Note: Casey Reason co-authored this post with guest-blogger Dr. Todd Nichols, Ed.D.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said “life is a succession of lessons, which must be lived to be understood.” The implication is that the life lessons we are meant to embrace cannot be learned unless there is a commitment to get in there and live those life lessons with a deep sense of awareness. While Emerson didn’t elaborate, it’s clear that one of the best tools we have in making the most of our lived experiences is having the discipline to consistently reflect on those experiences in a deep and thoughtful way. While this is a great personal discipline, through PLCs we’ve come to understand that one of the best ways to improve that strategic reflection process is to use the power of a valued team or group. In your own professional life experiences, think about how many times you have had a series of experiences occur wherein those experiences were made much more valuable to you after you had the opportunity to reflect with colleagues on the meaning of those experiences and the takeaways that were most valuable.
Perhaps one of the most under-realized benefits of professional learning communities is the ongoing presence of a committed peer group and the capacity within that group or team to help each member check their own perceptions, share experiences, and improve. While we know this advantage to be true of teachers working in schools in professional learning communities, it’s also true of leaders who are attempting to grow in their roles as well. Giving school leaders an opportunity to participate in a learning community allows them to more deeply embrace their experiences and reflect on them in a way that leads to sustained levels of growth and improvement. That said, it is often difficult for school leaders to create these learning communities. Many smaller schools in the United States have perhaps only one school administrator. Furthermore, there may be many miles between schools and the capacity to create community is likewise diminished.
That old hindrance however is changing to some degree thanks to the ubiquitous presence of technology. Fredrick Taylor (1911) first presented the scientific management principles in which the leader’s role was clear. It was to plan, monitor, and control human behavior en route to achieving the organization’s aims. However, as Thomas Friedman (2007) presented in The World is Flat, the global economic playing field is balancing, the world works at a faster rate and according to IBM human knowledge will soon double at a rate of every 12 hours (Schilling, 2013). A shift is underway from the isolation of a singular organizational structure dominated by command and control leadership to a new paradigm characterized by collaboration and connection or “agency” (Fullan, 2005). The best way to learn the nuances of leadership in this new paradigm is to access leadership teams. While we create, and have seen the value of, professional learning communities in our buildings a districts, to keep up with the rate of change in human knowledge, building principals must collaborate outside of their districts.
Research shows that in education, school and district leadership are second only to classroom instruction among the school-related factors that influence student achievement (Hattie, 2009; Leithwood & Jantzi, 2008; MacIver & Farley-Ripple, 2008; Marzano & Waters, 2008). Given the critical role of school leadership and the relative regional isolation associated with building-level leader positions, the notion of virtual collaboration across a state-wide, national, or international network can provide resources and perspective to encourage leadership in a global community.
We recommend strongly that school leaders be given an opportunity to improve their professional practice by likewise joining a leadership team and utilizing what we know about the PLC process to help them improve their professional practice. Here are a few creative options we have been working on with schools over the last several years. As you reflect on this list, think about the richness of the interaction that’s possible within the learning communities described below. Also keep in mind, if leader teams can’t meet face-to-face, tools like Skype and Google hangout make meeting in real time while still at a distance an easily established possibility.
Getting Specific about Leadership Learning Communities
- New area/regional leaders – In many cases school leaders emerge from the classroom and pursue a series of leadership positions for the remainder of their career. Since a majority of educators tend to stay within the same region, one recommendation would be to create a new leader PLC made up of leaders within a local area or region (DuFour & Fullan, 2013). The advantage of this approach is simple. Many of these leaders will likely work together in one form or another in years to come. They may jump districts and wind up working for or with one another at a later date. By creating opportunities for the leaders to meet consistently, there is a much better opportunity for them to enhance their own learning and to more comprehensively reflect on their new experiences in leadership positions. This also creates a dynamic where the schools in an entire region position themselves to be well led in the future.
- High-Performing Outliers – In education we unfortunately have become altogether too comfortable with being standard or average. Some leaders are simply out-performing the standard, and their approaches should be supported. More importantly, their creative impulses and sensibilities should be nurtured and even challenged. Rather than simply offering them an occasional thanks for their energy and efforts, why not create leadership learning communities that celebrate and consistently connect high-performing outliers, allowing them to learn more from one another and potentially push a good school leader to great and perhaps a great school leader towards achieving outstanding, transformational practice (Reason, 2014).
- Local Learning Communities – Sometimes the simplest solutions are the most profound. If your district is big enough to have multiple elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools, it would be helpful to establish ongoing learning communities by level with occasional opportunities for vertical leadership team interaction and growth. We’ve been consistently surprised by the degree to which even local leaders are at times unaware of some of the innovations going on in other schools within their own district.
- National and international teams-Creating opportunities to connect with school leaders located more than 50 miles away has some advantage, doesn’t it? In some cases 5000 miles of distance or more between buildings can create an even greater sense of curiosity and wonder. While the first three options may be the most practical, this fourth leadership team configuration might offer a creative impetus for innovation that might not exist otherwise. Casey has connected principals from Dubai to Des Moines and when those connections are made, leadership capacity is challenged to expand.
Sadly, we have seen some very bad examples of the aforementioned leadership learning communities. Armed with very little knowledge of the processes associated with successful professional learning communities, we have observed well intended districts holding very traditional meetings with very little opportunity for learning, growth, and reflection – presented under the moniker PLC. We recommend strongly that if you intend to involve your leaders in a learning community, you should treat that leadership and learning experience with the same sacred precision and care that high functioning teacher led PLCs have been utilizing for years (DuFour & Reason, 2015). These collaborative experiences should revolve around the pursuit of improved results. There should be a careful examination of key local data points and examination of the processes and approaches that lead to these results. These learning opportunities should involve deep, sustainable, and consistent opportunities to collaborate, share, and grow. We believe we still have a lot to learn about opportunities to bring leaders together. The technology however makes these connecting points easier to achieve. By giving them an opportunity to connect, like Emerson suggests, leaders will have a much better chance of bringing a deeper level of understanding to their lived experiences each day in school.