First Steps

Although much discussion and reporting on the subject of professional learning communities has taken place, there are few models and little clear information to guide the creation of such communities within school organizations. Even the work done at SEDL over the last three years is limited in its conclusions. However, initial strategies that are important to share with other educators interested in developing professional learning communities within their schools have been identified.

Determine School and Staff Readiness

Whether you are a principal or an external change facilitator who would like to develop a professional learning community within a school, one of the first steps to consider is an assessment of readiness.

To define the term “readiness,” picture two schools. In School A, block scheduling provides most teachers some common daily planning/work time. The principal is well respected by staff, and many of the staff interact professionally with each other. Some teachers have been asked in the past to be part of decision-making committees or problem-solving groups, and the staff as a whole communicates a general philosophy of doing what is best for the students.

On the other hand, School B uses a traditional schedule that provides little time for teachers’ common planning and requires teachers to use some of that time to monitor duty stations (recess, lunch, before/after school). The principal is seen as an authoritarian, making decisions that are accepted by staff without question or comment. Not all teachers know each other’s names, and members of the staff limit their interactions to those teachers with whom they share location or grade level. When asked about their guiding vision, staff members read the district mission statement from the front cover of their grade books.
School A is at a higher state of readiness for developing a professional learning community than School B for several reasons: (1) the block scheduling already provides time for teachers to work together on a regular basis, (2) the principal has shown a willingness to share leadership and decision making in the past,
(3) staff are collegial, respecting each other and their administrator, and (4) all staff can communicate a common value and focus on student learning, even though a vision may not have been “officially” developed.

School B, however, has several issues that will affect attempts to nurture a professional learning community. Time for teachers to work together appears to be significantly limited; the principal does not understand the philosophy of shared leadership or show any desire to do so; staff do not display collegial relationships with one another; and it is unclear whether the staff have similar goals as educators of children. These are important issues that need to be addressed by a change facilitator who is hoping to help nurture a professional learning community in a school such as this one. In terms of readiness, this school can become a professional learning community, but it will take a great deal of dedication and patience on the part of all involved, as well as a significant amount of time to take even small steps.

Assessing readiness provides opportunity for one to take note of the barriers that limit previous or current improvement efforts, as well as the strengths, or “boosters,” that can nurture the development of community. The methods for determining readiness, or whether a school is a strong candidate for developing a professional learning community, will vary with the role of the change facilitator.

For external facilitators, readiness may be determined after engaging in interviews and conversations with the principal, teachers, and central office administrators. Internal facilitators, or those who are already familiar with the school and/or the staff, may not need to conduct interviews, but they can benefit from talking with staff at all levels. In analyzing the data gathered in the conversations through the lenses of the professional learning community dimensions, facilitators can glean rich information regarding patterns of growth, perceived barriers or obstacles, and historical background—familiarizing themselves with the general strengths and needs of the school and staff.

The openness and availability of the principal is a significant indicator of readiness at a school. The principal’s role is a critical one, needed to orchestrate the delicate balance of support and pressure while letting go of old paradigms regarding the role of school administrator. Significant endorsement and belief in the strength of professional learning communities is necessary from the principal in order to bear the weight of responsibility that comes with encouraging people to change. If principals do not communicate belief in the power of a professional learning community infrastructure, or cannot support shared leadership and decision making, they should be considered to be at a low readiness level. Efforts to create a professional learning community will falter if those beliefs are left unaddressed.

The overall climate of acceptance, growth, and learning among teachers is another important facet of readiness. The development of professional learning communities in the SEDL studies hinged on the level of trust and respect that had developed within the school community. This is not to say that all teachers must be enthusiastic about making changes; rather, it is an acknowledgment that such efforts will be more of a struggle, and will take more time, if a climate of distrust, disrespect, or disengagement exists. Such issues will need to be addressed and resolved before staff can learn to function as a unit, as a community that values diversity and learning, united in the pursuit of an environment that values hard work, risk taking, and personal growth.

Consider the Use of an External Change Facilitator

Much of an external change facilitator’s work with schools developing as professional learning communities centers around becoming acquainted with the school staff and assessing their way of operating as it relates to their school improvement goals. For that matter, change facilitators make an important contribution by assisting staff in bringing a school’s disjointed and poorly articulated efforts into alignment, particularly at the beginning of the improvement process.

Change facilitators can also take a “balcony view” (Garmston & Wellman, 1999), a macro-centric view of situations, in which they try, with compassion and detachment, to understand the nature of the existing situation (p. 56). In so doing, facilitators understand the situations and contexts with which school staff are dealing, and can encourage actions of individuals in new roles, helping their school to become a professional learning community. Particularly cognizant of the leadership qualities of the principal, and the extent to which leadership is shared in the school, change facilitators can employ the balcony view to offer the most appropriate support and encouragement to staff in achieving their goals. This perspective also offers change facilitators the opportunity to gain a sense of resources available to the school, as well as the degree to which teachers are committed to learning more about their practice.

Identify Barriers and Boosters

Accessing demographic and achievement test data provides opportunity for a change facilitator to gather information about the student population and levels of achievement, both of which are critical to understanding the current functioning of a school. This particular activity should be one in which the entire faculty is involved, bringing the school staff together to identify the strengths and needs of their students. More often than not, school staff have limited access to, and understanding of, the data available to them. Viewing the school data together with staff can provide insights to a change facilitator as to how much the staff know about and use data, how receptive they are to learning together, and how the principal interacts with the teachers as an instructional leader.

The issue of time is a major consideration in developing professional learning communities. External facilitators working with a school staff need to visit the school weekly or biweekly in order to nurture and maintain working relationships with the teachers and staff. The dedication of time for school people to learn and share is crucial to the accomplishment of school improvement goals as well. Teachers and administrators need to have adequate time to come together for collective learning, problem solving, and decision making during the school day. Finding a way to set aside this kind of time in schools may be one of the most difficult challenges of school improvement facilitators, whether internal or external to the school or school system. Time, and the use of that time, will always be a factor in the development and continuance of a professional learning community.

It is important to emphasize here that a professional learning community is most successful when it is used as an infrastructure to support a school staff’s vision and goals for improvement. The goal is not to “be a professional learning community.” Instead, the goals ought to be continuous inquiry, continuous improvement, and achievement of school improvement goals. If school staff are more focused on the becoming aspect of a professional learning community, then their intent is misaligned with the purpose of the infrastructure. Therefore, the school’s vision of school improvement, and its articulation of goals, is crucial to the development of a professional learning community—where the professionals come together to learn for improvement within a community setting.

The transformation of low-performing schools into professional learning communities cannot be accomplished by simply addressing the five dimensions directly. A culture of collective learning and application is not likely to emerge from a few training sessions, nor will a set of workshops in themselves produce a group of teachers who are comfortable and trusting enough to engage in shared personal practice. Instead, the work of creating professional learning communities is to build and strengthen the capacity of the school staff—teachers and administrator(s)—so that they all share the common goal of ensuring student success and can make continual progress toward that goal. Rather than becoming a reform initiative itself, the professional learning community becomes the supporting structure for schools to continuously transform themselves through their own internal capacity.

Begin with the Learning

The most logical and effective way to begin developing a professional learning community is to bring the professionals together to learn. Hord (1997) asserts that school development and improvement are directly dependent upon teacher development and improvement. Without this critical link, little will change toward bringing quality learning experiences to the classroom. School administrators and staffs that successfully transform themselves into such learning organizations promote the professionalization of teachers and offer improved educational opportunities for students as well.

One powerful strategy is to identify a “problem” and then bring the staff together at regular intervals to learn together how to deal with the problem or goal and engage in dialogue about that learning. Professional development is not limited to a two-and-a-half-hour workshop conducted by someone “brought in” by the district or the school. In professional learning communities, professional development is a regular, if not daily, experience. The educators within a school, teachers and administrators alike, are responsible for their ongoing professional development. It is no longer someone else’s responsibility to provide staff development to schools. To become a professional learning community, school staff must begin by engaging in learning together.

Once a school has identified its point of focus for improvement, that particular subject can be used as a catalyst for learning. Opportunities for staff to come together to read the research or literature about a specific topic can be structured, and then discussion of the topic supported. As noted in SEDL’s studies of schools involved in comprehensive school improvement and in developing a professional learning community, one critical issue facing schools today is the limited time that staff spend together talking about their work. Making time to engage staff in discussions about their learning and teaching practice is imperative. Several of the schools that SEDL studied engaged their staff and administrators in faculty study groups. Another school came together in grade-level groups to learn, discuss, and problem-solve around the implementation of a new curriculum. At a few school sites, the entire faculty began to examine the state standards and the implementation of them in the classroom curriculum. Engaging the staff in ongoing inquiry and learning is the most significant element of successfully creating a professional learning community in any school.

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Published in Professional Learning Communities: An Ongoing Exploration