculty's values came forward -- all children learning and a focus on literacy. The teachers had worked together so long that it was hard to put some things aside. The staff was so used to leading themselves and they had begun to let personal values lead them instead of shared values. (Co-Developer N)