Teamwork in Professional Learning Communities

In the Fall 2012 (Vol 8, No1) issue of Learningforward’s The Learning Principal, Bradley A. Ermeling proposes five principles for reviving problematic groups. I see all five principles applying to those of you facilitating (or training facilitators for) professional learning communities.

Here are Ermeling’s points and my comments for PLC facilitation:
Find a Shared Concern Members of all school teams share some persistent student achievement challenges. Once a shared goal is identified, old conflicts fade into the background.
I find that if PLCs set shared student achievement goals, such as a list of students who should score advanced on end of year assessments and then track progress on benchmarks, teamwork will emerge. Critical to the process is naming the students.
One of the values of vertical PLCs for elementary grades is the focus on shared students. When a K-1-2 team is discussing first grade performance on an assessment and last year’s teacher and next year’s teacher are in the room, shared responsibility emerges. Similar for a middle school team focusing on reading comprehension, realizing that reading in science and social studies classes is crucial.
High School Small Learning Communities also have a shared focus on a group of students (Freshman Academy or Performing Arts Academy).
The key is spending PLC time with students’ work and always students’ names.
Establish Teacher OwnershipThe goal chosen has to be one most of the teachers on a team see as immediately relevant to their classrooms, such as struggles with comprehension of expository text, understanding ratios and proportions, writing coherent  paragraphs.
It is unlikely that quality PLCs will emerge when teachers are doing curriculum work designed by central office or tackling project agendas set by the principals. Teachers tend to approach this as “work to get done.”  I have witnessed teachers preparing common assessments that didn’t impact instruction. The required work was submitted.
PLC facilitators want to have teachers explore data and student work and find “what bothers them.” I also like a strategy that has teachers share predictions of student scores prior to an assessment and then examine their predictions against the results. Questions for team study will usually emerge.
Get a Commitment to Meeting GuidelinesAgreeing to a set of meeting guidelines provides everyone with license to hold colleagues accountable.
Norms can assist a group in increased productivity. When I’ve observed some groups setting norms before they have ownership or a goal, I’m reminded of teachers asking students to set classroom rules. Students quickly give the teacher what they think she wants more than thinking critically about achieving group success. Norms that emerge as a PLC’s plans develop do increase each member’s accountability.
Expect Productive ActionsKey question: “Are we going to do something or just talk about it?” When teams consistently engage in productive action, there is a corresponding shift in mindset, beliefs, and expectations.
I push this principle when training PLC facilitators. Most educators have too many experiences of meetings that use time and produce no action.  I get a sigh nearly every time I mention a data disaggregation meeting….too often the product is the data disaggregated rather than a forthcoming instructional action.  I suggest that 20 minutes of PLC discussion lead to action. Not necessarily a decision, but an action of homework to gather more information. Progress towards a direction needs to be noted.
Strategize According to Teams and Individuals-  Goals, ownership, guidelines and action will get most teams to excel. However,some teams or individuals will require facilitator interventions.
These are the issues I usually address in follow up trainings. PLC facilitators often send them to me as scenarios.  School leaders can develop a set of strategies, similar to those teachers use in a classroom, to bring “outsiders and sideliners” onto a team.
This often involves orchestrating an opportunity for the dissident to make a contribution to the team and receive approval from the team members. I have turned a negative team member’s comments into critical questions for the team to consider before we take action.  Then, thanked them for assisting our planning.
I learned early in my leadership work that many teachers have not had experiences or training in working collaboratively for group goals. PLCs providing these opportunities is important as we want teachers instructing these skills to students.
I will take a break for the rest of the year and be back with a new post in 2013! Looking forward to a new year of learning with you.
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Steve Barkley

For the past 30 years, Steve has served as a consultant to school districts, teacher organizations, state departments of education, and colleges and universities nationally and internationally, facilitating the changes necessary for them to reach students and successfully prepare them for the 21st century. Read more…

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