Thursday, December 9, 2010

Administrators’ Role in Establishing Successful PLCs Proficiency 2 of 5: Model Collaborative Behavior

This post if from guest blogger Amy Chamberlain, a content producer at School Improvement Network.
Note: This is part two of five in a series that discusses how administrators can support and sustain the growth of professional learning communities (PLCs) in their jurisdiction.  
The Sanger Unified School District in Sanger, California is an area of high diversity and rapid demographic change—and one that is experiencing a tremendous amount of student success. Much of this they credit to the widespread use of professional learning communities, or PLCs.

When they are well established, PLCs have a measurable and immediate effect on the quality of teaching and student success. Every educator I talked to in the Sanger Unified School District told me that their PLCs played a key role in the tremendous turn-around they and their students enjoyed (in seven years, the Sanger Unified School District went from a program improvement district to one of the top in the state; two of only thirty-five California Blue Ribbon Schools are located in SUSD).

While the day-to-day work of PLCs happens at the faculty level, administrators play a key role in creating an atmosphere where true collaboration can flourish. Sanger administrators developed five proficiencies that encouraged healthy PLCs throughout the district. These proficiencies are:

1) Develop instructional expertise
2) Model collaborative behavior
3) Hold PLC members accountable for good results
4) Create environments where trust is possible
5) Get—and stay—involved in faculty PLCs

This blog entry focuses on the second proficiency: modeling collaborative behavior.
Marc Johnson, the Superintendent of the Sanger Unified School District, inherited a culture that he describes as “fractured and broken.” The district had been seen as a meat-grinder of sorts, with the result being high levels of suspicion, mistrust, and a closed-door approach to teaching. Eleven years ago, when Marc became the superintendent, he saw that the culture had to change. No longer could teachers function as “independent contractors” and meet the needs of a highly diverse student body. “We had to move to a team approach,” he says.
To encourage this fundamental shift in behavior, Marc began to model collaborative practices. Successfully shifting a set of assumptions, he claims, “requires that leadership is actively engaged.” He explains, “Collaboration is not something that just teachers do. We have professional learning communities that are really functioning at all levels. I have a deputy superintendent and an associate superintendent and we are in almost every respect a professional learning community as well.”

Moving toward a culture of collaboration can generate fear amongst staff who are not used to sharing their teaching strategies and results. Because of natural resistance to change, Marc says “no one can assume that a culture of collaboration will develop. You have to nurture that. You reframe the conversation so it’s never about the person. It’s about the outcome, and how we can collectively work together to change that outcome.” Focusing on results, rather than on the person, helps establish the trust necessary for true collaboration. John Yost, principal of Washington Academic Middle School, sums up the point of these collaborative conversations: “You’re on a treasure hunt, not a witch hunt.”

John Wash Elementary School principal Wes Sever modeled collaborative behavior for his staff by reaching out to other principals in his area and creating his own PLC. “I realized there were other schools making the same reforms we were making,” he said. “So I started meeting with the principals of the three schools that were closest to us demographically.” These informal meetings evolved into the “Northside PLC,” a valuable learning and collaborative resource. “It’s a friendly competition,” says Wes of the group. “We are learning from them and they are learning from us.” When John Wash Elementary became a national Blue Ribbon school, Wes said, “Two of the schools in the Northside PLC had results similar to mine. So I had to call up the [Blue Ribbon] committee and find out why those other schools weren’t nominated too.” The next year, three of the four Northside PLC schools were nominated as Blue Ribbon schools. “Collaboration breeds success,” Wes notes. “When I ask my faculty to collaborate, I’m not making them do anything that I’m not doing already.”

Effective administrators do more than just encourage faculty to collaborate. They model good PLC efforts to demonstrate their commitment to establishing an atmosphere of collaboration and trust. Faculty are much more willing to move to a culture of group work when administration models this behavior for them so they can see the benefits.

Part Three: The next blog entry discusses Administration Proficiency #3: Hold PLC members accountable for good results.

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