How Communities of Practice Work in Education

A community of practice meeting in the field of education“Education is for improving the lives of others and for leaving your community and world better than you found it.“ – Marian Wright Edelman

After decades developing leaders in the field of education, I came across the concept of a Community of Practice (CoP), and it forever changed my perspective of how educators can work together to make the biggest difference in their community and the world. I learned that the guiding principles behind Communities of Practice have existed long before the terminology was invented—in reality, as long as humans have come together to share ideas on common goals. 

I was thrilled to observe the results of a Community in Practice in the field of education when I served as the team leader on a three-year Site Leader Community of Practice (SLCOP) study in seven school districts across California. Before the Community of Practice was instituted, the site leaders (school principals) were isolated from any peers, and as a result, there was little opportunity for them to network. 

The goal of the SLCOP was to bring these principals together to share their successes and challenges. The Community of Practice also allowed the principles to practice reciprocal learning in order to learn as an aggregated whole. 

This three-year project was a resounding success and it illustrates the benefits of Communities of Practice in educational contexts. Why did this project work out so well? How do Communities of Practice work in education? Let’s explore how it works. 

Why are communities of practice such a good fit for the educational field? 

In the field of education, peer learning is vital. 

In a community, we learn and grow by observing and practicing in a safe space with other learners. This is relevant because now, more than ever, educators are facing knowledge challenges. There is a new focus on social-emotional learning, digital literacy, computational thinking, cross-cultural skills, etc in education today—the ways that we define student success are changing rapidly. 

However, in order for educators to teach these skills to students, they must first master these same skills. In CoPs, educators can help one another grow and learn, and most importantly, make a lasting impact on their students.

Communities of Practice allow educators to work toward common professional development goals by forming connections and sharing ideas, practices, and tools. CoPs can be constructed by a district, school, or by the educators themselves. 

How do communities of practice work in education?

CoPs have been used in teacher training and in providing isolated administrators with access to colleagues and mentors. CoPs can meet in person or virtually. Virtual connections allow teachers to interact with others from around the world. It extends the reach of interactions beyond geographical limitations and expands the possibilities for communities based on shared practice. Changing the learning theory can constitute a much deeper transformation. 

Often, there is a level of competitiveness among schools and districts, especially at the high school level. But, what if, instead of pushing each other to succeed via competitiveness, schools collaborated and shared understandings? This is the heart of a Community of Practice—mutual assistance leading to shared benefits. 

Are you an educator looking to achieve greater success through a Community of Practice? Contact me to learn about customized Community in Practice trainings for educators looking to harness the power of collaboration.

Showing Vulnerability to Your Community: The Ultimate Test of Trust

Leader showing vulnerability in a Community of Practice

“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.” ― Brené Brown

There’s a ubiquitous idea among community and business leaders—hide your weakness, at any cost. 

This approach may work at times if the goal is gaining power, but it’s nearly impossible to be an effective leader of a Community of Practice (CoP) with this philosophy. As my last blog post highlighted, trust is the essential element in any Community of Practice, and the only way to gain the trust of your team is by showing vulnerability. 

A few years ago I experienced the truth of this. My husband and I worked with a realtor who promised amazing results after we saw our “dream house” that was clearly beyond our reach. Somewhat worryingly, she told us, “trust me”. 

While these words can be oversold by many a person in sales, she really meant it. She went on to describe what was basically a Community of Practice among realtors. 

She and her colleagues meet weekly in a consultancy approach where they forward their most challenging clients and, together, craft an approach to the seller that, in almost every case, gets them a winning offer. While their domain is evident (real estate) and their practice (sales) is easily defined, their sense of community that allows them to share their practice elevates their work beyond the typical realtor working one client at a time to sell one house after another. 

Their willingness to engage in a shared approach, demonstrate vulnerability (after all, there is a commission on the line), and find new ways to solve the problem of successfully matching home buyers and sellers was impressive. This vulnerability made it far easier for me to trust that I could indeed trust this realtor to find us the right home.

When building a Community of Practice (CoP) community collaborators must share their practice, and even more daringly, their struggles with their practice. In fact, a measure of effective community building is the growing sense of trust within the group. With a strong sense of community, our domain becomes our passion and purpose. Without it, our domain is as simple as the place we go to work. 

As a leader, are you ready and willing to expose your strengths and weaknesses to benefit from every member of your community? This may go against your natural inclination, but when you see how effective it is, it’s incredibly motivating.

Here are ways you can take the lead in being vulnerable with your team or CoP:

Don’t be afraid of not having all the answers. You don’t have to be the first with an idea or an answer. Be the kind of person that actively seeks out others’ input. Acknowledge that you’re not an expert on a particular topic, and then ask for help. You’ll be amazed at the positive response. 

Encourage others to take the lead in important conversations. Try to engage the perspectives and thoughts of others. Ask different people to take turns at running meetings, you’ll see a newfound commitment to the shared vision of your organization. 

Expect honest feedback. Ask for your team to give feedback on some aspect of your performance. Of course, the way in which you receive these comments will impact whether you receive sincere feedback from your team again.

Regularly engage in consultancy activities. This allows you to delve into a colleague’s shoes and see their work in new, different, and refreshing way. Like the real estate group I shared earlier, this is a deeply sustaining practice that helps colleagues, or even competitors, to become collaborators. 

Be ready to try something new. Don’t let your ego protect you from being willing to step out of your comfort zone and risk embarrassment. And when you make a mistake (not if, when) acknowledge it. You’ll gain the respect and loyalty of your team when you show the humility to admit a mistake. 

Are you intrigued by what your team could achieve as a Community of Practice? Contact me to learn how your team can develop an action-oriented model of activities and ways of communicating that drives you towards your joint purpose. Or download my special report Leading a Purpose-Driven Team to learn how to get started.

Trust: The Essential Element in any Community of Practice

Community of Practice DefinitionDo you trust each member of your team? Do they trust you? Do they trust each other? According to Stephen Covey, “The ability to establish, grow, extend, and restore trust is the key professional and personal competency of our time.”

Trust is especially important if you’re working within a Community of Practice. In fact, a Community of Practice (CoP) based on anything but a shared feeling of trust and security—like fear or authority—ultimately will be a failure, because it’s based on an unstable foundation.

Of course, this is all easier said than done. Trust needs to be built over time and attended to on a regular basis. The trust of your team members can’t be bought, only earned.

Without attention to trust, mistrust happens all too easily. We have all had experiences where our trust has been betrayed. So remember each member of your team has had their trust misplaced, it seems to be part of the human experience.

Building trust through time and effort

Trust isn’t built overnight so you need to begin finding time to build trust within your community. I remember at one of my organizations, we diligently appropriated the first 20-minutes of every meeting to community building. And not just the “how is your week” type of check-in (which quickly becomes perfunctory). Instead, each staff member, on a rotating schedule, was charged with crafting a meaningful, opening to each meeting. On a weekly basis, that translates to 52 different ideas for a well-crafted, time-sensitive, community-building activity.

There are a plethora of community building activities both online and in print to help you get started. However, I’ve seen that the best trust-building activities are developed when I take an existing activity and then tweak it to meet the needs of this particular group. Personalized activities go a long way toward building a true community.

When these types of activities are prioritized, the first thing that begins to grow is camaraderie, a great lead-in to building trust. Occasionally, it builds competitiveness, but, as trust builds, the competition typically remains positive in tone.

To establish and maintain a positive tone, a solid set of working norms is necessary.

Most of us have experienced a perfunctory set of norms. In order to be part of the community-building experience, norms need to be organic and fluid. Rather than dictating to them as the leader or boss, encourage your team to co-construct their own set of norms. Discussion about the norms, as they are created, is important to ensure that each voice is heard in the shared behaviors for the group. Don’t forget, norms must be revisited on an intentional basis to help the group actively own their norms.

Are you intrigued by what your team could achieve as a Community of Practice? Contact me to learn how your team can develop an action-oriented model of activities and ways of communicating that drives you towards your joint purpose. Or download my special report Leading a Purpose-Driven Team to learn how to get started.

Orchestrate Your Team to Success Through Coaching

Have you noticed as modern-day employees make their way into the workplace, they expect to play by an entirely different set of rules than those of past generations? Most likely you have Millennials, the generation that reached young adulthood in the early 21st century, as part of your team. As a team leader, have you adapted or are you still trying to play by yesterday’s rules?

In times past, employees would be given orders and were required to implement them if they wanted to hold their positions. However, times have changed. Younger workers want to be given the freedom to experiment, a voice within their organization, and the ability to pursue what they view as meaningful work. Anything less they view as limiting.

Sadly, leaders from previous generations often misunderstand the younger generations’ motivations. As a result, they underinvest in employee training, assume that all young people are the same, or even worse, question their drive and work ethic. To do this would be a big mistake, essentially, it means throwing away the future of your company!

As a team leader, one of your biggest challenges (and opportunities) is to create and foster an environment that lends itself to engagement and productivity. Today, more than ever before, to ensure high levels of workplace output and morale employees need to feel valued and challenged. It’s also clear that to be able to respond to and stay ahead of change, leaders need to develop workers who are comfortable thinking independently and contributing to the team.

It’s time to shed the old-fashioned view of “the boss” and start viewing yourself like an orchestrator.

When you’re conducting the orchestra, you’re not playing each instrument or standing over each artist as they perform their craft. Instead, your job is to give them the complete score, with everyone’s section detailed so they know where and how to join, to start, to stop, to build up or when to gradually pull back. It’s your artistry as the conductor that produces the results of the team.

In essence, a good orchestrator is a good coach. Coaching is one of the best ways to encourage employee growth as it helps the team bring out their own abilities and find their own solutions. They learn to move past mental blocks and limiting beliefs to achieve things that they may not otherwise have seen as possible.

Often, employees are tasked to jobs that fall within a tight range of responsibility. It is simply assumed that they are not able to complete tasks that are more complex, demanding, or require different skills than what they’ve been doing until now. What if, instead of accepting employees’ limitations at face value, team leaders were to give them the training and support needed to go beyond what they’ve done in the past. With coaching aimed at helping them meet this new challenge, they will likely rise to the occasion and quite possibly surpass your expectations.

Imagine orchestrating a team where everyone sees opportunities rather than barriers and each team member is valued for their limitless potential. This is possible when leaders train themselves and their leadership teams in the art of coaching.

Coaching is a fundamental component when establishing a Community of Practice, a progressive model of team interaction. To learn more about this model and how to orchestrate a successful team, I encourage you to download my special report, Leading a Purpose-Driven Team.

How Understanding Your “Ikigai” Can Make You an Exceptional Leader

understanding ikigai - a reason for being as a balance between love, skills, needs and moneyHave you heard of ikigai? It’s a Japanese term that doesn’t have a direct translation in English. However, the concept revolves around your reason for being, your meaning or purpose in life.

I love learning new words because like John Keating once said, “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.” When I was introduced to the word ikigai, I instantly saw that it had that kind of power, especially for leaders.

How do you identify your ikigai? It lies in the center of four intersecting circles – what you love, what you do well, what the world needs, and what you’re paid for doing.

This is just the concept leaders need to embrace now that we are shifting from an industrial economy to a knowledge economy. We’re transitioning to a new economic framework that, especially for millennials, is rooted in purpose. Today your job in and of itself is not your purpose, as it was in previous generations.

As I consider my own Ikigai if find…

What I love is to bring out the best in others.

What I do well is coach, train, and mentor others.

What the world needs is exceptional leaders who are committed to learning.

What I’m paid for is to develop exceptional leaders.

I feel joy when I “do” that work. I feel whole and connected. I am living my purpose.

However, finding my ikigai has required concentrated effort on my part. It’s been a work in progress for decades. I used to “do” A LOT. I was a great Principal. I was nationally recognized. I was doing “principal stuff” and I had the student achievement data and high performing teachers to prove it. But I was so busy doing, that I forgot to take care of me, and I was forced to slow down. Being ‘busy’ with ‘doing’ didn’t give me any grounding, it just filled up all my space, time and energy with purposefulness but not purpose.

Having clarity around your ikigai or purpose is essential for leaders.

Leadership is life-changing, and not just for those you lead. What we know, from the early findings in neuroscience in particular, is that to work with others, to develop our communities, we must first focus on ourselves. Our ability to develop ourselves quite literally increases our capacity to support and lead others. In fact, discovering your own ikigai can be the first step in creating a deeper and more motivating purpose for your entire team.

If you’re ready to dig deeper into your purpose and how it impacts your team, I encourage you to download my special report, Leading a Purpose-Driven Team. You’ll discover new ways to ground your leadership with purpose and you’ll be introduced to a progressive model of team interaction.

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Louise J Santiago, PhD
Executive Coach and Organizational Consultant

Where Leadership is Intentional Work

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