Professional Learning Community: The Components at Cottonwood Creek

In this section we report factors and events (gleaned from the research study) that encouraged and supported Cottonwood Creek School's progress toward becoming a professional learning community. The school's relationship with HU contributed to teachers' feelings of efficacy, and laid the groundwork for the staff to rally around the work of implementing a new curriculum. It was during these years of curriculum implementation that the components of the professional learning community at Cottonwood Creek School were established or refined.

Supportive and Shared Leadership

One of the characteristics of professional learning communities, reported in the educational literature, focuses on shared power and decision making. In 1987, the partnership with HU provided teachers the opportunity to develop leadership and decision making skills. "We were going to meetings at HU to design a teacher education program where we were making decisions that would impact our school's program and our students." The teachers felt empowered by this, realizing that the students at HU who were doing internships in Cottonwood's classrooms would also be affected by their decisions.

A representative from each grade level in Cottonwood made up the HU Forum. These representatives met with HU and assumed responsibility for sharing plans back at the campus and forwarding ideas to HU at the next Forum meeting. These teachers (established in each school earlier as academic coordinators by the district), acted as the vehicle for communication and decision making across the entire school staff. During this early period, the leadership at HU was given credit for supporting the Forum and its way of working with not only the university but also for the methods the Forum used for communicating and sharing decisions with the entire school staff. Subsequently the district began to look more closely at shared decision making at the campus level and instituted the instructional leadership team, training staff from across the district in the knowledge and skills deemed necessary for serving on such a team in each school. This team, clearly articulated by district policy, is composed of the principal as chairperson; a minimum of eight employees - elected campus-based teachers, non-teaching professional, paraprofessional, classified employee, and a district level non-teaching professional; and a minimum of eight non-employees identified through a drawing - two each of parents, community residents, students, and business representatives.

Thus several factors supported the sharing of leadership and decision making at Cottonwood Creek School. First, in 1987 the school's principal encouraged innovation and change and applauded the school's liaison with HU. Second, the district created the teacher and leadership team decision-making structures on campuses. Third, HU provided the opportunity and support whereby Cottonwood Creek staff grew in their confidence to make decisions. HU's support was viewed by staff as key in enabling the Forum to hold everyone and everything together during the 1988-91 period when dissension between a new principal, who had not been part of the original agreements with HU, and the staff and community developed. Shared leadership and decision making were further reinforced by the subsequent principal, brought on board in 1991.

The new principal quickly observed that the staff was troubled. "I have to hear them and relate to their concerns." Therefore, she opened lines of communication and established a voluntary meeting set at a regularly scheduled time and place where staff could come to express issues or problems in an open way (called a charette). Because parents and community members were concerned and needed to be heard, she also initiated a steering committee of people who represented the parents, HU, teachers, administrators, and district support staff.

Decisions were not actually made at charette or in the steering committee, but these structures became initial steps in the development of the decision-making process. Teachers reported that at Cottonwood Creek School a clearly defined decision-making structure has evolved through staff suggestions and staff trial and error. This structure invites everyone on staff to express concerns, and it results in decisions made by teacher representatives. Almost all of the interview participants were familiar with and articulated this structure, which is based on the principles of democratic participation and teacher voice.

This ladder of decision making was used, for example, as a means for determining the focus of staff development for the school year. Suggestions were made in grade-level meetings and priorities determined. The grade-level teacher representative then carried these priorities to the leadership team, where a recommendation was shaped. Subsequently, the entire faculty was convened to discuss and decide on the staff development program, with the staff's voice carried "upward" on the ladder by the established system. The process culminated in a schoolwide meeting to make the final decision.

As charette was being introduced at the campus, a particularly significant development occurred relative to the school's relationship with HU. A foundation especially interested in The New Curriculum (TNC) approached the university with money for a school that would implement this curriculum. The opportunity was offered to Cottonwood Creek, and the staff studied the offer thoroughly. The staff was already experiencing some discontent with the school's curriculum and with students' progress. The principal charged the staff with sole responsibility for making the decision but stipulated that the decision had to be supported by 100 percent of the faculty. After much consideration, the staff decided to participate.

Supportive and shared leadership develops as a school's formal administrative leader - the principal - accepts a collegial relationship with teachers, shares power and decision making, and promotes and nurtures leadership development among the staff. The principal initiated such a relationship with the teachers by establishing charette, encouraging the staff to be candid in their comments at charette, and listening to their concerns. By "hearing them" and respecting their issues, she began the process of trust building with the staff. In tandem, she gave them the opportunity to make a major decision, to adopt The New Curriculum, thus proving to them that she was sharing power and authority - heady stuff for any staff.

Collective Learning and Application of Learning

Another characteristic of professional learning communities that is reported in the research literature is the staff's selection of a topic for study. They then study the topic together and determine collectively how to apply their new learning. At all levels of the school organization, professionals in the school work collaboratively and continually to learn together, and apply their learning for the benefit of all students.

After the Cottonwood staff decided to implement the new curriculum, collaboration among the faculty increased dramatically, for several reasons. First, since no one was familiar with the curriculum, everyone needed to learn about it and master the new material. Second, the curriculum was organized sequentially, which required teachers to link their work with what was being taught at other grade levels. Third, teachers were expected to develop units and activities based on the TNC outline, so working together on the design of instructional units was important.

As the faculty began to work with the curriculum, they found it productive to develop and maintain close working relationships within and across grade levels. "If TNC is going to work, we have to come together," teachers assessed. They felt they could not effectively use the curriculum without working closely with each other. At this time HU decided to fund the instructional guide position. "There needs to be an internal person to serve as the liaison across the grade levels," the university leadership maintained.

The first person to serve in the role was very knowledgeable about curriculum and began working with teachers to plan and develop units for the grade levels. In a week-long session before school began in the fall, the entire staff met in the cafeteria, referring to TNC, reviewing their textbooks, looking at the state's key competencies and skills elements in each academic area at each grade level. As a way to get an overview of what TNC would look like across a year of instruction, they mapped out the entire year on large sheets of butcher paper spread around the cafeteria. Getting it on paper, and marking those items to which they were already giving attention, brought understanding of how things would flow from the old to the new.

Teachers on any faculty could have taken a new program, such as TNC, and worked individually to implement it, at whatever level of quality they could achieve. The Cottonwood Creek staff, however, chose to take a collective learning approach. In this scenario, teachers would meet at that initial time in the cafeteria, then subsequently in grade levels, and finally with increasing frequency with the entire faculty to learn about various topics.

With the help of the instructional guide and with the encouragement of the principal, the teachers would use their own newly acquired knowledge to develop additional units of study for the students. In subsequent once-a-month sessions, the staff met to share and compare notes and plan for using additional information that they accessed - for example, about the Roman Empire, a unit they were developing in their classrooms. These discussions and brainstorming sessions were punctuated by teachers' sharing ideas and suggestions of ways to "flesh out" and implement the TNC outline. A major purpose was to work in tandem with each other to provide a coherent program, coordinated at all grade levels. As one staff person reported, "The beauty of this school is there are so many talented people here who learned to work together."

The resulting development of a high-quality curriculum and the development of the school as a learning community of professionals can be attributed in large measure to the school's administrative leadership. The instructional guide worked directly with teachers' content and pedagogical knowledge, and the principal worked actively to bring the staff together as a unit to support collaborative learning and work for TNC. "But," the teachers noted, "they were not prescriptive about it."

During this period the professionals at Cottonwood Creek gained considerable momentum toward becoming a mature professional learning community. The combination of the challenging opportunity provided by TNC, the assistance of the instructional guide, and the principal's effectiveness at bringing the staff together and insisting that they continue to work on the curriculum together succeeded. They established an environment in which the faculty could learn with each other and could work together as a unit. The principal also maintained the support and encouragement that kept faculty working together.

Shared Values and Vision

According to the research, a school's vision evolves from the values of the staff and leads to binding norms of behavior that the staff supports. The vision is used as a guidepost in making decisions about teaching and learning in the school. "At the beginning of our work with TNC, we had to write campus plans and we developed our own vision." Every morning the principal would share the vision statement - everyone knew it and could recite it. The children were "docents" (teachers) for visitors who came to the school. They would greet visitors, by saying, "Welcome to our school of the future, where learners [and then repeat the vision] . . . " One staff person reported, "We all believed in our vision because we all had something to do with developing it."

A fundamental characteristic of the vision in communities of professional learners is an unwavering focus on student learning. There is little question that individual teachers at Cottonwood have a selfless attitude about serving kids. Their vision for the school and for themselves is a vision that focuses on children and children's success.

Currently, the teachers' experiences in the school, rather than any particular vision-developing exercise or activity, serve as the basis for their vision. They cannot remember when they did not feel as they do, nor can they remember the precise words of the vision statement created several years ago. Teachers commented, "Our staff wants students to excel and be competitive with others in the nation. We want our students to have sufficient academic skills and background so that they will be able to do what they want to in life."

Supportive Conditions

One aspect of support includes the physical elements: the size of the school, the proximity of the staff to each other, well-developed communication structures, a time and place reserved for meeting together to reflect and critique work. The Cottonwood Creek staff were fortunate to have a complete week before school started in the fall to plan. HU paid a stipend to the teachers for the week, and in this uninterrupted quality time they were able to work productively across all grade levels on developing the curriculum. During the school year, the periods for five electives - music, art, library, physical education and counseling - were used to schedule students in two back-to-back periods, giving teachers ninety-minute periods to work together across the grade levels.

A second aspect of support involves personal and professional characteristics. Among these are the kind of respect and trust among colleagues that promotes collegial relationships, a willingness to accept feedback and to work to establish norms of continuous critical inquiry and improvement, and the development of positive and caring relationships among students, teachers, and administrators.

A key to supporting and developing the staff as a learning community is sharing information. A research question about communication structures elicited the response from many teachers that the decision-making structures and the meetings of various groups are primary means of communication. Most reported that the minutes of each of the formalized meetings are printed and distributed to all teachers. Therefore, even if they do not attend a particular meeting, teachers have access to what happened there. In addition, each morning the principal makes announcements over the public address system, some intended for teachers and others for students. The administrators also communicate through notes put into teachers' boxes.

In response to the question about communication with parents, teachers reported that there is a full-time parent coordinator, who organizes many parent contacts and is bringing parents into the learning community. Parent-teacher conferences are conducted, and individual teachers contact parents in a variety of ways, from class newsletters to home visits. Once or twice a year all parents and children are invited to an evening meal and some kind of educational program. One such event was a meeting at the city's art museum, located near the school. More than 500 persons attended. Such efforts encourage communication and relationship building among and between all of the school's constituents.

In addition to communication structures, other supports contributed to staff collaboration and to the development of a professional learning community at Cottonwood Creek School. A grant to the school paid for library books and materials that supported the staff as they worked together on TNC. The state selected the school as noteworthy and awarded it a small grant. This success brought the staff together and helped to confirm their feelings of efficacy and worthiness. An intern program directed by HU provided instructional support for classroom teachers, giving them additional released time for working together. In addition, HU and the grant funds made staff development available that was related to TNC and other topics of interest. Teachers collectively attended conferences and professional meetings as part of the staff development. In the interview commentary from the teachers for the research study, however, none of these factors was as prominent as The New Curriculum and the school's leadership.

Shared Personal Practice

Teachers visit each other's classrooms to learn from each other and to provide useful feedback. Such open and trusting practice contributes to individual and community improvement. In an environment of this kind teachers can share both their successes and their failures and are comfortable in debate, disagreement, and discussion.

Louis and Kruse (1995) label the practice of teachers' visiting each other's classrooms to learn from each other and give feedback to each other "de-privatization of practice." Research has indicated that such activities contribute to a learning community of professionals in important ways. At the same time, though, visiting and observation between classrooms is typically limited, even in highly functioning learning communities. Such is the case at Cottonwood Creek School. Time is a problem in all schools, and at Cottonwood Creek, though some visitation occurs, it usually consists of short or casual observations or conversations with little feedback. Teachers generally said that if they have a question, they will run into another classroom and ask. Several teachers reported that they go into other teachers' classrooms and "they come into mine" and that sometimes they exchange feedback with each other.

One respondent's report indicated that, during the initial implementation of TNC, teachers visited each other's classrooms to learn more about specific TNC units. "I would go to visit another teacher to learn more about how she was teaching Shakespeare. After observing, then we would discuss what she did. I would report observations and she would provide more explanation." Visiting each other apparently originated with the teachers but was supported and encouraged by the principal. Another motivation was the role that teachers played as mentors for their HU interns (fifth year masters degree students) or student teachers (senior level undergraduates who were placed in their classrooms). "We had to be sharp and stay ahead, so that we could give the best development for our student teachers. We wanted them to walk out with the best education [for teaching] possible. Besides, they were teaching our students, and that was always firmly in front of us - the level of quality provided for our children."

The principal developed various structures designed to enable faculty to share. One forum was the optional monthly "concern" meeting (charette), which provided an opportunity for open discussions of issues or concern to the teachers. Decision-making bodies that met on a regular basis were established. Another focus was activities that fostered cooperation and collaboration among the faculty. Grade levels held open house for other grade levels to exchange information about what was going on and to give staff first hand observation of other classrooms. Individual teachers were asked to share with the faculty exciting things that were happening in their classrooms. The principal frequently visited in classrooms, kept up with what teachers were doing, praised them for good work, and shared their practice with other staff. At the same time it was clear that expectations for their work were high. This principal fully supported TNC and insisted that the faculty work together to be certain to use The New Curriculum well and to achieve compliance with state and testing standards.

Next Page: A Collage of Collective Action at Cottonwood

Published in Issues ...about Change Volume 6, Number 2, Creating a Professional Learning Community: Cottonwood Creek School (1998)