Professional Learning Communities: What Are They And Why Are They Important?
Supportive and Shared Leadership
The school change and educational leadership literatures clearly recognize the role and influence of the campus administrator (principal, and sometimes assistant principal) on whether change will occur in the school. It seems clear that transforming a school organization into a learning community can be done only with the sanction of the leaders and the active nurturing of the entire staff’s development as a community. Thus, a look at the principal of a school whose staff is a professional learning community seems a good starting point for describing what these learning communities look like and how the principal “accepts a collegial relationship with teachers” (D. Rainey, personal communication, March 13, 1997) to share leadership, power, and decision making.
Lucianne Carmichael, the first resident principal of the Harvard University Principal Center and a principal who nurtured a professional community of learners in her own school, discusses the position of authority and power typically held by principals, in which the staff views them as all-wise and all-competent (1982). Principals have internalized this “omnicompetence,” Carmichael asserts. Others in the school reinforce it, making it difficult for principals to admit that they themselves can benefit from professional development opportunities, or to recognize the dynamic potential of staff contributions to decision making. Furthermore, when the principal’s position is so thoroughly dominant, it is difficult for staff to propose divergent views or ideas about the school’s effectiveness.
Carmichael proposes that the notion of principals’ omnicompetence be “ditched” in favor of their participation in their own professional development. Kleine-Kracht (1993) concurs and suggests that administrators, along with teachers, must be learners too, “questioning, investigating, and seeking solutions” (p. 393) for school improvement. The traditional pattern that “teachers teach, students learn, and administrators manage is completely altered . . . [There is] no longer a hierarchy of who knows more than someone else, but rather the need for everyone to contribute” (p. 393).
This new relationship forged between administrators and teachers leads to shared and collegial leadership in the school, where all grow professionally and learn to view themselves (to use an athletic metaphor) as “all playing on the same team and working toward the same goal: a better school” (Hoerr, 1996, p. 381).
Louis and Kruse (1995) identify the supportive leadership of principals as one of the necessary human resources for restructuring staff into school-based professional communities. The authors refer to these principals as “post-heroic leaders who do not view themselves as the architects of school effectiveness” (p. 234). Prestine (1993) also defines characteristics of principals in schools that undertake school restructuring: a willingness to share authority, the capacity to facilitate the work of staff, and the ability to participate without dominating.
Sergiovanni explains that “the sources of authority for leadership are embedded in shared ideas” (1994b, p. 214), not in the power of position. Snyder, Acker-Hocevar, and Snyder (1996) assert that it is also important that the principal believe that teachers have the capacity to respond to the needs of students, that this belief “provides moral strength for principals to meet difficult political and educational challenges along the way” (p. 19). Senge (quoted by O’Neil, 1995) adds that the principal’s job is to create an environment in which the staff can learn continuously; “[t]hen in turn, . . . the job of the superintendent is to find principals and support [such] principals” (p. 21) who create this environment.
An additional dimension, then, is a chief executive of the school district who supports and encourages continuous learning of its professionals. This observation suggests that no longer can leaders be thought of as top-down agents of change or seen as the visionaries of the corporation; instead leaders must be regarded as democratic teachers.
Professional Learning Communities: What Are They And Why Are They Important?: Supportive and Shared Leadership