Sunday, October 17, 2010

Changing the Tire on A Moving Bus: Barriers to the Development of Professional Learning Community in a New Teacher-Led School

Lonnquist, M. P., & King, J. A. (1993). Changing the tire on a moving bus: barriers to the development of professional community in a new teacher-led school. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Education Research Association, Atlanta, GA.   

The researchers gathered qualitative data for four years from a relatively new public magnet school in order to provide a model for educators hoping to develop a teacher-led school.  The hope was to engage all teachers in the decision-making and problem-solving of the school and to create an empowered professional adult community.  Over the four years of the study, the researchers collected and synthesized accounts from all of the stakeholders in the school and determined that while this particular school failed to develop such a community, the idea should not be abandoned. Instead, educators can learn from their mistakes and proceed thoughtfully in terms of the contextual, structural and leadership decisions. 

The school itself that provided the case study, Whitehead Magnet School, was already considered innovative by the standards of 1993: student centered curriculum, project based learning, and extensive use of technology.  The school serviced 230 students in grades four through eight and believed strongly in the importance of student and parent voice as well as the need to professionalize the role of teachers.  To this end, the designers planned for a hierarchy of lead teachers, founding members of the staff who would comprise the "leadership team" alongside a majority of general teachers.  This structural choice along with issues of mistrust, a lack of openness to improve, and a general feeling of inefficiency, especially among newer teachers, all contributed to the failed professional learning community at Whitehead.  While some teachers were open to improvement and to utilizing one another's expertise, it was not felt among the whole staff and when brought up, there were feelings of defensiveness, especially from the founding teachers.  While the teachers were generally proud of the work being done with their project-based and personalized curriculum, they were not proud of their adult community.  The article provides a rich analysis of why the development of this particular professional community failed and provides practical elements to think through before designing a school in this way.  The research is useful for leaders of new schools or for leaders who are hoping to re-charge and change the professional adult culture within an existing school. 

Below are some quotes from the article for people interested in evaluating or designing the leadership structure at a new or existing school. 
  • Though the spirit of the plan was to empower teachers, the structure gave just four teachers decision-making power, year-round contracts, and substantially higher pay.  The designers had unwittingly created for Whitehead a hierarchy with more tiers than in most traditional schools... In retrospect, it appears that little thought was given to how the teacher leaders' layer of the hierarchy would affect power dynamics among teachers and what might facilitate effective working relationships.  (p. 15)
  • In their division of responsibilities, some important tasks were overlooked, role boundaries were not well-defined, and there was no system of checks and balances.  As a result, teacher leaders would decide they had the power to veto one idea and yet let similar issues fall through the cracks.  Needless to say, the school culture that emerged under these conditions was not a model of professional community. (p. 18)
  • The new teachers felt the leadership team was entrenched in their positions, responded as if threatened when offered suggestions, and closed ranks against them.  The teacher leaders, on the other hand, perceived that their endless efforts to create a school from scratch were not being appreciated.  (p. 19)
  • Covert and overt tensions and conflicts among the leadership team, as well as between the leadership team and the general teachers, eliminated the sense of trust and camaraderie that is critical to the development of community.  (p. 20)
  • Although the new head teacher began building some sense of community, she had acclimated to the school culture that avoided conflict and was not ready, nor given support, to bring the problems out in the open... the tension continued to fester under the surface.  (p. 21)
  • Deal (1992, p.1) tells us that in times of uncertainty, when no one is sure about what the right job really is, people turn to leaders for direction, confidence, spirit, hope and cohesion.  The leadership team in this school could not meet those needs.  They were faced with a challenge that would have been formidable even to an astute, proven leader, were not experienced enough, and, it appears, did not have the right personal characteristics for this job.  The leadership team attempted to manage using a "symbolic" orientation, that is, seeing themselves as prophets and articulating a "shared, almost spiritual quest" (Deal, 1992, p. 4).  (p. 25)
  •  In a school like Whitehead, on-going "human relations" development (communication skills, conflict resolution techniques, etc.) is as important for teachers' success as in-service workshops on new curriculum, pedagogy, and technology.  (p. 28)
    Sources to pursue for further research:
    1. Deal, Terrence.  (1992).  Leadership in a world of change.  In Scott D. Thompson (Ed.), School Leadership: A Blueprint for change (pp. 1-7). Newbury Park, CA: Crowin Press.
    2. Kouzes, James M & Posner, Barry Z. (1990). The leadership challenge: How to get extraordinary things done in organizations.  San Francisco: Jossey- Bass.
    3. Kruse, Sharon D. & Louis, Karen Seashore. (1993, April).  An emerging framework for analyzing school-based professional community.  Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Education Research Association, Atlanta, GA. 

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