by Kristine A. Hipp

Story 1: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back: The Dance of Foxdale

The "dance of Foxdale" consists of clear movements toward school change counterbalanced by resistance or impediments to that change. The rhythm of that dance is determined both by structures external to the school, and by resistance to change on the part of school personnel.

Close your eyes and picture the perfect organization. A mental walk-through offers a feeling of positive energy, experimentation, collaboration, and common purpose. There is a certain rhythm here—a spirit of compassion, respect, and commitment—a strong sense of collective efficacy that conserves and sustains personal and organizational energy. These individuals face the same complex challenges as individuals in other organizations, yet somehow, here, they continue to move forward, undaunted by setbacks.

What is this extraordinary quality? Kevin and I often reflect on our experience with the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory’s (SEDL’s) Professional Learning Community (PLC) project—and on his early, prescient words: “Nothing will change without trust. Trust is everything.”

At Foxdale School, the ebb and flow of trust established the rhythm of our progress in creating a PLC—two steps forward, and one step back.

Foxdale Middle School

 Three years ago, Mill Street School District engaged in significant restructuring due to declining enrollment and financial woes. Pockets of suspicion and distrust existed throughout the entire district—the result of two failed referendums, low teacher morale, and new ways of doing business. Adding to the pressure was the fact that the new configuration of schools (K, 1-4, 5-8) fed into the most competitive high school in the state. At Foxdale Middle School, a new principal was also stirred into the mix.

Rebecca Johnston had served Mill Street School District as a member of the school board, and had experienced the district as the mother of students before being named principal of Foxdale Middle School. She took charge of a 51-person faculty created through transfers—of 5th and 6th grade teachers from the dismantled elementary school and 7th and 8th grade teachers who had previously served the high school. These two groups of teachers had very different images of what a middle school could and should be.

Though inexperienced with one another, the staff consisted of experienced and committed teachers, 82% of whom had master's degrees. Only three teachers had less than five years’ teaching experience, and 37 had more than 15.

This new principal and divided faculty were charged with the education of 550 African American (19%), Asian (5%), Hispanic (1%), Native American (<1%), and European American (75.5%) students in grades 5-8. Twelve percent of these students were defined as economically disadvantaged based on free and reduced lunch. Ten percent of the students were bused from outside the school attendance area. Further, 10% of the students were enrolled in special education programs for the physically, mentally, emotionally, and learning disabled. The dominant home language was English; three students’ families spoke another language at home. Approximately 40% of Foxdale parents were professionals; 20% held technical positions, and 40% held skilled or semi-skilled labor jobs. The attendance rate for students was approximately 95%. No student dropouts were documented, yet a significant number of behavioral referrals occurred each year.

Two Steps Forward: Entry

In the fall of 1997, I had just transferred to a private Franciscan university in the Midwest and had been invited to become a part of SEDL’s PLC study. I was the only Co-developer, or external change agent, associated with this project from the Midwest. I was in the midst of selecting another school for the study when Principal Rebecca Johnston actively pursued the opportunity of working with me to create a professional learning community at Foxdale Middle School. Rebecca was persistent in convincing me that, because Foxdale served a socio-economically mixed student population, outcomes from an effort at Foxdale would be transferable to other schools across the country.

Rebecca wasted no time in meeting with the superintendent to share information and gather his impressions. He considered the opportunity intriguing and congruent with the school district’s vision. He wholeheartedly supported the effort despite two potential barriers that could hinder participation. First, the significant educational experience of Foxdale’s faculty might translate into skepticism about school reform efforts. These teachers had already experienced a number of failed initiatives. Second, a majority of teachers would be retiring within the next five years. In the meantime, these teachers continued to face major challenges in the district including failed referendums, steadily decreasing test scores, declining enrollment, and morale issues resulting from lack of public support. How open would they be to change at this time in their careers?

Rebecca scheduled a meeting with the school’s leadership team to allow me to share the project. After a perfunctory meeting which the entire leadership team could not attend, a dinner meeting was scheduled at the principal’s home to further discuss the PLC project with all members of the team. The full overview of the SEDL project stimulated enthusiasm and hope for change—despite a climate of distrust nurtured by the failing confidence of parents and community members. By meeting’s end, the team generated a strategy to introduce the project at the next staff meeting.

Kevin Charles, the head union negotiator and an influential member of the leadership team, assisted me in presenting the project at an all-school faculty meeting. Before they broke into small groups to discuss potential participation in the project, Kevin asked the staff to reflect on the following question, “Are you satisfied with the way things are in the school and district, and if not, are you open to try something new?” The staff discussed issues of morale and raised two major concerns. Would the project add one more thing to their already full agenda? Could time be restructured for the dialogue necessary to learn and share collectively?

I addressed the concern about overload by maintaining that the project would not be an add-on, but would be integrated into current school initiatives. I utilized Senge’s models of alignment (1990, pp. 234-5) to help the staff see the benefits of participating in a project that would promote a shared vision and more effective use of time. Senge offers three models of common organizations: empowered individuals who share no alignment, individuals with a clear purpose but no alignment, and a staff empowered and aligned. The Foxdale staff recognized themselves in the second model: a clear purpose, but little alignment. They were convinced by Senge’s ideal model of empowerment and alignment, and shared their desire to reach that goal.

In order to assure the faculty would have the time necessary to achieve success, Kevin and Rebecca developed a plan of adding time to the school day in order to garner two “banking” days that could be devoted to the effort. They proposed adjusting the teacher contract by adding five minutes to each school day to garner four half-days for professional development spread throughout the year. This adjustment would not serve as a final solution to the problem of time for teachers to work together, but as Kevin and Rebecca’s plan gained the support of teachers, administrators, and the school board, a beginning of trust and progress became evident.

Prior to the start of the school year, the leadership team met at a member’s lake cottage to delve deeper into the concept of a learning community—the culture they had agreed to develop. The team members used metaphor to create unique images of organizations that met the needs of their staff and focused on student learning. They established a common purpose as they constructed meaning for themselves, engaged in collective inquiry, and openly shared ideas. Moved by the impact of this experience, they expressed a desire to somehow replicate the day’s activities with all staff to generate the enthusiasm and commitment that they all shared.

One Step Back: Negotiating the Hierarchy In Order to Gain Time

Success was not possible under the current structure—there was simply not enough time available to meet, plan, and implement significant changes. Making that time available would require significant trust and belief on the part of those advocating for change. Ultimately, it would affect busing, students, parents, and teachers at three schools.

Foxdale’s teachers submitted a formal proposal to the district’s teachers union, in which they advocated adding five minutes to the start of each school day in order to “bank” time to engage in meaningful activities and dialogue around issues related to student learning. Teachers understood that some restructuring of time was essential to be successful in demonstrating the five dimensions of a PLC: shared leadership, shared vision and values, collective learning and application, supportive conditions, and shared practice.

The district teachers sensed the commitment of their colleagues and voted in favor of the “banked time” proposal. The next and possibly greatest challenge was in the area of transportation. The principal rode every bus route and met with every bus driver to assure the feasibility of the plan. In turn, the teachers and School Board approved the proposal. This response was viewed by Kevin, SEDL’s teacher representative as “the most important step forward in showing the trust building that we really needed to get going for the staff, because trust is the first level at getting to a professional learning community.”

Two Steps Forward: The Banked Day and the Grant

Just before Thanksgiving, 1998, Foxdale faculty enjoyed their first “banked day”—actually an evening social followed by a day-long retreat. Faculty team leaders planned the event, and Rebecca attributed much of the enthusiasm for and success of this banked time to this level of faculty participation. On that first evening, I provided the community center where I live, a comfortable rustic setting away from distraction. The evening deepened relationships as staff members took risks, shared talents, and enjoyed great fun engaging in a variety of creative activities. The evening ended in more serious dialogue around the fire, planning our approach with those few who did not attend.

The next morning, Kevin and a group of male staff members took over the kitchen at Foxdale and displayed their culinary skills at a “Pancake Breakfast.” Staff joined me in facilitating teambuilding exercises, which allowed faculty members to better understand themselves, and better appreciate others. Staff also designed time to meet on team issues. The written evaluation of the retreat indicated success, as teachers found themselves empowered with the planning and execution of the day.

The first year of the project was focused on creating readiness for building a community of learners through building trust among staff and between staff and administration. However, the end of the first year brought more change than many of the staff had predicted. Previous to the PLC initiative, an Alternative Program for at-risk students in Grades 7 and 8 had been proposed. This program was designed to meet the needs of specific students who were “falling through the cracks,” and to respond to the high number of student behavioral problems that were having a negative impact on the student learning, the learning environment, and teacher morale. At the end of the first year, Foxdale received a $92,000 grant to implement the program.

The Alternative Program would establish an additional “house” or team in the school. It was hoped that the teachers on this program team would utilized their expertise and on-the-job insights to assist their peers in behavior management. Students would be integrated into the mix as deemed possible. Foxdale personnel recognized that this program would support the PLC concept, particularly in the areas of supportive conditions, shared practice, and shared vision and values.

One Step Back: Delaying Consensus

Enrollment continued to decline and two teachers moved into the Alternative Program; ripples from these changes moved throughout the organization. Previously there had been two 3-person teams per grade level; now there was only one 5-member team per grade. New subject areas were assigned and trusted teams were reconfigured. Apprehension and self-doubt rose among the faculty, especially as the program came to be seen by some as an unstoppable juggernaut: programming for at-risk students was an identified priority, the grant money had been accepted, and the program would require staff support.

Feeling disempowered, some staff resorted to indirect communication strategies: some “parking lot” conversations took place, and concerns were shared with the School Board, which trickled back to teachers and Rebecca. The leadership team met to discuss the concerns that are typical when change begins among people at varying degrees of readiness. The team established means by which faculty could express their concerns openly and be heard respectfully. By learning about the nature of change, dealing with opposition compassionately, and involving all staff in additional dialogue, the leadership team helped to assure the program could begin with the next fall with a working—if not perfect—sense of consensus. This episode turned the tide on trust, created a sense of unity, and strengthened the staff’s commitment to the district mission—a focus on the needs of all students, regardless of the inconvenience or challenges to teachers.

Two Steps Forward: Implementing the Alternative Program and a Return to the Standards Project

The 1999-2000 school year began with the Alternative Program and new team configurations in place. The Alternative Program opened with approximately 30 students, one instructional director, and two teachers. Their challenges were significant, yet they were fueled by the prospects of success, and the knowledge that they would have to demonstrate that success to other faculty, the school board, and the grant maker. Teachers across the school took note of the significant change in the climate and the lessening of behavioral problems. The new focus on learning was evident to both teachers and students—as faculty discovered when they met daily with students in STAR groups, the school’s Advisor/Advisee program. A midyear survey of students provided helpful information and validated staff perceptions.

Year two of the PLC project also began with a stronger focus on student learning through the Standards project. A study of the fragmentation of numerous current efforts showed that these approaches did not seem to promote students learning to the degree intended. In response, the district developed a long-range plan requiring core subject area teachers to align their instructional practices and units with locally established teaching standards and benchmarks. The district had been working with MCREL, a sister laboratory to SEDL, in order to establish standards and benchmarks that were aligned with those at the state level.

By committing one of two monthly staff meetings and every banked day to the project, Rebecca provided time for teams to develop instructional units connected to the teaching standards and benchmarks. In addition, the school’s curriculum specialist, John White, conducted a series of optional workshops on staff in-service days throughout the year. Called the Standards Academy, these workshops were designed to strengthen teacher applications of critical reasoning skills and knowledge construction strategies. Rebecca and John also engaged teams in face-to-face conversations around the writing of instructional units and monitored progress.

The Standards Academy was an attempt to prepare and allow staff at varying skill levels to create successful inter-disciplinary units informed with best practices in instruction. A significant amount of support was given to teachers in the core areas of reading, language arts, math, science, and social studies, as they were being held most accountable. It quickly became evident that teachers outside these areas of focus were, to some degree, also applying these skills in the curriculum units they developed in alignment with the standards and benchmarks at their grade level.

As the year progressed, the dimensions of a professional learning community were becoming more evident in everyday language and experiences. For instance, shared leadership increased as Rebecca took a back seat to John and the pioneer (mentor) teachers who had been involved since the beginning of this effort. Moreover, the Co-developer also played a less overt role, and served more as a sounding board to John. The principal learned as much as the teachers through collective learning and shared practice. Rebecca’s presence at team meetings provided support, signaled the importance of accountability, and increased her personal knowledge and skills in the process—a process that will be assumed by another staff member next year upon John’s retirement.

The shared vision of student learning and well being was evident through the supportive conditions of monthly meetings committed to unit writing and skill building, teams helping teams through completed written units, coaching on the side, the development of collaborative relationships, and of course, the Alternative Program.

Assessment: The Dance Continues

Two assessments were conducted that assisted in measuring the results of year two: the second administration of Hord’s 17-item School Professional Staff as Learning Community questionnaire and 12 on-site interviews (conducted by the Co-developer and SEDL representative) of 25% of the teaching staff. The 12 interviews provided rich data from six females and six males representing the following areas: grades 5-8, special education, foreign language, music, physical education, and allied arts. Results from the PLC instrument were impressive and appeared to reflect the focus and gains made throughout the second year. Ratings increased in 16 of the 17 items, which assessed progress in Hord’s five dimensions of a PLC.
When asked, “What percent of staff do you feel are perceived as leaders?” comments ranged from 10-90%. Although leaders appeared in many roles beyond the leadership team, the 80% spread illustrated that some respondents felt some were more privy to leadership opportunities than others. Some teachers shared that release time, financial support, and professional development opportunities were available to some more than others. For instance, financial compensation was provided to the core area teachers for unit writing in the summer—areas that were targeted within the Standards plan. This begged the question, “Are some subject areas valued more than others?” and the response that it would probably never be any different.
In addition, the sharing of practice among colleagues remained low. Some teachers saw the benefits of sharing practice, and did so readily. Others revealed less interest and reported that time constraints significantly limited this practice, perhaps in light of discomfort and a lack of trust among colleagues. Further, interviews suggested that a small minority of teachers preferred to work alone and were resistant to change.

Throughout Foxdale, pockets of trust exist, yet there is a desire to learn strategies from one another that affect student learning and increase their sense of efficacy as teachers. Nonetheless, resistance and mistrust among a few continues to hinder widespread trust.

Supportive structures were increased in terms of the physical structure of the facility, banked days, meetings, technology partners, and e-mail. However, needs continue: more time for meaningful dialogue, structures for inclusion of all staff, resources, and planning time with other grades. In terms of supportive relationships, the Foxdale staff truly cares for one another. This mutual regard is apparent in frequent and regular team interactions focused on teaching and learning, and perhaps even more so, in the scheduled socials, such as: monthly Eddy Awards for staff accomplishments, pancake breakfasts (cooked and served by members of the male staff), chili lunches, and time for the human-side on banked/in-service days. Again and again, it was apparent that staff hungered for these occasions and wanted more—a greater balance between task- and people-centered activities.

Needs in the areas of collective learning and supportive conditions were expressed as areas on which to focus: the ebb and flow of trust, greater involvement of more staff, and time for collaboration with staff in other grades and subject areas.

Teachers in non-core areas, such as physical education, music and foreign language tend to have greater opportunities to share and learn from one another because of their structural arrangements. Some team-teach or teach in close proximity to one another at some distance from other teachers in the school. As performing artists they are comfortable being “on stage” and invite feedback. Throughout Foxdale, pockets of trust exist, yet there is a desire to learn strategies from one another that affect student learning and increase their sense of efficacy as teachers. Nonetheless, resistance and mistrust among a few continues to hinder widespread trust. It also hinders the realization of what most respondents expressed as the need for more time: time to dialogue and share, to learn from diverse perspectives, to observe, to analyze student work, to assess results, and for whole school learning. One teacher emphasized the value of each person’s contributions: “Each person is an integral part of the team, and we can’t get along without each and every one.”

One Step Back: Personnel Changes

The 2000-2001 school year will not only focus on sustaining our efforts, but paying closer attention to areas of need. Trust is growing, yet past patterns of distrust occasionally re-emerge, where some things are found to be difficult to forget and forgive. John—a professional deeply loved and respected by his staff—has retired, and Rebecca shocked the district by turning in her resignation and accepting a position in a neighboring suburb. The overall effects of these transitions will only become apparent through time.

Two Steps Forward: New Leadership, Strong Focus

I have been a part of the beginning-of-the-year activities and have met with the new principal, Leo Dunn, often. The entire school community has warmly received Leo. They perceive him to be a leader with that rare mix of hands, heart and mind. His strong people-side will promote the balance of task- and people-focus that most of the teachers have missed over the past year.

We have a common purpose in establishing trust and broadening the concept of community. We realize that teachers alone cannot affect student learning without support from the greater community. The PLC dimensions provide an organizational schema that can facilitate thinking about change, becoming open to other points of view, taking risks and interpreting progress.

I have asked Leo to meet with the leadership team to determine their continued interest in the SEDL project and they, in turn, have met with their respective departments. The response has been very positive as long as we continue to use the PLC model to work smarter and support student learning. The Standards project continues to be Foxdale’s priority, as accountability at both local and state levels loom overhead. A focused attention to the teamwork required will continue to challenge solutions to issues of inclusion and value of all staff as well as trust.

John, Adrienne (the new curriculum specialist) and I have discussed revisiting and perhaps redesigning the current approach to the Standards project. It seems teachers have been frustrated that so much time has been devoted to aligning instruction to the standards and benchmarks—they feel their creativity, energy, and passion for teaching has been lost. Staff will be asked to explore how the effort can be designed at Foxdale that would re-ignite the spirit, expertise and talents of each teacher. Leo is a firm believer that all successful efforts are built on trust and uses trust as a filter for all purposeful actions.

We have already planned an all-staff lunch on the first banked day in October, and a return of involving staff in the planning and facilitation of activities throughout the school year. My involvement will be to support this effort and assist as a guide during in-services that will allow staff to work in smaller groups according to their progress. Plans involve working with at least some staff in the area of assessment, helping teachers to examine how they can show that what they are teaching is making a difference. We also plan to involve the special educators in teams with regular educators. My background as a special educator and special education district support teacher will serve me well as I hope to contribute ideas and promote collective learning and shared practice.

These new partnerships will require risk and trust. I realize that regular visits and active participation will be necessary to expand what we have created. On the surface the transition of principal and curriculum specialist appears smooth. We have a common purpose in establishing trust and broadening the concept of community. We realize that teachers alone cannot affect student learning without support from the greater community. The PLC dimensions provide an organizational schema that can facilitate thinking about change, becoming open to other points of view, taking risks and interpreting progress. We hope that trust and an understood value of each person will remain in the forefront of these efforts. We are still committed to our children, the SEDL project, and ourselves as learners.

Readers' Response

In some stages of Foxdale's "dance" of change, obstacles toward change led to improvements with the same regularity that improvement seemed to inevitably lead toward obstacles or evoke resistance. When Foxdale personnel had to negotiate with the district to develop time in their schedules for meeting, one result was a significant improvement in understanding, trust, relationships, and the school's overall sense of efficacy. If one acknowledges that this interplay is the "rhythm" of any change process, can we still differentiate between "positive" and "negative" events? Why would it be helpful to continue to make these distinctions?

Co-Developers Kris Hipp and Ruth Hinson both acknowledge the critical role that trust plays in developing the willingness for school personnel to pursue and advance school change, particularly shared leadership and shared personal practice. What strategies for building trust are suggested by these stories?

Kris Hipp’s story explicitly explores the role of resistance in any school change. Beth Sattes tells her readers that she and Principal Henrietta Atkinson talked openly about the danger of faculty resistance, couched as a sense that some teachers were becoming “favorites” within the school. Consider the benefits of acknowledging resistance to change openly. Should Co-Developers seek to prevent resistance wherever possible, or should they, in partnership with principals and teacher leaders, anticipate and accept resistance to change?

Next Page: Story 2: Off the Beaten Path: Professional Learning Community

Published in Multiple Mirrors: Reflections on the Creation of Professional Learning Communities