The principalship, like teaching, can be an isolating profession. Rick DuFour and colleagues1
have promoted professional learning communities as a way for teachers to meet regularly to catalyze one another's learning. But what about community for principals?
Three years ago, we—an elementary school principal (Bill) and a secondary school principal (Matt) in the same school district—realized that, like our teachers, we needed a nonthreatening place to share problems and exchange strategies. We looked at our weekly calendars crammed with parent conferences, supervisory duties, central office meetings, and community events and asked ourselves, What if we carved out a time together that was agenda free and competition free but still focused on the real work of the principal?
So we did just that. The two of us began meeting at each other's schools for an hour or two once a month to talk about our practice and brainstorm ideas. We didn't realize it at the time, but we were setting up our own professional learning community. The two of us have met monthly ever since, even over the summer. We have found our "vertical professional learning community" richly rewarding.
It's a novel concept: school improvement emerging from two practitioners who meet informally to air problems, float ideas, and share our latest learning rather than emerging from the formal "school improvement" meetings we both still attend. Our discussions and brief observations of each other's schools have yielded, refined, and helped us put in practice some of our best ideas.
How We Make It Happen
What makes these meetings more than social occasions are our team norms. We'd like to share six practices we've developed that make our meetings work—peppered with some examples of how our collaboration has improved our leadership and our schools.
1. We honor each other's time.
In September, we schedule our meetings for the entire year on our calendars. We confirm each meeting in advance and start and end our meetings promptly; we know we can table any big ideas for the next one. Although we don't generally come to these tête-à-têtes with an agenda, we sometimes shoot each other an e-mail or call each other to communicate something we may want to discuss to give the other time to think about the topic. Our only protocol is that we allow each other to both share questions or dilemmas and give advice.
2. We bypass whining and head straight to problem solving.
When either of us takes a negative turn in our discourse, the other is responsible for moving us into problem-solving mode so that any complaint becomes the basis for collaboration. Our time together is short. We want to end meetings on a positive note and leave each other with a new idea or two to try.
For example, Bill was frustrated that the walk-through observations of teachers he regularly performed, with accompanying feedback, didn't seem to be having much effect on instruction. He knew that his teachers needed guidance on things like pacing and using Bloom's taxonomy, but walk-throughs weren't helping.
Bill shared this frustration with Matt. Matt asked how quickly after the observations teachers received feedback. It became clear that one problem was that Bill would wait until he'd done five walk-throughs before giving a teacher feedback summing up what he had noticed. This meant that teachers received feedback only at the end of a quarter, rather than hearing ongoing information that might have shaped their teaching.
Matt shared a simple observation checklist he had developed that enabled him to provide each of his 150 teachers with feedback immediately after he observed them. Bill began using this tool, eventually e-mailing the completed form to teachers right after he finished each observation. Teachers appreciated the immediate feedback and made positive changes in instruction.
3. We focus on improving instruction.
We regularly brief each other on our progress in areas we've targeted for school improvement. We may discuss steps that Matt's staff is initiating to improve the high school's graduation rate at one meeting and examine changes in the rate a year later. Bill has shared data on his students' math proficiency, the math interventions and enrichment strategies the school has tried, and the eventual results. Our results orientation forces us to know our data.
4. We commit to honesty and share information without competition.
We swap stories about both our breakthroughs and our setbacks. Our talks generally focus on the positive steps we have seen each other take, but we are also honest and critical with each other.
5. We observe instruction together.
Principals in our district have committed to performing frequent "four-minute walk-through" observations of teachers. During our meeting, we do a walk-through together and share insights. These observations ground our conversations in instructional supervision.
The last time we met, we watched a 4th grade math class at Bill's school estimating and calculating change for a dollar on a virtual shopping trip. As we stood to go, Bill whispered, "Where do you put that on Bloom's taxonomy?" For the next 10 minutes, we exchanged views and calibrated our observations using our walk-through rubric.
6. We spur professional growth.
We are both avid readers and come to our meetings eager to talk about things we have read that touch on education and leadership. We talk about the future of education in Virginia and the United States in light of recent research and reform measures. We discuss relevant conferences and recent "best practice" strategies that are having a positive effect on our schools. We have presented jointly at leadership events and served on committees together, and we emphasize our shared perspective as team members when we do so.
The Difference That Enriches
The difference in the grade levels that we serve enhances, rather than diminishes, our ability to advise each other and provide a fresh perspective. We have found that effective teaching looks quite similar in a 1st grade and an 11th grade classroom and that we both often need to nudge teachers toward engaging students more, assessing appropriately, and differentiating instruction.
Both of us work in challenging situations. At Bill's school, which feeds into Matt's high school, 50 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunch. Matt's school also educates many students from low-income families. What works at the elementary level can often be adapted to the secondary level, and vice versa.
For instance, we both see a tremendous range of ability in our students. We both struggle with how to keep ability grouping flexible enough so that all students remain challenged—but not overwhelmed—throughout the school year. Because high school students take standardized tests more frequently than elementary students do, Matt found it easier to look at individual data and monitor whether students were being challenged appropriately or needed to move to higher-level classes midsemester.
Although frequent formal testing wouldn't benefit elementary kids, Matt and Bill brainstormed how they might take the best of this high school approach and apply it at Bill's school. Bill decided to have teachers start using exit slips—which informally measure whether each student understands key concepts—in all math classes and to examine data from these slips every two weeks. By looking at individual data every two weeks rather than quarterly, teachers could regroup students as needed.
Accepting the Challenge
We know what you're thinking: "This sounds great, but I don't have time for one more meeting." We challenge readers who are administrators to try this before you put down this article: Go to your monthly calendar. Look two months ahead, find a free hour, call a principal you know, and ask that colleague to meet you during that free hour. Offer to bring coffee or lunch. If the meeting goes well, suggest that you try it every month and agree to keep that time protected. In a few years, both of you will wonder why you thought you didn't have time for the best ideas you'll ever encounter.
DuFour, R. (2004). What is a "professional learning community?" Educational Leadership, 61(8) 6–11.
William L. Sterrett is Principal at Woodbrook Elementary School in Charlottesville, Virginia; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Matthew Haas was Principal at Albemarle High School in Charlottesville for five years and was recently named Director of Secondary Education for Albemarle County Schools;
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