Communities of Practice

COPsThe summer months provide us an opportunity to reflect and work to make changes within our organization that we believe will make us a more effective organization.  Last week we redesigned our current governance structure within the district.

In most large school districts school governance is organized by school grade levels.  There would be one person in charge or elementary schools, one person in charge of secondary schools, etc.  This structure has strengths in managing the different levels and for creating consistency among schools.  Before 2008 Worthington was organized in this fashion.  Several years ago, led by Mark Glasbrenner, we re-organized into what we call Communities of Practice.  Essentially we have groups of 5 or 6 principals from preschool to high school that work with one director at the Worthington Education Center.  Our 19 schools are divided into four communities of practice led by four different directors. 

The Communities of Practice structure is different than the norm and most don’t understand why we are organized in this way.  Here’s why:

The cohort concept for educational administrators is not new to education. Learning in groups has historical roots in adult education and many adult educators use group learning as an element of their programs. As early as the 1940s, cohorts were part of administrator preparation programs committed to reform.

The cohort structure began to flourish in the 1960s. School administrators were typically recognized as the single leaders of their schools or districts. Maintaining the status quo was the order of the day. Therefore, school districts that incorporated cohorts in order to encourage a cooperative and collegial culture were directly challenging the trend toward rationality, order, and control. Given the prevailing view of school administration during this era, it is not surprising that many of the earliest efforts to create cohorts were not sustained.

During the 1980s, the cohort concept was revived in response to renewed cries for the reform of educational administration responsibilities. Sustainability was again a concern with most school districts opting for traditional methods of school administration.

A different societal context exists today in schools. Recently, a form of group learning – cohorts – has emerged as an attractive option for administrators. This is characterized by shared leadership, communities of learners, and visionary leadership. School leaders immersed in this culture must be facilitators, transformers, and catalysts of change. School leaders must be prepared to meet the challenges for creating collaborative and collegial learning environments. It is the belief that the principal cohorts can facilitate the accomplishment of these aims. Besides the obvious collegial benefits of cohorts, there may be the potential for developing the leadership need in today’s and tomorrow’s schools.

Webster defines a group as a “number of individuals assembled together or having a common interest.” The term has been further defined to mean two or more interdependent individuals who influence each other through social interaction. In short, a group is two or more individuals who interact, are interdependent, share common norms, and pursue individual as well as group goals. It becomes evident that interdependence is a hallmark of a group. McREL may define this as collective efficacy. Interdependence results when group members:

•           have a common purpose

•           influence each other through social interactions

•           are allowed to purse individual and group learning opportunities

A cohort is much more than a structure. It can be referred to as a tight-knit, reliable, common purpose group that has foundations in group dynamics, adult development, and adult learning theory.

The research suggests that employing a cohort model for principals has advantages over the traditional work done with principals. Leadership is a process that begins with understandings one’s strengths, limitations, and aspirations. Kouzes and Posner (1987) suggest that leadership is an artistic process with the leader serving as the instrument for creation. Artistic skill, or leadership, results from an individual’s self-awareness and is expressed in his/her behavior. Self-awareness fosters personal faith – faith in one’s personal capabilities, values, and convictions.

A cohort environment has the potential for fostering the art of leadership. When a cohort operates as an effective group, principals build strong emotional bonds which provide them with the freedom to explore their strengths, limitations, and convictions. A group process takes place as principals, within the safety net provided by a true group, risk revealing their inner thoughts and desires which can be affirming.

Besides identifying one’s strengths and limitations, self-awareness allows individuals to clarify their personal values and beliefs. Values and beliefs serve as cornerstones for conceptualizing future visions and for creating a sense of purpose for the schools and district.

Cohorts can provide opportunities for the growth of personal values through the exchange of ideas. It is important to realize that openly examining aspiring leaders’ visions, beliefs, and values will only flourish in an environment where trust, risk taking, and open inquiry are valued and encouraged.

Appreciation of others results from a collegial learning environment. Although collegiality does seem to result from the cohort experience, it should not be viewed as an end unto itself. Collegiality becomes the instrument for cooperation which can be the foundation of organizational effectiveness. Also, through cooperative learning experiences, leaders develop the capacity for problem finding as well as problem solving.

As principals in cohorts become sensitized to their own and other peoples’ beliefs and values become committed to the group’s success, learn how to promote cooperation among group members, and clarify their own visions for organizational success, they are beginning to embrace the leadership paradigm of transformational leadership. Through a cohort structure, there is opportunity to define a new leadership paradigm and to enhance the principalship for shaping the schools of tomorrow.

Utilizing the cohort structure does not ensure a true cohort will develop. Few structures available to principals have greater potential than the cohort for fostering a new leadership paradigm. To view cohorts simply as a method of supervision and evaluation delivery, as a vehicle for socialization, or fashionable approach to leadership is to do the cohort structure injustice. However, through thoughtful planning, developing, and implementation of cohorts, principals can realize the power of this approach and benefit from its rewards.

For 2013-2014 this chart illustrates our Communities of Practice organized by elementary, middle and high school feeder patterns:  The director of each Community of Practice, Dr. Shirley Hamilton, Mr. George Joseph, Mr. Jeff Maddox and Mrs. Jennifer Wene are listed above the names of the principals they supervise as a group.

Building Operational

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