Updated: Feb 15, 2022
In workshops with school leadership teams, I often ask leaders to work together to define professional learning communities. Typically, the groups’ definitions overlap and shared beliefs quickly emerge within the room. While the participants listen for the common ideas to appear, I listen for something completely different: I listen for the name.
Every definition begins like this, “A PLC is a __________________, that…” and so it goes. That blank is a name, a noun, and it’s what I listen for. Some groups call it a process; some a system; some a meeting. And while these names describe the professional learning community, each misses out on the key word right there in the name itself: community.
When I was studying school administration at Butler University, the director of our program, Dr. Marilyn Sudsberry asked us all this same question. And like my many workshop participants, my classmates and I missed the people part of PLC.
I remember with clarity the night Dr. Sudsberry said, “You don’t do a PLC; you are a PLC.” One sentence; massive implications.
To be a community requires a sense of belonging among members. If you live in a town, but do not feel you belong, the people in that space are not your community. We know this to be true outside of school walls, and I believe that we know it to be true within the walls, as well.
But how do we do this? How do we create a sense of belonging in our schools? And what do PLCs have to do with this?
To truly create spaces of belonging for all children in our schools and society, we must ensure that each learner has equal access to both content and dignity. Marzano refers to access to content as a, “guaranteed and viable curriculum” for all students in a course, class, grade, or district. While I’m not suggesting that every district adopt the same curriculum (that is crazy) I am making the unavoidable claim that leaders are all too often failing to ensure the guaranteed part of the curriculum. Teachers spend months to years unpacking standards, writing learning intentions, determining success criteria, mapping units--to inevitably disregard the map when they hit a story, unit, or task they do not prefer. Deviating from the agreed upon, selected, written curriculum has a name: it’s called going rogue.
Or at least that’s what I call it. When leaders fail to clarify the importance of sticking to a map and teaching a guaranteed curriculum, teachers will take liberties with what they can teach versus what they must teach. I have seen this over, and over, and over again in schools.
The other half of the belonging equation is that all students must have equitable access to dignity. Now, what in the world does that mean?
Dignity, though a common enough term in our vernacular, is often underemphasized and overlooked. Students must receive equitable access to worth, honor, and respect if they are going to feel the necessary sense of belonging in their school.
What does a lack of worth, honor, and respect look like in our classrooms? Teachers disregarding or ignoring cultural differences of their students. Teachers stereotyping students’ abilities based on background, language, identifications, race, gender, size, sexuality, and socio-economic status. Teachers taking an authoritarian approach, or belittling approach, or shaming approach. Because they can.
Here’s the truth: the overwhelming majority of teachers in our country intend to treat all of their students with dignity; however, we also fall short at times and may have trouble realizing it. We may let our own frustrations, fears, shame, and vulnerability allow us to lash out and attack, blame, or “otherize” our own students. Even the best of teachers is still a human being, and human beings can, at times, fail to treat one another with dignity.
To avoid the discrepancies, in either access to content or access to dignity, districts must develop similar to identical practices. In our book, Arrows: A Systematic Approach to School Leadership, Sarah Henry and I define the concept similar to identical as, “a belief that two or more aspects...are monitored inside of a system that promotes commonalities over individualism. To be similar to identical is to adhere to a collective drive to make decisions in groups and then follow-through with the expectations that are set.”
Your systems must ensure that students have equitable access to grade-level appropriate content in each of their courses. Two separate Algebra II teachers should not have two completely individualized ideas about learning intentions, success criteria, or assessment. Why? Because that is a system that creates two different versions of access to content. Two different curriculums. You wouldn’t want your two 11th graders having such drastically different learning experiences, so why would you want this for any 11th graders?
Likewise, two separate fourth grade teachers should not have two completely individualized ideas about who deserves dignity within the school and who does not. Hearing about actions of indignity in our schools makes us uneasy. We don’t like it, but also, we have trouble naming every example of it, as well.
All students deserve the right to a sense of true belonging within their school. Not assimilation. Not tolerance. Belonging. Arguably, creating similar to identical approaches for ensuring dignity is more complex and personal. The people who tend to give the least amount of dignity to others tend to be the ones who feel the least amount of dignity themselves.
As leaders, it is up to us to clarify expectations, define what practices must be similar to identical across all classrooms in entire districts, and then work one-on-one with our teachers to support their development. If our teachers feel inadequate about their ability to teach the content, inequity appears. If our teachers feel their own lack of belonging within a school, inquiry appears. If our teachers feel they are not worthy, valued, or respected--inequity appears.