Principal advice

11.12.13 | Learning on the EDge | 0 Comments

By Rick Dufour

Oscar Wilde once wrote, “Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.” If this is the case, I gained a lot of “experience” as the principal of a PLC school because I made a lot of mistakes.  Based upon these experiences, I share the following advice.

Don’t skip mission. When you begin to implement PLC practices, there is a tendency to focus on “restructuring” your school, while disregarding “reculturing.” While it’s important to address site programs and procedures, two fundamental assumptions are at the foundation of all PLC practices: You must believe that all students can learn at high levels, and you must assume responsibility to make this outcome a reality for every child. Unfortunately, many schools embrace an entirely opposite cultural outlook, believing instead that the socioeconomic factors of poverty, race, and language are the strongest determining factors of student success. If most of your school staff does believes that neither they nor their students have the ability to overcome these outside factors, no structural change will overcome this defeatist school culture. If you implement structural changes before building consensus on a mission of learning for all, it would be like building a house, but starting with the roof.

It’s not “buy-in,” but “ownership.” The most common obstacle I hear from administrators starting down the road to becoming a PLC is a lack of staff “buy-in.” Honestly, I dislike the term “buy-in” — it sounds like a Texas-Hold’em Tournament and has a connotation that you must offer your faculty incentives to help students learn. It is not a question of “buy-in”, but empowerment and ownership. People vest themselves into what they help create, so if you want “buy-in,” engage your staff as equal partners in creating the collective vision and practices of your school. Don’t wait for universal support because it is a standard that provides each person on the staff with veto power over taking action. In our school, we took action when two criteria had been meet. First, we ensured that all points of view were heard. We used a process to ensure dissenting opinions were voiced and considered. Second, we asked if the will of the group was evident — even to those who most opposed it. If we met these criteria, we went forward.

Essential means essential. There are six essential characteristics to being a PLC.

  1. Shared mission, vision, collective commitments, and goals;
  2. Collaborative teams focused on learning;
  3. Collective inquiry into the current reality of the school and best school practices;
  4. An action orientation;
  5. Continuous improvement practices embedded into the routine practices of the school; and
  6. A focus on results and a commitment to use evidence of student learning to inform and improve professional practice and to better meet the needs of individual students.

They are called essential for a reason: Failure to address even one will ultimately impede the success of the whole. In addition, don’t fall into the trap of viewing these characteristics as an implementation “check-list” — that is, by creating a new school mission statement or putting teachers into collaborative teams, you can check off a task on your PLC “to-do” list. This managerial approach to PLC implementation lacks a deep understanding of the essential characteristics and how they work interdependently to create an ongoing process to improve student learning. The characteristics are not singular actions to accomplish, but ongoing goals that must be continually reconsidered and embedded within all the school’s beliefs and procedures.

Finally, don’t confuse “simple” with “easy.” One of the compelling attributes of PLCs is the simplicity of its practices —  or as many people say, “It just makes sense.” Unfortunately, human nature has a tendency to associate “simple” with “easy.”  Being a PLC is not “easy”; if it was, everyone would be doing it.  At the same time, I could not imagine a more noble or professionally rewarding pursuit.


About Rick Dufour

RICK DUFOUR is an author and consultant specializing in the development of professional learning communities. His last Kappan article “Work together: But only if you want to,” Phi Delta Kappan, 92 (5), February 2011, pp. 57-61.

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