Why administrators need professional learning communities, too

In many of our school systems, being the administrator means you are a team of one. You may have trusted colleagues you supervise and can count on to take a leadership role but, in reality, they don’t understand the pressures that come with being an administrator. Even our families and friends don’t really get how tough it is in all schools right now, public, private, and charter. 

Like many others, you may be considering early retirement or leaving the profession for another one. Before you give in to temptations to quit, try this: create a professional learning community with other administrators in your position. I promise you that just being able to talk with others who inherently understand your role will be very uplifting.

A reminder about professional learning communities

Educator professional learning communities, or PLCs for short, are not new. In the article “Creating effective professional learning communities,” educator Andrew Miller explains that “PLCs—which harness ‘an ongoing process in which educators work collaboratively in recurring cycles of collective inquiry and action research to achieve better results for the students they serve’—are a common and proven practice to promote teacher collaboration that increases student achievement.” For administrators, a PLC with colleagues can similarly promote collaboration on problem solving, including for increased teacher retention; provide a safe place to de-stress and get much needed emotional support; and help the people we’re doing all this for: our students.

Before you give in to temptations to quit, try this: create a professional learning community with other administrators in your position.

Just like teachers do, leaders should put aside guaranteed time to meet with their PLC teammates. School contracts and union agreements typically outline prep time and professional learning time, protecting these important educator meetings from distractions. Administrators also need to be reminded that without their professional learning time, they will begin to feel isolated and, in some cases, uncared for and unsupported. 

Do you make time at least twice a month to connect with another administrator? Do you value your own learning time by blocking out (and protecting) at least two hours a month to learn something new? Sadly, I believe the answer to these questions is “No” for most of us. 

How to start your own administrator PLC

This is my twentieth year in administration and my first year making time to be in a PLC and focus on my own learning. Don’t wait that long to make this happen for you. In just the few meetings we have had this year in our principals PLC, I have already felt better just being able to hear what others are dealing with and knowing that I am indeed not the only one struggling with teacher retention, substitute teachers, and political unrest in our area. 

[E]motionally supporting each other is the first and most important part.

How can you start a PLC in your area? Well, it can be as simple as staying in touch with just one other administrator, either virtually or in person. Do you have an old friend who worked up to a leadership position? You can also reach out to a neighboring district counterpart, an elementary, middle, or high school leader, and make a connection over a common question. If you want to make this important work happen, it is going to take you making the first move. It may feel uncomfortable or awkward, but I encourage you to do this for yourself. While you’re at it, you will make another leader feel supported and take the first step in yet another way to work toward everyone’s common goal of serving our students well. 

Once you’ve established contact with at least one person (starting small is A-OK!), I encourage you to have a running agenda everyone can access, so they can add to it as things come up between meetings. If your team has someone who can’t attend in person on a particular day, Zoom them in for the parts of the meeting they can attend. Even consider starting with virtual meetings, which can make recruiting members easier during COVID-19 and allow you to open up your community to neighboring districts.

There’s no official playbook for a principals PLC, so make the collaboration work for those on your team. Often, conversations at our PLC lead to other topics, and we add those to future agendas. Many times, our meetings also have a check-in that’s at least 15 minutes so we can all decompress about current frustrations and situations that are causing stress and strain on our building. Ease into your agenda topics with the understanding that emotionally supporting each other is the first and most important part of the meeting.

I promise you that just being able to talk with others who inherently understand your role will be very uplifting.

As the team builds trust, it will be easier and easier to lean in and help each other. Keep with it, encourage each other to make time for the PLC, and try to begin your meetings with that de-stress check-in. Leave each meeting with an optimistic closure, too. I love this bit from CASEL’s SEL: 3 signature practices playbook: “Optimistic closures may be reflective about the learning, help identify next steps, or make connections to one’s own work. Since our learning and our work are always a part of an on-going journey, these experiences bring a moment of pause, of collection, of reflection, to help anchor learning and build anticipation for the efforts to come.” 

You’re worth it

My 30 years in education have not seen tougher times than these right now. I encourage you to find your inner joy and connect with your passion. What keeps you walking through the front doors each day? Also think about how a PLC can help you be a better, more grounded leader for your school. 

Once you’ve had a chance to reflect, plan a next step. It can be something as simple as telling yourself “I’ll find some opportunities for professional learning in 2022” or “I will not send that heated email response.” I recommend something really concrete that requires reaching out to a fellow leader. Forward them this article. Or break the ice with an email asking about their winter break, then ask if they’d be up for regular email exchanges, monthly virtual meetings, or something more this new year. You won’t regret the time you put aside for your learning and your mental health.

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