Each school and each leader operates in a different space and culture and these differences can make meaningful learning a challenge. What might make sense for a school with a legacy culture of family engagement programs won’t work for the school beginning to establish systems and structures for community partnership. In my experience leading learning and development for the principals of 15 schools in Oakland, California, we deployed a blended leadership model that focused on creating sustainable communities of practice—a group of peers that meet on a regular basis to learn together.
Establish a Community of Practice
Relationships are the currency of effective school leaders. Too often we skip over relationship building and go straight into technical aspects of leadership development. If adults don’t trust the individual providing the content and feel vulnerable enough in the classroom to identify their learning needs, it is unlikely that they will apply the content.
School leaders play an important role in creating the systems and structures needed for relationship building. Establishing trust—which researchers define in the team structure as benevolence, integrity, predictability, and competence—is a key part of creating relationships.
We used a survey to measure trust in teams, and after some analysis, we found that our learning spaces lacked predictability. To increase predictability, we divided our cohort into four smaller communities of practice based on common equity challenges. For example, one community of practice paired school leaders learning how to leverage PTA funds to target students that most needed them. Another community of practice investigated the operational practices in their schools that were helping or hindering effective instruction. Each group has a different set of circumstances, but we identified shared challenges in equity and leadership.
Our monthly meetings set aside consistent, dedicated time for community-of-practice learning. Ultimately, this routine gave principals a dedicated time to learn from peers and strengthened predictability.
Define an Inquiry Question
Principals are often asked to be fixers, providing immediate solutions to any number of problems. An effective community of practice offers time and space for school leaders to work beyond the immediate solutions.
We asked each community of practice to craft a yearlong inquiry around a challenge that could be observed and shaped over time.
To start the inquiry process, we used design thinking skills. First, we asked principals to tell a story about a recent time when they were unable to address an equity concern. These concerns varied. One principal shared concerns about an administrative assistant not partnering well with families of color. Another struggled with the operational demands of the principalship.
Sharing equity concerns helps build empathy. After principals told their stories, they reflected on the question of what they needed but didn’t have. The principal who had the struggle with the administrative assistant needed language he felt comfortable using to interrupt biased language. Those struggling with operational concerns needed structure to ensure time for generative listening with their communities.
They checked their assumptions with a peer and then dug deeper into a root-cause analysis to assess what barriers could be removed to help solve the problem. Leaders wrote their possible root causes—often thorny and complicated issues—on sticky notes.
They then grouped causes together into broad buckets of resources, knowledge, skills, and dispositions. Using the stem, “How might we…,” groups began to form inquiry questions. The questions were designed to prompt expansive thinking about the issues. They served as the focal point for gatherings of the communities of practice throughout the year. Some of the questions: How might we signal to families that we are an inclusive school? How might we shift a school culture to check our implicit biases and hold each other mutually accountable?
Reflect, Refine, Reach
The principals in our communities of practice had different levels of expertise in instruction and anti-racism work. As facilitators, we curated resources that addressed potential learning gaps. This playlist held practical resources, videos, readings, and protocols that could help guide their thinking. Offering resources for community members gives individual participants the opportunity to learn and grow independently. School leaders determined the best way to use the resources: individually to gain knowledge on background topics, or as partners to generate and share resources across the broader network.
In between formal learning sessions, principals were expected to apply one of the learnings, capture their insights, and discuss this with a peer. Principals often have isolating jobs, and it’s critical that principal supervisors intentionally support the development of cross-site learning and collaboration. This approach allows leaders to reflect on their learning needs, refine their approach, and reach for stronger outcomes for students.
At the end of the school year, our leaders were able to apply their learning in significant ways for kids. One group’s focus on equity resulted in significant gains for African-American students, a full five-percentage point increase—a 442 percent increase in year-over-year achievement. When principals are empowered to collaborate, they create the conditions that teachers and students need to thrive.