Revitalizing Your PLC
Educators have a rare opportunity every summer to rest, relax, and recharge. Most people in many other businesses and professions do not have the same luxury. Sure, they can take vacations, but rarely do they get to STOP and START over each year. As educators, we get to wrap up one year, take a break, and start fresh with a new school year. This summer, I had the good fortune to rest and relax with family and friends, as well as to refresh and revitalize with educational colleagues. I enjoyed both.
My “working holiday” this summer included collaborating with the staffs from many schools across several states including Nebraska, Kansas, Michigan, and Illinois. What continues to amaze me, as I travel and share in this work, is how many similarities there are despite the differences in locations. Rich or poor, large or small, urban or rural, most of these K–12 educators face many of the same challenges. The common theme this summer was, “How do we revitalize our PLC process?”
Almost all of the schools and districts had already had some level of implementation of the professional learning community (PLC) process. Each of the schools I worked with was at a different place along the PLC continuum, but most had come up against roadblocks or lost momentum for one reason or another. This is not surprising. DuFour et al. often talk about the PLC continuum, which ranges from preinitiating to sustaining (see reproducibles from Learning by Doing). All of the schools were looking for ways to get back on track. As I worked through some of the issues with these folks, a number of common themes emerged. Here are some of the highlights:
Mission, Vision, Collective Commitments, and Goals
Many of these schools had done some work on these key concepts of a PLC. To varying degrees of success, they could point to documents or mantras that showed they had done some of this work at some time. The question that I had in these situations is, “Is your mission and vision alive and kicking, or is it just a statement on the wall?” Even if a staff or a leadership team did this work a few years back, it is important to revisit the mission or vision and to review and refine the collective commitments and goals. What made sense to a subcommittee five years ago may not be crystal clear to the new team today. It’s important to review these foundation documents regularly to ensure everyone is still on the same page. It is equally important to identify the difference between a hope or a dream and a measurable goal or target. We need to ask ourselves: Do we have SMART goals or just rosy intentions?
Collaboration and Collective Inquiry
Most of the schools and districts I have worked with have committed on some level to create protected meeting times for their collaborative teams. They recognize the team is the fundamental building block of a school or district engaged in the PLC process. Some schools have devoted more time to collaborative team meetings than others. What was clear though, as I listened to each of the teams, is that meeting time alone does not ensure collaboration and collective inquiry. Harvard professor David Perkins warns against “co-BLAB-oration”—when educators get together but talk about the wrong things. If teams aren’t diligent about this, conversations during collaborative team time can easily slide into gossip or administivia. It’s vital to keep the focus of collaborative team meetings on the four critical questions of learning:
- What do we want our students to learn?
- How do we know if each student is learning?
- How will we respond to the students who aren’t learning?
- How will we respond to the students who are learning?
By staying focused on these questions, individual teachers and the entire team can be reflective on this important question: Are the teaching strategies we currently use making the biggest impact on kids and their learning?
Essential Learning and Common Formative Assessments
We can’t have meaningful conversations about learning and results if we are not clear on what it is we expect kids to learn. Most teams, even those who have been engaged in the PLC process for years, can usually do a better job of defining and refining those essential power standards (Ainsworth) that the team agrees are the critical learning outcomes for its grade and subject. This means having conversations with colleagues about what is critical and essential versus somewhat important and nice-to-know. Research by Marzano and others makes it clear that we will never be able to do a perfect job of helping every student learn every single outcome, so we had better make sure we are clear about which ones we will do a terrific job of in our school.
Once the essential learnings are clearly defined by a collaborative team, the members can then do the work of creating common formative assessments aligned to each essential learning. These in-house, team-created, real-time assessments help both students and staff identify who needs more time and support to learn what we have agreed is essential. These common formative assessments help the team collectively ask: How do we know if the students have learned the most essential skills, concepts, and dispositions?
Intervention and Enrichment
At many of my workshops, teams are eager to jump right to the intervention portion of the PLC. This is risky. When asked to give a session on the pyramid of interventions, I usually inquire: “Do you want to build a pyramid of interventions, or do you just want me to show you where you can send the kids who don’t get it?” It’s important to remember that the first, best place to start our interventions is in the regular classroom setting. That is where most teachers spend the most time with the most kids. The better job we do of differentiating instruction and assessments to accommodate student differences in the regular classroom, the fewer students will need to move up the pyramid. Intervention can be time consuming and costly, so we want to get the best bang for our buck.
If a collaborative team is clear on the essential learning and they have some common formative assessments to help identify struggling students, then they are more ready to properly place students into targeted intervention. The next challenge that comes up very often is TIME. Where do we find the time for intervention for struggling students, let alone the time to enrich the learning of students who are already there? In most schools, the answer has not been a big pot of new money! No, we have to get creative. The solutions are as diverse as the many schools facing this challenge. The answer lies in collaboration and flexibility. There are many great examples provided under Evidence of Effectiveness. The question becomes: How can we alter our bell schedule or adjust our staffing so we can find those precious moments for both intervention and enrichment?
At every school where I have helped to implement or refresh the PLC process, the staff has had to first reflect and ask:
- How are we doing now?
- How do we know?
- How would we prefer to see our results?
- What are we willing to do differently to get different results?
The high school where I am now principal has been on the PLC journey for more than a decade. Our results are pretty good, but there is room for improvement. Over that same 10-year period, each department has been at a variety of points along the PLC continuum. Are we all at the sustaining stage in all aspects of a PLC? No. But I am confident that we have the passion and expertise to collaboratively reflect, refine, and revitalize our PLC process. I’m looking forward to continuing the journey with this staff. And, after a great summer break, I am refreshed and ready to get back at it.