Dear Principals of Professional Learning Communities,
Can I push your thinking for a minute?
I’d like to suggest that learning teams — NOT school principals — should be the primary source of instructional leadership in PLCs. I’d also like to suggest that using titles like “the instructional leader” to describe the role of the principal in a PLC is incongruous with the core principles of professional learning communities.
Here’s why: In the best professional learning communities, teams of teachers relentlessly question their practice together in service of student learning. They design and develop ways to measure the impact of their instructional decisions and then take action based on what they have learned. Their primary goal is to amplify the best teaching strategies on their hallway in the interest of seeing every student succeed.
On high-functioning teams, questions are asked, new ideas are tried, evidence is gathered, and changes are made over and over again in ongoing cycles of collective inquiry. Teachers begin to trust each other and to tap into the professional know-how of their peers whenever they are struggling with a genuine problem of practice. They take a “these are our kids” approach to their work — constantly sharing and reflecting and revising together.
That intellectual symbiosis — the genuine sense that every teacher can benefit from the individual expertise of their collaborative partners — is the pinnacle of PLC work. Teams who reach that level of collaborative development go beyond merely surviving the school year. They THRIVE, energized and empowered by the realization that they can tackle anything together.
Leadership around instruction on high-functioning learning teams happens organically every time that individual teachers step forward to help their colleagues solve a particularly knotty problem. What’s more, high-functioning teams learn to lean on the right leaders at the right time and to use the power of relationships to influence the practices of their peers in deep and meaningful ways.
Now don’t get me wrong: I am NOT trying to diminish the role that principals play in the success of schoolhouses. In fact, I would go as far as to argue that nothing matters MORE to the success of the school than the actions taken by principals.
On top of the never-ending list of managerial tasks that fall on your shoulders — things like garnering support in the broader community, monitoring upgrades to the physical plant, and making sure that the busses run on time — you help to articulate a core mission and vision for your building. You provide direction by ensuring that every action aligns with that core mission and vision. You build capacity in teachers — both as individuals and as teams — to tackle the kind of collaborative study of practice that matters. You serve as an intellectual sounding board when teachers and teams stagnate. You hold people accountable for doing more and being better than they ever thought possible.
ALL of that work is powerful and important and the key to the development of high-functioning PLCs, but I REALLY DO worry about the consequences of calling it “instructional leadership.”
Why should teachers believe in the power of collaboration around practice if leadership around instruction — the fundamental task of classroom teachers and learning teams — is officially given to the principal? Similarly, why would we believe in the expertise of our colleagues when formal titles suggest that leadership around instruction is the responsibility of the principal instead of practitioners?
In fact, I’d go as far as to argue that the best PLC principals don’t even want to be “THE instructional leader” of their schools.
Instead, they want to create the conditions that enable teachers and learning teams to provide instructional leadership to one another — and by constantly sending the message that expertise around practice belongs to practitioners instead of principals, they leave their learning teams and teachers empowered to accept responsibility for finding ways to meet the needs of every learner.
Does this make any sense?
I guess what I am trying to say is that if you want teacher teams to truly believe in their power — and their professional obligation — to influence practice, remind them that THEY are the instructional experts.
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