It’s been a busy few days here on the Radical:  My page views have nearly tripled since posting recently on why professional learning communities are a staff development initiative worth supporting!  Jazzed that my work resonated–and hoping for another week of ridiculous page views–I figured the time was right to tackle the kinds of specific actions necessary for sustaining momentum in learning communities.

After all, sustaining momentum has essentially been my school’s greatest struggle over the past four years.  Despite embracing the driving philosophy of learning communities from day one, most of my colleagues have thought about giving up more than once during our time together.


Because no one ever mentions how incredibly hard the work of professional learning teams really is.    Fighting nearly a century of well-established traditions is no easy task!

Think about this:  Teachers have never had to work closely with anyone before.  We’ve never had to use data to inform decision-making, never had to ensure that every child succeeds, and never had to create systems to remediate or enrich students at either end of the performance spectrum in our classes.  While these kinds of behaviors may have played a small role in the lives of some classroom teachers, never have systematic expectations been put in place to make team-based reflection a key element of the way things are done in schools—and yet all of those behaviors are core tenets of highly functioning learning communities.

School leaders join teachers in this constant fight against the almost crushing weight of history.  Once they’ve embraced learning communities as a tool for driving change, principals are forced to empower teachers to make key decisions.  To be successful, they must rethink “professional development,” release control over hiring decisions, reallocate resources to support remediation and enrichment efforts, and refocus their leadership from supervising individuals to supporting collaborative teams.

Facing such a long list of new responsibilities, it’s no wonder that the excitement surrounding professional learning communities fizzles quickly!

Battling fatigue requires three actions on the part of all members of a learning community:

1.  Celebrating Every Success:  While it may seem terribly trite, celebration is essential to keeping a new professional learning community motivated.  There are times when doubt creeps into the minds of even the highest functioning teams.  Change requires incredible effort and yet results can be slow to develop.  If a team doesn’t feel successful or have any reason to celebrate, it is significantly harder to sustain momentum.

Find every reason to praise the work of your teachers and teammates.  If you’ve got a team that has finally worked out a successful structure for meetings, praise them.  If you’ve got a team that has learned to work with data and is making their efforts public to the entire staff, praise them.  If you’ve got a team that has developed a common assessment, praise them.

No effort is too small to celebrate—and praise should come from every level of your organization.  Principals, teachers, district level leaders, and PTAs interested in seeing professional learning communities succeed should make it their personal responsibility to recognize the efforts being invested by all members of a faculty all the time.  Informal conversations and notes in mailboxes go a long way towards encouraging teams to continue even when times are tough.

2.  Refusing to let Perfection stand in the way of Innovation:  By definition, most teachers are incredibly committed to their work.  We understand that our decisions often determine the success or failure of children—and that pressure weighs heavily on our minds.  As a result, learning teams working together for the first time are often paralyzed by a fear of “doing something wrong.”

This fear often leads to inaction.  Struggling teams can spend months developing complex plans or developing sophisticated common assessments, getting bogged down by details.  Schools can spend years talking about systemic change without ever taking first steps.  This desire to be perfect before moving forward results in stagnation.

Convince your colleagues that innovation is the key.  Taking first steps is essential for any school change effort.  Be willing to move forward with new ideas that haven’t been fully tested—and be comfortable with the reality that new ideas may need polishing after implementation.  The excitement generated by change is only possible when a school is constantly innovating.  Promoting creative thinking over perfection trains teachers and teams to be action-oriented—and an action orientation defines the most successful learning communities.

3.  Embracing Non-Traditional Thinking:  The kinds of people drawn to education are typically driven by traditions.  They place high value on–and take great pride in—“the way we do things.”  To rethink is to question previous efforts—and to question previous efforts is to doubt something that you once valued greatly.

This commitment to tradition can serve as an almost insurmountable barrier to the successful implementation of learning communities.  Teachers are unwilling to rethink instructional planning and delivery because they’ve grown comfortable with strategies developed over time.  Administrators and educational professionals are unwilling to rethink allocation of resources and responsibilities because they’ve grown comfortable with roles and routines “perfected” over time.

Effective learning communities, however, are driven by non-traditional thinking.  Teachers regroup students across hallways, matching student interest and abilities with educators best suited to individual learning styles.  Every instructional strategy is questioned and evaluated, supported by evidence and reflection or discarded as ineffective.

But classroom teachers aren’t the only members of a school community that must embrace non-traditional thinking.  In highly functioning learning communities, EVERYONE works differently.  Positions that have traditionally remained distant from instructional responsibilities are redefined to address identified strengths and weaknesses in a school’s population.

Guidance counselors are more directly involved in supporting struggling students, designing outreach programs designed to target families and coordinating community services that can help to address personal challenges.  Media specialists, academically gifted teachers, instructional coaches and testing coordinators begin to contribute by providing additional time and attention to struggling students, disaggregating data and providing reports to classroom teachers, or developing comprehensive unit plans that can be easily implemented by learning teams across grade levels and content areas.

Every decision in a building is rethought in most learning communities.  Budgeting decisions change, hiring decisions change, and parent involvement efforts change.  Secretaries work differently, messages are communicated differently, and teaching positions are allocated differently.  Homework is rethought, class periods are rethought, and student feedback is rethought.

Even district level decisions must change to support learning communities!  Superintendents who want to promote collaboration between teachers and empowerment at the school level must model those behaviors at the county office.  While it may seem counterintuitive during an era of increasing control over schools, district level leaders must promote creative thinking and risk-taking in the ranks of their principals.  As Matt Wight–one of my former leadership mentors–used to say, “Successful leaders are comfortable with high degree of ambiguity.”   

This all sounds intimidating, doesn’t it? 

In many ways, restructuring schools is intimidating!  No one ever said that the work of learning communities was going to be easy.  But momentum can be sustained when successes are celebrated, innovation is promoted and non-traditional thinking is embraced. 

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