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Whole School Change: Developing a Community of Practice

How do schools make real and lasting change that develops from the inside out?

For the last 15 years, this question has been at the core of our work with schools around the country. So often after a course or a professional development experience, educators come to us saying – “We loved the work and we’ve tried some of the practices, but how do we create sustainability? How do we get this to stick…and to last?” As we partner with more and more schools to address this question, we want to share a few of our learnings, in hopes that our experiences can support sustainable change in your school community. Our whole school approach employs Engaged Teaching practices and principles that integrate academic learning with Social and Emotional Learning, Mindfulness, Cultural Responsiveness, and Whole Systems Thinking.

  1. Create an Integrated Approach: So often schools suffer from a kind of “chronic reform fatigue” – a condition resulting from the continual flow of disconnected reforms, programs and change strategies – with little regard for existing workloads and insufficient support for implementation. An integrated approach supports schools to find ways to weave initiatives together and to create common language and understanding of the work across initiatives that link to classroom and school-wide goals.
  2. Build Buy-in: Our experience is that “those who create – commit.” Throughout each school project, we have found it essential to continually gather the feedback and input of teachers, staff, administration – so that there is a common sense of mission, vision, purpose. When we involve all sectors of our school from the project’s inception, we benefit from the multiplicity of viewpoints and perspectives and are better able to see beyond the blindspots of our particular role.
  3. Initiate Collaborative Design: Our school project design teams involve PWI faculty members, administrators and teachers — so that project design emerges from the collective wisdom of team members. This design team serves as an advisory body throughout the life of the project.
  4. Develop Learning Communities: Schools that make lasting change dedicate time to becoming a community of practice that builds personal, professional, and team capacity. This involves “practicing” together—whether this be in a faculty meeting, a professional development day, PLC’s, or in learning cohorts. When teachers practice and learn together in an ongoing way, the initiatives we are introducing are more likely to become an integral part of the way we relate to our colleagues, teach our students, and attend to ourselves. Communities of practice also encourage us to share our learning and experience with one another, so the whole community can grow, develop and align.
  5. Cultivate Teacher Leadership: Early in the project, teachers are invited to collaborate, co-create, provide input, and to inspire and support their colleagues. Over the course of the project, “Teacher Leaders” emerge and develop the skills to become co-facilitators with PWI faculty, and ultimately to assume the ongoing professional development responsibilities. This enables PWI to reduce its role to coaching and support, which leads to long-term sustainable school culture change.

We are just beginning a writing project that will explore the practices and principles of effective and meaningful Whole School Transformation. Please share your stories!

Additional Background Reading on Whole School Change:

 “…success comes not from a particular practice, but principles that underlie all effective helping.” ~  L. K. Brendtro & M. L. Mitchell

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