Professional Learning Communities Aren't Just for Teachers

Superintendents can feel less isolated through online communities

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As two former school superintendents, we’ve witnessed firsthand how learning communities can enrich the personal and professional lives of classroom teachers. In school systems nationwide, we have seen teachers learn new skills, meet new colleagues, grow their classroom practice, and find shared solutions to common challenges through their engagement with “critical friends” as part of a professional learning community.

Yet, professional learning communities are not just for the classroom teacher. We believe that learning communities can also provide tremendous benefits to school leaders seeking to improve their professional practice and continue meeting the needs of the ever-evolving education landscape.

From our perspective, a combination of economic, social, and technological forces has, over the last 20 years, brought fundamental changes to teaching and learning. For example, the textbook, which has for so long been the core instructional resource in America’s schools, is being replaced by dynamic digital content that better meets the needs of modern, media-savvy students. This shift has had a deep and positive impact on instruction. However, as technology and instructional theory have merged to create modern digital learning environments, the role of school administrators and superintendents has grown considerably more complex.

"The relative isolation in which today’s school leaders operate further magnifies the value of participation in a professional learning community."

When we began our careers in public education, teachers and administrators at all levels could draw primarily on the experience of peers in their own school systems for guidance on a particularly complicated issue or challenge. As public education has become increasingly sophisticated, so too has the environment in which superintendents and school administrators work.

In addition to the existing challenges they have always faced, each day brings school leaders a host of new challenges. What is the best way to design future-ready classrooms on a budget? What is the most efficient way to communicate with district stakeholders in the Digital Age? How do you balance differences of opinion on learning assessments in your school community? These complex questions and others demand that school leaders go beyond the expertise in their own school systems for solutions.

The relative isolation in which today’s school leaders operate further magnifies the value of participation in a professional learning community. While a classroom teacher may connect regularly with four or five peers, and a principal may connect regularly with two or three colleagues across his or her school system, superintendents and other senior administrators often experience high levels of professional isolation. The isolation of leadership, coupled with the ever-growing complexity of education and the changing nature of today’s generation of students, make ongoing professional learning and networking virtually an imperative for today’s school administrators and superintendents.

In our opinion, greater participation in professional learning networks such as the Discovery Education Community and the AASA, The School Superintendents Association's Digital Consortium can be one of the key strategies school leaders employ in their effort to overcome the complexity and isolation they face. Through these and other learning communities, superintendents and administrators are connecting to their most valuable resource—each other—and creating valuable relationships that will help them successfully create the dynamic digital classrooms today’s students demand and deserve.

Through participation in a professional learning community, superintendents and administrators have the opportunity to learn new, evidence-based practices related to the digital transition. They can discuss, in a safe and nonjudgmental atmosphere, not only their successes in making the shift to digital learning, but their setbacks as well. They can connect with one another both in person and virtually and build out personal networks they can tap into to meet any number of challenges that arise. Finally, the powerful new relationships that grow out of membership and participation in professional learning networks create a potent support system that can empower school leaders’ efforts to combine sustained professional development with new technologies and digital content in ways that will support the success of all learners, every day.

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We understand that in each of today’s modern school systems, no matter its size, the role of the school administrator is a difficult and sometimes lonely job. Each day, school leaders make numerous critical decisions about educational programs, staffing, technology, finances, facilities, and much, much more. They serve as teachers, mentors, coaches, public relations executives, counselors, and in many other critical roles. The hours are long, and the responsibilities are great.

However, participation in professional learning networks has been critical in our efforts to meet the needs of the students we served, as well as our personal and professional growth. As the first semester of the school year comes to a close, we hope school administrators and superintendents across the nation will mark the start of the next semester by joining a professional learning community. By doing so, they will demonstrate to their students and colleagues that learning transcends the classroom and is a collaborative, ongoing process. They will model the concept of lifelong learning for students, parents, and peers to see.

But most important, school administrators’ participation will provide important personal and professional benefits and insights that will help school leaders overcome the many challenges they will encounter every year.

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Clarification: An earlier version of this Commentary misstated Mort Sherman's job title. He is the associate executive director of leadership and awards at AASA, The School Superintendents Association.

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