As you may have guessed from my posts here on the Radical, I’ve spent the better part of the past two months presenting on professional learning communities for Solution Tree.

The work has been interesting simply because it’s allowed me to get a sense for the kinds of issues that schools are facing as they work to restructure as collaborative groups.

One of the questions that is asked time and again in my sessions is, “If we’re classroom teachers working in a building with a principal who is resistant to collaboration—or who just doesn’t get it—what can we do to get the ball rolling in the right direction?”

Interesting question, isn’t it?  And a sad one at that!

It’s hard to believe that there are still principals who aren’t convinced that colleagues working together are more effective than colleagues working in isolation.  I mean the research base IS pretty clear—and it’s supported by darn near every educational heavyweight in the industry today.

That being said, I’m a realist.  I get that some principals are going to be more motivated by—and effective at leading—collaborative communities than others.

So what can you do if you’re stuck in a building with a leader struggling to get his or her head wrapped around the important role that collaboration can play in school improvement?

Here are two suggestions:

Work within your own sphere of influence

Teachers often burn themselves out quickly when working to affect change at the building level because they try to tackle projects and have influence in places where they have no organizational power.

Need an example?

Most of the time, we have no control over the master schedule in our buildings.  It’s just not an area that we can make changes on our own.  But changing the master schedule has great potential for improving professional learning communities, so teachers interested in seeing PLCs work will often feel incredibly passionate about seeing their master schedules changed.

Sadly, that’s a recipe for professional frustration—especially in a building where you’re questioning your leadership.

Instead, try tackling tasks that do fall within your sphere of influence.  While you may not be able to change your master schedule, I’ll bet that you can use the time on your learning team creatively to provide enrichment and remediation to your students.

It might require convincing your peers to buy into something new, but that’s a lot more likely than trying to convince your building principal to make changes to the master schedule.

Not only will you be happier if you work within your sphere of influence, you’ll be more successful—and nothing is more convincing to school leaders than success!

As your learning team starts to produce results that are unmatched by the peers in your building working traditionally, I’ll bet cash that your principal will take notice and start asking questions.

Develop positive relationships with your bossman

Here’s an uncomfortable truth for you:  As much as we like to talk about teacher leadership as a force for change in education, it just isn’t true.  Teachers today have no more organizational power than teachers from previous generations.

We don’t control budgets.  We don’t set final directions.  We don’t make choices that are implemented at the school level.  We can’t evaluate our peers or hold them to any standards of performance.  We don’t choose professional development.

Discouraging, isn’t it?  Especially if you’re motivated to see change happen across an entire building instead of just your team!

After all, effective PLC implementation DOES require new directions.  It DOES require new forms of professional development.  We DO have to spend money differently and hold teachers to new standards.  Without new organizational choices, new organizational directions are impossible—and we have no control over organizational choices.

Which is where influence by proximity comes in.

Think for a second about the people who change your principal’s mind.  What do they all share in common?

Right:  They seem to spend tons of time with the principal, don’t they.  You see them hanging out in the principal’s office when you walk by.  You see them chatting the boss up in the lunchroom or at bus duty.  They have coffee together every day once the kids are gone.

Maybe they’ve got it easy because they’re not with students all day long.  Just stopping by the principal’s office to build relationships through formal and informal interactions IS pretty hard, after all, when you’re locked in a classroom with 12 year olds from the morning bell until recess starts.

But the fact of the matter is THEY’RE influential because THEY’RE spending time with the boss.

That’s influence by proximity—and it’s the only way that teachers can have any kind of juice in a schoolhouse.  While we can’t make decisions, we can have good relationships with those who DO make decisions—which means that our ideas are likely to seep into the school culture.

Sounds a lot like sucking up, doesn’t it?

That’s because it IS a form of sucking up!

Need a more professional word for it?  Call it “ingratiating yourself with your superior.”

But whatever you call it, if you want to have influence over the direction of your building, you’ve got to start to develop your relationship with your principal.

So how do you do that?

Let me get all Dr. Phil on ya’ for  a minute: Developing relationships with coworkers and bosses depends on a balance between personal and professional interactions.

Show your principal that you appreciate the work that they’re doing.  Compliment freely when things go right.  Ask about their children or grandchildren.  Share stories about your children or grandchildren.

Smile once in awhile!

As your relationship grows, start pushing a bit.  Share articles with him/her on PLC concepts.  Let them see the new materials that you’re creating to structure the work of your team.

Point them towards resources and books that you think might be helpful.  Find videos of PLC presenters talking about concepts that your school is wrestling with.

Sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it?

That’s because it IS a lot of work—and if you don’t like it or don’t have the time for it, quit your whining about wanting to have influence and move on already!

The fact of the matter is we choose how much time and energy we want to invest in our relationships with our principals and if we want to be influential, we need to make a conscious commitment to invest time and energy into the development of our bosses.

Any of this make sense to you?  I guess what I’m trying to say is that if you’re working for a principal who is struggling with the PLC picture, there ARE steps that you can take to drive change in your school.

Those steps, though, have to be taken carefully.  The ‘bull-in-a-china-shop” approach is rarely effective.

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