Sustain the Change Process

Even though this is the longest segment I’ve written so far, I probably discarded the most notes I had collected for this section, too! And still I feel it only barely scratches the surface of the topic… but I suppose this should be a given when I review the resources I have and try to boil them down to a thirty page paper.

In any case, here is my *overview* of what professional learning community literature has to say on sustaining the change process.

7. Sustain the Change Process

Establishing a professional learning community and then responding to obstacles, challenges, and barriers can go a long way toward improving the chances that school change initiatives will be successful. However, these efforts are easily wasted if the process is not sustained over time. Not surprisingly, professional learning community theorists also offer advice for sustaining the process. They explore the human needs for passion and persistence in addition to more structural changes.

Eaker, DuFour, and DuFour believed explained that “what the PLC model offers is a process, not a program” (p. 107), a process that DuFour and Eaker (1998) described as nonlinear and persistent (p. 282-283). A critical first step in this process is to build shared knowledge of the school’s current reality (DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, Karhanek, 2004, p. 95). It is also “imperative that the school develop a critical mass of personnel that accepts both the desirability and feasibility of transforming the school” (DuFour and Eaker, 1998, p. 286). To accomplish this and other steps, Eaker, DuFour, and DuFour (2002) recommended creation of a guiding coalition of school leadership (p. 61). The next step is the process of laying the foundation of shared mission, vision, values, and goals (p. 62-63). Then school structures, such as the schedule and organizational hierarchies, must be aligned with the professional learning community model, including time for teachers to plan or collaborate (p. 63-64). Over time, the ability to enhance team productivity by analyzing data, identifying strengths and weaknesses, reaching consensus on the reality of the past, and identifying a goal (p. 65). Perhaps most importantly, professional learning communities should “limit the number of collective commitments to a handful; five or six is plenty” (p. 103). These “collective commitments also serve as a guide for confrontation” (p. 104) when some staff are not fulfilling their commitments to the community. Huffman and Hipp (2003) articulated “five dimensions characteristic of schools with successful professional learning communities in place” (p. 6), including shared professional practice (p. 11) and “an environment that values such endeavors is enhanced by processes that encourage teachers to share their personal practices with one another… peer review and feedback on instructional practice in order to increase individual and organizational capacity” (p. 11). Finally, Eaker, DuFour, and DuFour (2002) warn that “the process need not and should not use a cookie cutter approach” (p. 81). Or, as DuFour and Eaker wrote in 1998:

“When the challenge of creating a professional learning community is reduced to a recipe or formula, it is easy to overlook the fact that this task is a passionate endeavor. A school becomes a professional learning community… by tapping into the wellsprings of emotions that lie within the professionals of that school.” (DuFour and Eaker, 1998, p. 280)

Other human “needs and yearnings that the professional learning committee seeks to address” (DuFour and Eaker, 1998, p. 280) include the “desire to succeed in one’s work” (p. 280), the “desire to belong, to feel a part of a collective endeavor” (p. 281), and the “desire to live a life of meaning, to serve a higher purpose, to make a difference in this world” (p. 282). Eaker, DuFour, and DuFour (2002) also addressed the importance of meeting often unmet needs for educators, such as the “need to feel a sense of personal accomplishment” (p. 52), the “need to belong” (p. 53), and the “need to feel our life has meaning” (p. 53). Ultimately, the professional learning community should set out to create “a community of caring and mutual concern” (DuFour and Eaker, 1998, p. 281). Wald and Castleberry (2000) also add that “to sustain… communal energy and hope, the leader must hold the vision high for all to see, constantly revisit it, expand on it, and continuously help members of the community connect with it and find ways to personalize it and make it their own” (p. 20). However, like Evans in the breadth portion of this KAM, DuFour and Eaker (1998) warn that “optimism must be tempered by tough-minded recognition of the difficulties that lie ahead” (p. 286). DuFour and Eaker (1998) wrote that passion and persistence are key to sustaining a professional learning community (p. 279), and in 2002 Eaker, DuFour, and DuFour were insistent that sustainability was a matter of “persistence, persistence, persistence” (p. 27). As they explained, “the difficult times are inevitable and can be overcome only through the tenacity and persistence that are byproducts of passion” (p. 105). Hord (2004), too, acknowledged that successful professional learning communities “had a realistic understanding of change as a process that requires an ongoing commitment that oftentimes simply reduces to perseverance” (p. 23).

There are ways, of course, to persevere wisely. DuFour and Eaker (1998) advocated observance of “the three Cs of sustaining an improvement initiative – communication, collaboration, and culture” (p. 106). They focused on “the need for clear, constant communication in support of [objectives]” (p. 106), the “shift from a culture of teacher isolation to a culture of deep and meaningful collaboration” (p. 10), and “embedding change in the culture of a school” (p. 131). Hord (2004) shared “strategies for increasing staff capacities for continuous learning” (p. 23), including “focusing on staff and student success” (p. 24), “making opportunities for teachers to learn” (p. 25), “inviting teachers into decision-making and implementation” (p. 25), “nurturing new ways of operating” (p. 26), and “connecting professional development to school improvement goals” (p. 51). Kagaan (2004) believed that “staff professional development should in significant part be about finding allies, colleagues, even soul mates for ideas that are worth pursuing” (p. 3) and that “good professional development should counter this sense of isolation… [teachers] should return to their daily responsibilities uplifted, renewed, and ready to assume new challenges” (p. 3). He supported “collective capacity building” (p. 3) and recommended three guiding principles of professional development:

  • “Participants take responsibility for their own learning
  • Development exercises reflect high-impact learning
  • Development exercises engender collective energy” (Kaagan, 2004, p. 5)

“Most important,” Kagaan (2004) wrote, “the exercises have to stimulate and inspire, providing a sense of anticipation that will be rewarded and a challenge that will be fulfilled” (p. 6).

Wald and Castleberry (2000), for their part, focused on establishing “environments characterized by high levels of trust” (p. 62). These environments included elements such as openness, sharing, acceptance, support, and cooperative intention (p. 62). Hord (2004) also frequently addressed the theme of building trust in a professional learning community (p. 31, 33, 36, & 43). Wald and Castleberry (2000) also recommended five communication norms that facilitate collaborative learning: listening carefully, sharing relevant information, developing shared meaning, making assumptions explicit, and deciding by consensus (p. 64). In addition, they shared several “group practices that support collaborative learning” (p. 69): establishing ground rules (p. 69), exploring trust and task roles (p. 70), documenting information (p. 71), and reflecting on group processes (p. 71). Similarly, Huffman and Hipp (2003) identified “five dimensions characteristic of schools with successful professional learning communities in place” (p. 6): supportive conditions (p. 13, including “the people capacities of those involved and the physical, or structural, conditions” p. 12), restructured time in the school day (p. 13), and the abilities of principals to both relinquish power and model learning (p. 14). Roberts and Pruitt (2003) recommend that principals follow ten specific steps to sustain their professional learning communities, including taking “every opportunity to educate [the] staff and the broader school community about the characteristics of learning communities” (p. 47), demonstrating the value of learning “by actively participating in learning activities with the teachers” (p. 48), and consistently focusing on instructional outcomes (p. 48). They also shared many strategies for overcoming barriers to effective teamwork, including providing “time enough for the group process” (p. 72), paying attention to “issues of equity and diversity” (p. 74), and providing “training in team skills” (p. 77). They even address ways that conflict between team members can be managed (p. 83). Most importantly, “to ensure shared leadership is sustained” (p. 186), they recommend the continual development of new leaders at the school. This process can include strategies such as a mentoring program (p. 144-147). Another strategy recommended by Hord (2004) was to commit funding “for teachers to attend conferences and visit other schools to observe effective practices” (p. 39), after which those teachers would then be “responsible for imparting their new knowledge to the entire staff afterward” (p. 39).

Eaker, DuFour, and DuFour describe a cultural shift from a culture where “improvement efforts frequently shift as new fads or trends come along” (p. 28) to a culture in which commitment “to ‘stay the course’ in the attainment of the school vision [ensures that] new initiatives are only implemented if it is determined that the change will help the school achieve its vision of the future” (p. 28) and in which “the leader’s role is to promote, protect and defend the school’s vision and values and to confront behavior that is incongruent with the school’s vision and values” (p. 28). Hord (2004) describes this process as long-term transformation taking three years (115-120). In year one, a new professional learning community is “fighting the status quo” (p. 115). In year two, the school encounters what she calls “speed bumps on the path of transition” (p. 117), and year three finally brings “transition to transformation” (p. 120). She also points out that “three years is not long enough to develop professional learning communities, though” (p. 162) a sustainable seed can be planted in that amount of time.

Regarding the assessment of a school as a professional learning community, Huffman and Hipp (2003) warn that “while many principals and faculties conceptualize their schools as organizations operating as learning communities, they rarely meet the operational criteria” (p. 67) and they developed the School Professional Staff as Learning Community questionnaire as an instrument for objectively evaluating schools as professional learning communities (p. 68). Such an instrument is in keeping with Roberts and Pruitt’s (2003) philosophy of teachers learning through classroom observation (p. 118).

Many of the lessons learned by those who have sustained professional learning communities year after year can be valuable to change agents responsible for other long-term change initiatives, such as the integration of video games and simulations as educational technologies in schools. Such change agents, whether administrators or educational technologists, can benefit from considering the change initiative a process, in which human needs must be met over time with passion and persistence. They can also benefit from proceeding as wisely as possible by implementing the advice of the authors discussed above.


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