That day in late spring, the Arizona sun was a searing cauldron. Lush, prickly teddy-bear cactus lined the winding, rising mountain trail as our shoes slipped and gripped in the gravel. Although the desert is my home and the trail familiar to me, guests Rick and Becky DuFour took the lead charging up the steep pathway. That day, years before, and years after, I took pleasure in learning from and following Richard DuFour. In following him, I learned a lot. Given his recent passing, I’d like to celebrate him and share just a few things I learned on the trail.
Take time to personalize
Years earlier I met Rick at my school district in Northville, Michigan, where I was the assistant superintendent. A huge PLC event, the participants were abuzz with excitement after Rick’s energizing keynote and breakout. As he loaded his neatly packed suitcase into the sedan to get to the airport, there was noise and chaos everywhere as happy conference-goers said goodbye, to each other and to Rick. With perhaps a slight visage of exhaustion, I saw him look over and notice me. He smiled, shut the trunk, marched over, and rigorously shook my hand—thanking me profusely for hosting the event, encouraging me to finish my first Solution Tree book and reminding me to take care of my young, twin sons.
PLCs are about personalizing your school and making the time to make meaningful connections, even when you’re busy, distracted and tired. I had read the PLC books and organized my schools accordingly. In that moment, however, I got to see that taking time to personalize isn’t just something you build into your schedule. It’s from the heart, and it’s about investing in and caring about the lives of others.
Remember your mission (with love)
Years later, when having lunch with Rick, he once again asked about my sons, remembering what was important to me. At the time I was coaching them in baseball. He said “I have a picture I keep near my desk. I’m coaching my son Matt in the photo. I really treasure that memory. Don’t miss those moments, Casey, they pass too quickly—those moments are everything.”
PLCs are founded in establishing and living your Mission, Vision, Values and Goals. Living your mission means knowing what you’re working for, in school and anywhere else you roam.
Don’t you dare give up
While writing our book Professional Learning Communities at Work™ and Virtual Collaboration: On the Tipping Point of Transformation, Rick informed me that he had lung cancer. We were less than halfway through the manuscript. Before I could offer a response he insisted that the book was going to be finished. Despite his challenging speaking schedule and ongoing therapies for his rapidly advancing condition, we never missed a deadline and he managed to find the time to push me to become a better writer in the process.
The formation of PLCs gives educators a formative venue to make a difference. However, grit, gut, sweat, and sheer will undergird a successful school’s dogged determination to never, ever give up on the kids they serve and the results they continuously strive to achieve.
Extend your reach while building and trusting a team
Virtual teams, as our book suggests, allow educators to break down physical and psychological barriers and reach out and connect in ways that weren’t possible before.
I remember the night when Rick sent me the first draft of the conclusion to our book. It was 10 p.m. in my time zone and probably midnight at his home in Virginia. It was a word document with a short note: “Here’s the conclusion. Let me know what you think.”
His brilliant conclusion became the cornerstone of his keynotes that year, telling the story of the power and wisdom of connecting with others, in this case, across state lines. He told the tale in the text of his cancer diagnosis and his observance of various doctors and medical specialists each working in various cities throughout the U.S., gathering important formative evidence, sharing data, and discussing best-practice approaches and next steps. With his prognosis very much in question, he bravely shared with us the merits of the medical profession’s interdependence, teaming, and creative thinking—illustrating a breathtakingly clear picture of moving collaboration beyond local brick and mortar boundaries, and any pre-existing limits of our imagination.
I read the conclusion that night breathlessly amazed and grateful.
Follow the sun an extra mile
As we climbed the mountain on that hot day in Arizona, I marveled at the man’s strength and stamina. We reached what was the end of the trail for most. “Is that it?” He asked me? Attempting to hide my fatigue, I pushed back my shoulders and answered, “No, we can go another couple of miles. The trail isn’t used that often, but it’s out there.” I don’t even remember him asking us if we were ready. Rick just led us forward, pushing us to embrace that extra mile—or three! Last weekend, I hiked that trail again and thought about Rick, wishing he was there to push us all along.
If you are lucky enough to work in schools today, I hope you are deeply implementing the PLC process with both precision and heart. I hope you have the wisdom to personalize your work and make deep and sustaining connections with others. I hope you hold fast to your mission, and keep pushing for better results when others might just give up. And I hope you build strong teams around you, getting creative about venturing farther than others that came before you, finding that often unexplored, extra-mile within.
If you do these things, you’ll have benefited from just a few of the lessons Rick DuFour taught me, and maybe I’ll find you on that trail someday, inspiring others to keep climbing, following your lead.
Thank you Rick DuFour—for friendship, sunshine, and many, many lessons learned.