New Year’s is a time for reflection, celebration, and oh yes, resolutions. This year, instead of making a promise to yourself, why not channel the #sharekindness that has been trending in 2016, and make a promise to yourself and your team? Kathleen O’Flynn and her team did just that earlier this year, and in only a few short months they are celebrating the joy and connectivity that has come from creating a professional learning community(PLC) that is truly tailored to meet the needs of everyone on their 10-person team — from new to veteran principals and administrators.

The Learning Forward Team Grant is a three-year grant that supports team-based projects (grade-level, school, and district leadership teams) in an effort to advance Learning Forward’s Standards for Professional Learning and Learning Forward’s vision: Excellent teaching and learning every day.

Join us as we highlight awardee Kathleen O’Flynn and her team from Northern Valley Regional High School District, sharing their 10 tips for build an engaging and inspiring professional learning community. Pack your bags and follow these steps to take your team on the journey to achieving their goals and dreams, no matter how varied and unique.

#1: Begin by seeing the beauty

As Kathleen O’Flynn began building the Northern Valley Regional High School Districtteam learning community, it was evident that there are both similarities and differences in their growth journeys. She immediately saw the beauty in the combination of the personalized piece coupled with the collaborative feeling that “we are in this cohort of support together.”

#2:  Embrace Technology

In creating this cohort of support, how can we create professional learning for a team in an innovative way that respects principals’ time? This is the question that motivated Kathleen O’Flynn to apply for the Learning Forward Team Grant, and her colleague Ginny Senande, Learning Systems Technology Integrator, is an essential partner in the grant. Ginny supports high school technology 1:1 integration. Her knowledge of technology has been very helpful because as a “guide on the side,” she is able to be a coach who pushes what we can model for teachers by what is possible. Ginny is coaching Kathleen and they are modeling learning from one another for the PLC members.

#3: Management vs. Leadership

The role of the principal as a coach and a leader is a foundational piece of this learning community. Cohort members on the journey needed to see the importance of the belief that a principal should not be just a manager who administers and makes sure the day-to-day things are happening as they should in the school building, but rather an instructional leader who gets people to understand and believe in the vision and to work towards shared goals. Kathleen O’Flynn has the unique perspective of also serving as part of her local school board for the past five years, and it has provided her with the clarity that she wants an instructional leader, not a manager, in school buildings. She explains, “You have a responsibility to have a lens and focus on the kind of instruction happening in your building. It is helpful to impress upon all leaders that transforming and being a lead learner in your building is the main focus.”

#4: Research, Research, Research!

As facilitators of the learning, it is critical to maintain and stay up-to-date in our knowledge of the current research in the field of education. While it is tempting to say “I don’t have time for that” and depend on central office colleagues in Curriculum and Instruction or Professional Learning offices, the fact is that current research needs to get directly to the practitioner level as quickly as possible.

#5: Reflection, Reflection, Reflection!

The learning community members came together and was impressed by how much research is out there and how much applies to their work. They pulled the Leadership Strand of Innovation Configuration and asked them to do a self reflection and rate themselves. It was a great time for practitioners to look at where they need to grow in a variety of areas. Each came up with a personalized goal. An additional benefit is that the tool provided the pre-assessment and will be the post assessment as well.

#6: Coaching Conversations

Learning Forward Coach Linda Mayer then had coaching conversations with each of the ten to refine their goals. They developed short term action plans and Linda will follow up with them in the New Year. Video has been a very effective tool for the instructional coaching program. It helps coaches to reflect on their own coaching visits, and will hopefully become a means to use for enhancing coaching conversations.

#7: Cultivating Trust

Cultivating a culture of trust has been an essential element of the process for Kathleen and her team. As luck would have it, Coach Linda Mayer held Kathleen O’Flynn’s role prior to her retirement, so many in the group knew Linda and the trust was intrinsic. However, Kathleen has been sensitive to the fact that some need more time to build trust. She shares that, “the conversation is a relationship. Schools, change, and relationships are all connected and the most recent Learning Forward national publications focused on leadership and coaching have helped support our work.”

#8: Group Norms & Structure

This 10-member cohort first came together in the fall of 2016 and Kathleen began by sending invitations for the entire year so that participants could plan and protect this sacred time for coaching, collaboration and reflection. The use of video conferencing made it particularly important to set the tone with this great comedic sketch on video conferencing “norms”

This hybrid model blends the face-to-face meeting structure with the Google Hangoutvirtual model. Think about how easy it would be to kick off 2017 by building a professional learning community with your team using Kathleen’s structure:

  • 3 Face-to-Face Meetings (one at the beginning, middle, and end of the year)
  • Google Hangouts monthly (with two Hangouts in the middle of the year)

Just like having a running partner or a weight loss partner as part of your New Year’s Resolution, creating a PLC creates a small set of partners you are committed to for your 2017 learning journey.

#9: Personalized Learning the Google Hangout Way

Google Hangout is a place to come up for air – a feel good factor – to look forward to it in your day as a designated time and place to reflect. Kathleen began with this philosophy and always strives to “have things that make you go ‘hmmm’ at the end of the Google Hangout – a cause for reflection.”

In December, the team personalized by splitting the cohort into 9-12 and K-8 groups for managerial purposes on a Google Hangout. Each person shared their goal, gave reflective feedback, and utilized sidebar to type messages and share resources. Coach Linda Mayer joined each Hangout, and the teamwork featured a focus on building collaborative instructors and principals sharing pairs of collaborative instructors that other team members can visit.

More Google Hangouts are scheduled for the rest of the year. Topics include: Change, Relationships in the Schoolhouse, and Chat + Learning and Building Community. Feedback from the Hangouts has been that they are timely, helpful, and work well for busy schedules. It is also seen as an easy way to make yourself vulnerable and build trust. Therefore it all culminates in a meeting at the end of the year for a group reflection.

#10: Understand the WHY

One of the most powerful reflections thus far in the Northern Valley Regional High School District team journey has been reflecting on the WHY. The last Google Hangout ended with a video Why you need to know your WHY! Kathleen ended the session by asking participants not to lose sight of their WHY, their personal WHY, and the reason their approaches matter. In their own way, everyone on the team expressed the value of being part of the group. One participant even shared that they plan to try this with their department.

Inspiring her colleagues to be thoughtful as they move into 2017, Kathleen “encouraged all to take some time as we begin to turn the bend into 2017, to remind themselves of their personal why. All the approaches that you may use to get your goal won’t matter if they are formulaic and done for compliance. When you know your why, your what has more impact.”

So while they thought this cohort would only be coming together for a year, Kathleen shares that “maybe we really need to set the foundation and keep it going….and this group could go on for two years or more.” It is clear that people really valued having a coach push them in a respectful way, and all are modeling themselves as lead learners and are sharing with their staff that they are going through the coaching process.

Clearly a phenomenal coach herself, Kathleen believes that “we are all part of this village – we all need to be leaders. We all need to be out of our comfort zone. Hopefully this group will establish a stronger culture of professional learning for not just teachers but also for principals.”

So if you’ve spent the past year being overwhelmed, now it is the new year and it is time for a new start. Use this simple plan to kickstart your 2017 with a commitment to growing yourself and your team!

Learning Forward Foundation Scholarships

The Learning Forward Foundation scholarship contest encourages educators to put their good ideas into action and apply their research and creativity to impact education’s most profound challenges.

Applications for Learning Forward Foundation scholarships and grants are going live in late January 2017. Apply now — the next award winner could be you!

Acting Chief of Organizational Effectiveness and Executive Director of Leadership & Organizational Development at Baltimore County Public Schools | + posts

Heather Lageman serves as the acting chief of organizational effectiveness and executive director of leadership & organizational development for Baltimore County Public Schools. Prior, she served as the director of curriculum for the Maryland State Department of Education, and managed statewide implementation of the Teacher Induction Program. During Race to the Top, she served as Race to the Top Local Education Agency director for Maryland and managed both programmatic and fiscal aspects of district projects.