Starting a Movement: A Book Review (Chapter 7- Communication: Stories and Celebrations)

Starting A Movement: Building Culture from the Inside Out in Professional Learning Communities

Written by Kenneth C. Williams and Tom Hierck

In my last post I reviewed Chapter 6, which talks about how to strengthen the final pillar of a Professional Learning Community: the Now. If you miss that post, you can read it here.

If you feel like you just need to buy this book now, please click on the image below.

The Breakdown:  Chapter 7- Stories and Celebrations

The key to building our PLC wasn’t presentations, but a thousand conversations–one at a time.

-Principal in a PLC

This chapter highlights the importance of story-telling and celebration in shaping a culture of collective commitment. The main message in the concluding chapter of this book is this: “In the absence of knowing, it’s really hard to get to the doing” (p.144). Basically, we need to ensure that we are not talking at our staff, but instead including them in the conversations as we work through the process. We also need to acknowledge that teachers are busy people and if we are going to tell them that becoming a PLC is a priority, then we need to cut out the rest of the junk that so often fills our staff meetings (tardiness, hat policies, assembly dates, policy around food and drinks in class, etc…). Instead, use that time to allow staff to participate in meaningful conversations and to co-construct the path they will be taking.

It is also important to remember that as leaders, we do not have all the answers, and even if you think you do, it is better to create opportunities for staff to get to that answer on their own, rather than telling them right off the bat. It might seem time consuming, but it will go a long way in getting staff on board because they will be more engaged and be connected to the process on a more personal level.

Storytelling and Culture

Using stories to create a culture of collective responsibility is not common practice, but according to Hierck and Williams, it should be.

The fact is that every school has multiple stories, and they also choose which stories are shared. For example, in a school that serves students from a low socioeconomic status, it is easy to tell the story of how challenging it is for them to come to school ready to learn. This story provides an excuse for when students don’t learn. The challenge is changing the story to promote the positive work being done to ensure that all students are learning in spite of their challenging home lives. We can still talk about the challenges, but in the second story, the challenges students face are not the main focus.

Some schools might tell stories about how they are hesitant to change because a former administrator made it difficult for them to trust future administrators. This allows teachers to condone resistance, because they were hurt in the past. Instead, why not focus on how working with someone who was not supportive of their staff created a strong bond among the teachers and helped them learn to overcome adversity. This is a much better story, where the teachers are the heroes instead of the victims. Ultimately as a school, you and your team have the power to change your story.

Stories can also be used to invite engagement and problem solving. These are called springboard stories because they allow people to see how a current problem they are facing might be changed by telling someone else’s story. These stories are advantageous because they combat skepticism and create buy-in in a way that doesn’t put people on the defensive. This might seem challenging at first, and you may be resistant to using such a round about way of confronting a problem, but think about it for a second. Most people when confronted with criticism will immediately become defensive. They will resist what you are saying because it is hard for them to admit they have short comings.

If you present the story first, you are engaging the group, involving them in the idea and asking them to participate with you. Chances are your staff already knows where they need to improve individually and as a group, but it is a lot easier for them to jump in when they are not feeling attacked.

How to Use Stories to Build Commitment

The authors provide you with some ways that using stories can effectively deepen the commitment to a culture of collective responsibility:

  1. Stories make a point: If you choose the stories you tell carefully and match them to your intended message, you can make your point clear without being forceful or prescriptive.
  2. Stories make the point memorable:  Carefully selecting your stories, repeating them often and selecting the right moments to share these stories, will help people remember your message more clearly.
  3. Stories make the point meaningful: Stories can help create meaning for people. They may interpret the meaning differently than others but as long as you are making your main message clear, then the meaning each person creates will help them remember and personalize the story.
  4. Stories create and reveal emotions: Well selected stories will tap into human emotion, which will help to influence or persuade them.
  5. Stories build connections: Telling stories can create a bond between the teller and the listener. Especially stories you share about your own personal learning experiences. Opening up about times you have failed or made a mistake, and the lesson you learned from it will help your staff feel safe to share their own stories of struggle and triumph. This will build the bond between staff and help move you towards a truly collaborative team.

Why Stories of Struggle Are Important

It is important to create a culture where people feel safe to share both types of stories, because when these stories are shared frequently it accomplishes two things:

  • It sends a message to staff that not everything goes well all the time, even when you are trying your best, sometimes things just don’t work the way you initially thought they would. Setbacks and challenges are seen as an important part of the journey, they are learning experiences that will eventually help you move towards your collective goals.
  • When you share stories about challenges and setbacks, you can ask listeners to come up with potential solutions, supports, or resources that might help solve the problem. Doing this will inherently reinforce the idea of collective responsibility.

Understanding the Stories of Your School

In order to understand how the stories of your school reflect how staff perceive the school, Hierck and Williams suggest the following activity:

1. What stories do people tell about your school and how are they perceived? What kind of stories do staff members, students, and parents share about your school? Once you have collected some examples, determine the themes and whether or not they will help strengthen the school culture you are working to build.

        Consider the following questions individually and collectively as a team:

  • What is the most common perception of our school shared among staff?
  • What is the most common perception of our school shared among students?
  • What is the most common perception of our school shared among parents?
  • What is the most common perception of our school shared among district leadership?

2. Assess these perceptions. Figure out which ones support a culture of collective responsibility, and which ones get in the way. Evaluate how they impact the current school culture, and consider the following questions”

  • Which of the stories help support and share our desired school culture? What policies and practices do we observe that support these perceptions?
  • Which stories have a negative message, or do not fit with our desired school culture and should be replaced? What policies and practices do we observe that support these perceptions? What do we need to do to change these perceptions? What do we need to stop doing to change these perceptions?

It is important to go through this process because it will help identify important behaviours that need to be modified, and those that need to be celebrated.

Celebrating Success

While it is important to tell stories of struggle, it is equally important to acknowledge and appreciate the efforts put forth by your staff on a regular basis. This does not mean that you just go around telling people how great they are. Even here, you want to align your celebrations to your mission, vision, and commitments to the essential work of a PLC. This means that you make time to acknowledge the achievements and efforts of individuals, teams, and the entire school community with specifics on how they are help the school move forward. This can be as simple as pulling a teacher aside and taking notice of small changes they are making in their classroom, or recognizing a team for their collaborative work.

The authors provide some excellent examples of how to do this starting on page 155. I highly recommend purchasing the book (just click on the link at the bottom) because the examples are things that are definitely worth trying out!

Final Thoughts

I found this section to be the most intimidating of them all because I don’t see myself as a story teller. What I soon realized as I read on was that you don’t need to be a great storyteller, but you do need to know your staff to understand which stories will help them connect to the goals set forth at the beginning of the PLC process.

I love that the authors talk about the importance of being open with your staff about your struggles. It can be intimidating for staff to admit to school leaders when they are struggling because they do not see you as a failure, after all, you can’t have failed and gotten where you are today right? Sharing your moments of weakness, and making it clear that setbacks and mistakes are not seen as failure in your eyes, but are instead opportunities to learn and grow, will encourage staff to take risks and help them develop a growth mindset.

The other part of this chapter that really inspired me was the section about celebrating success. One of the things I find intriguing about people (myself included) is that we are very good at telling other people what we admire or appreciate about others, but often do not actually say it to the person in question. It might be due to the fact that people are often not sure how to respond to compliments, or get embarrassed, or brush it off, but no matter how they react in the moment, they will appreciate it in the long run.

This is the final chapter of “Starting a Movement”. I hope you enjoyed learning about this book, and I highly recommend buying it as it will work well as an implementation guide if you decide to take the steps to building a Professional Learning Community at your school. This book would also work well as a book study with a leadership team, or Principal cohort as it is easy to read, and there are lots of opportunities for reflection.

If you are interested in purchasing this book, you can get it here. If you have already read the book and have questions, comments, or would like to elaborate on anything I just wrote, please comment below!

Let me know what you think, if you have book suggestions, or if you want me to elaborate on a specific topic. Feedback is always welcome!