In preparation for our upcoming four-day focused conversation with Rick and Becky DuFour on the nuts and bolts of transforming traditional schools into dynamic professional learning communities (see here and here), I wanted to review their newest book, Revisiting Professional Learning Communities at Work for you.
Here are my thoughts:
A little over six years ago, I walked into an interview that changed who I am as an educator. Matt Wight—one of North Carolina’s finest principals—had been given the opportunity to open a brand new middle school and I wanted to work for him in the worst way.
Why? Because it was five minutes away from home, of course! Why else?
It wasn’t long, though, before I realized that working at Salem Middle School was going to be unlike any experience that I’d ever had in my 10-year career. “We’re going to do things a bit differently,” Matt told me from the moment I walked in the door.
“We’re going to work to become a professional learning community.”
Ninety minutes later, I walked out of Matt’s office with a copy of Professional Learning Communities at Work and a homework assignment. “Read through this when you get a chance,” Matt said, “and let me know what you think.”
I spent the better part of the weekend with PLCs at Work—as my dog-eared copy and agitated wife could attest—and I was hooked! With each chapter, my excitement for what teaching could be grew.
Finally, “experts” were arguing that teachers should be centrally involved in decision-making. Finally, “experts” were arguing that conversations between teachers that were focused on teaching and learning were a meaningful form of professional development. Finally, “experts” were arguing that the key to successful schools rests in the hearts and minds of classroom teachers.
Needless to say, I took a job at Salem as soon as Matt called to offer it—and I’ve spent almost every day since working to put the kinds of pieces into place that PLCs at Work suggest form the foundation of a community committed to student learning.
And my learning team members were deeply committed to each other and to our school from day one. We believed in the shared mission that we developed during our August workdays together. We made decisions that were aligned to our core beliefs and challenged those that weren’t. We worked to find ways to identify and amplify accomplished practices and to treat every student as “our” student—all concepts that we’d drawn from DuFour and Eaker.
But despite our efforts, we struggled.
We hastily skipped over the vision and goal setting process detailed in PLCs at Work, wanting to get started and not sure of exactly what visions and goals would add to the mission statement that we were already proud of. We developed common summative assessments but failed to figure out that formative assessments were more meaningful to our students. We believed in remediation and enrichment, but took action at the end of units instead of in the course of instruction.
To put it simply, we had a simple understanding of what exactly a professional learning community was supposed to look like in action. We weren’t failing at the process, but we were working a helluva’ lot harder—and having less of an impact—than any of us expected.
We knew something was wrong as more and more of our colleagues across our district talked of “doing” PLCs as if it were some kind of part-time rehabilitation program! The deep and meaningful vision for what schools could be was getting lost somewhere in translation, even as our building leaders and teacher teams were sent to training sessions and pep talks.
We’d inadvertently watered down something designed to be powerful.
Which is exactly why Rick DuFour, Becky DuFour and Bob Eaker decided to write Revisiting Professional Learning Communites at Work! In their travels around the country—which took them to schools of every shape and size—the 3Rs realized that experiences like ours were not unique.
Districts were turning core principles into checklists and worksheets. PLCs were being viewed as a new program instead of as an ongoing process. Teachers and school leaders were looking forward to finally “becoming” a learning community so they could move on to something else, failing to recognize that learning never ends in a PLC.
In Revisiting, Rick, Becky and Bob work to provide concrete, tangible support to schools struggling with professional learning communities.
They begin by reemphasizing the important role that collective commitments play the success and failure of learning communities, providing examples of schools who have made their mission and vision statements the cornerstone of their work together and suggestions for creating the kinds of coalitions necessary for change to take hold in a building.
Next—in a nod to the idea that everyone can continually improve—they detail a collection of new discoveries and key principles that they have made during their work with learning communities over the past 10 years. As they explain:
“In the time since we wrote Professional Learning Communities at Work, we have acquired much knowledge as we have worked with schools and districts to implement the PLC concept. This enables us to offer richer and more helpful ideas to contemporary educators.”
Readers of Revisiting learn more about the real work that learning teams wrestle with every day. They look inside the cycle of professional reflection, wrestle with effective assessment practices, explore systematic interventions, and begin to understand the challenge of changing cultures.
Throughout, they are exposed to practical tools, strategies and suggestions that can help to provide the kind of structure so often lacking for learning teams. First steps are recommended, false steps are forewarned, and success stories are spotlighted.
In short, Revisiting Professional Learning Communities at Work serves to refocus well-intentioned schools who have taken a few wayward steps on the road to restructuring as professional learning communities. It is a more practical title than its forefather, providing the kinds of tangible action strategies that can make the difference between energized and exhausted educators.
And it’s left me excited all over again!
But don’t take my word for it.
Come and join us from September 8th through the 11th as we work together to understand more about the actions necessary for making every school a professional learning community to be proud of.