My last few blogs have focused on the collaborative efforts that are important to create common purpose and understanding in a school. This week, I want to take you to a small elementary school in St. Paul, Minnesota. During a recent visit there, I saw a great example of how collaborative efforts are changing student lives. Let’s have a look…
At Cherokee Heights Elementary School, the staff have been working hard to honor the collective commitments that they made together in August 2016. These commitments included being open-minded and practicing transparent communication, working as collaborative teams, focusing on equity for all students and their individual needs, asking thoughtful questions when clarification is needed, facilitating a student-centered environment and working respectfully with students, staff, families and visitors to the school. The staff will revise these as part of their ongoing work as needed. In fact, during my last visit, the staff met together to revisit their school improvement goals and collectively, shared celebrations and what they envisioned as next steps. The highlight of this day, for me, was when one teacher, Jessica Bernard (in the photo) shared her collaborative team’s work and what they learned together. Through their student data they were able to see specific needs of the students and as a team, they agreed on very detailed strategies to work with the students to meet these needs. Jessica was excited to explain this work to the staff and it was a true moment of learning together. (Trust me, her ability to “lead” with her growing expertise was so apparent to everyone in the room!). The teachers asked reflective questions of Jessica and her team and saw the benefit of strengthening their own collaborative practices. As a school, led by Principal Rivera, they are making gains in knowing and doing what is best for students. The collective commitments have gone from notes on a piece of paper to having legs and moving a school. They know that they have lots of room to grow but it sure feels like they are now in one boat and rowing in the same direction! I am excited to be with them on their journey and I know that their students and families are benefiting from their combined efforts.
As I talked to you about before, I work with a high school principal named Jan.
When Jan first became principal of her high school, she knew that she had to start with understanding what the school could become so she started by preparing a mission statement and wrote out her vision for the school. She talked to the teachers about what she wanted and truly believed they understood what they all had to do. So why did it not go well? What is wrong with this picture? You got it… she did the work… she told the teachers… and they did not buy in. Oh, there were some teachers that understood this to be the right work and knew that Jan had a vision for the school. But, over time, it really just became her vision… what she wanted to accomplish. Not what the collective team wanted to do for students. They didn’t really see beyond being a “group” and their collaborative efforts were more out of compliance. As I wrote about earlier, in true professional learning communities teachers work interdependently- that is key to this working (as witnessed at Cherokee Heights) and despite Jan’s efforts, this was not happening yet at her school. So we started again…
And, as Jan started over with her staff, she depended on a resource that is significant in my work, Learning by Doing (2016). Dr. Richard DuFour, Becky DuFour and their coauthor’s clearly define that the foundation of a professional learning community “rests on the four pillars of mission, vision, values and goals.” Jan started with a small group of teacher leaders in the school. We called this the guiding coalition. Their role was to build common understanding first of the four pillars of the collaborative work before moving forward with the entire staff. They read, they studied, they talked and most importantly they increased their own understanding of what the current reality of the school really was. They tried really hard to be honest and to truly share their feelings and desires for the school. As I have said before… this is a work in progress. Deeply reflecting on and answering the following questions provided Jan’s team with a sense of common purpose and shared ownership: Why we exist? (mission), What we want our school to accomplish? (vision), How we must behave to achieve our vision? (values) and How will we mark our progress? (goals). But this didn’t come without its challenges.
This kind of discussion can cause teachers to feel vulnerable and it takes courage to respectfully and professionally to have discourse with your peers when you are talking about values and beliefs. It is necessary work, however, when you want to build shared ownership. Like Cherokee Heights, Jan’s staff successfully created collective commitments based on these four pillars and are now working to build shared ownership of all of their students. Remember my friend Willie and some of the other students at this school? I wrote about them a few blogs back. Willie articulated very clearly that he didn’t feel that the teachers believed in the students. And we addressed this with the teachers as we worked through these conversations leading to the collective commitments. One commitment that the staff made together was to create relationships, through one on one conversations with students. And this one commitment has truly changed the lives of the students at Willie’s school.
So, here are my parting thoughts for you in this ninth blog on school improvement: If you are in a school, what are you personally doing to create authentic collaborative discussions? Are you truly sharing ownership of students? Where are you on a scale of 1-10 when you think about connections with students? Have you had these discussions as a school? It doesn’t matter what position you hold, you have a responsibility to use the four pillars as the foundation of your collective ability to move your school forward. See you next Saturday. Thanks again for reading!