Bob Sonju

Bob Sonju is executive director of learning and development for Washington County School District and an adjunct professor of education at Dixie State University in Utah.

Collaboration: Thinking vs. Doing

“Professional learning communities recognize that until members of the organization ‘do’ differently, there is no reason to anticipate different results.” (DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, & Many, 2010, p. 12)

There was a time in my educational career when I carpooled with colleagues to and from school. During these rides, we took part in many deep conversations concerning student learning, school improvement, and the nuances of why the Chicago Cubs continue to futilely take the baseball field year after year. It was during one of these rides when it happened, that moment that we all deeply fear: embarrassing ourselves in front of our colleagues.

We had just taken a reprieve from what I’m confident was a conversation about some aspect of education that had evaded experts for many years, but was somehow going to get resolved in our 1988 Ford Escort. During this break in conversation, a familiar Kansas song came on the radio, and I began to sing along. As the chorus came around, I was in the moment, and at the top of my meager singing voice, I crooned out, “All we are is just in the wind!” The car exploded with laughter, followed by snarky comments about how I had gotten the words to the song wrong. I was confused. Since the first time I had heard the song, I’d thought the lyrics were “just in the wind.” Once the laughter and sarcastic comments faded, I was instructed on the correct words to this popular ballad: “All we are is dust in the wind.”

As I consider this embarrassing yet poignant memory, I am reminded that far too often, we move forward in our schools and teams thinking we’re doing the right things. It’s not until we correct our course and actually do the right things that we move closer to ensuring high levels of learning for every student. As your school or team moves forward, consider the following course corrections.

Course Correction #1: Collaborate About the Right Things

Schools across the country have embraced the idea that teacher teams need to collaborate. Schedules are adjusted, and time for collaboration is created. Creating time is a critical first step but not the only step. Teams need to focus on the right things during this valuable collaborative time. Conversations about the various iterations of chicken served for school lunch that day and anecdotal stories about “those kids” need to be replaced with focused, professional conversations regarding:

  • Essential skills that every student needs to acquire
  • Development and use of common formative assessment results
  • Identification of students who need extra time and support
  • The need to respond immediately to those students who fall below proficiency

This is the right collaborative work of highly effective teams.

Course Correction #2: Simplify and Focus

With the tremendous amount of educational noise facing educators today, it becomes necessary for teams, schools, and districts to simplify and focus their efforts. If we are to ensure high levels of learning for every student, we need to be specific about the change needed to foster a PLC. This change includes specific expectations for the practices and cultural conditions of our teams and schools. Ambiguity creates anxiety, which leads to confusion. More often than not, leaders proclaim their desires to establish a PLC, but fail to be specific about what is expected within the organization and fail to monitor these expectations. Whether guiding a team, school, or district, leaders must provide clarity and specificity regarding what is expected and then monitor these expectations. DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, and Many (2010) write, “It is far more effective to stipulate exactly what must be done and then provide some latitude regarding how it is done” (p. 220).

Much like the humbling lesson I learned in the car with my colleagues, it is essential that we simplify, focus, and do the right things in our teams, schools, and districts. Otherwise, our efforts will simply be “dust in the wind.”


DuFour, R., DuFour, R., Eaker, R., & Many, T. (2010). Learning by doing: A handbook for professional learning communities at work™ (2nd ed.). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.


Susan Kelly

I like your comments about making PLCs more effective. How different and energizing and empowering meetings with my team and other colleagues would be if they were simple, focused and about the "right" things! Teachers feel so pressed for time, that any new ideas, initiatives, prof. devel., and meetings of nearly any kind, are often met with negativity (a goal of mine this year is to not fall into these "discussions" that are counterproductive and waste time and energy). How significant it would be to get colleagues on board with the great outcomes of PLCs--clear student learning goals & expectations, creating common formative assmts, collaborating about student support. I like your comment about articulating what needs to be done, and then allowing teachers the latitude to carry that out.

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Kelsi Adams

Thank you for sharing the story of singing in the car. I think that so many of us can relate to that story. I think your two points are great! At my school when my grade level team gets together it is not at a set aside time for collaborating. Therefore, when we do get together and have discussions it is not always about the "right" things. I am going to be sharing this blog with my colleagues. The first step for us is to be able to have the time to meet. Then we have time set aside for the purposing of discussing our students learning we need to keep in mind talking about the "right" things and simplify and focus. Thank you so much for sharing. This is very helpful to be able to refer to as guidance for our meeting times.

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Kiersten Hotaling

I was at first taken back with your story, but then realized the truth behind it. In my school we have small discussions by grade level. During these discussions changes are made but solution are not talked about. To become more effective I would think solutions would have to be discussed in order to come up with something that is going to benefit students. After all our students are the end goal, improving their learning. I have recently studied reflection and reflection takes time, but I always relate reflection to self awareness. When you talked about time it really opened my eyes to collaboration with colleagues to get a bigger picture. I really enjoyed your blog and thank you for sharing your embarrassing but influential story.

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Tammy Hein

Our school has started more discussions within the staff about how to be more effective teachers. I feel that we are moving in the right direction. I am very excited that our school is going to build in more time this year for collaboration. I have not really thought about the need for PLCs until recently. I believe that we can learn a lot from each other to improve and continue to learn as teachers. I can see the importance of ensuring that the collaboration time is focused on student learning. I feel that a lot of faculty meetings are wasted time. I want to see more time spent on discussing issues that will be practical in the classroom.

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Andrea Spicer

With previous administration, we were a school that eagerly jumped on board with every new trend. Our teams would plan instruction during PLC meetings only to have a new directive the following week that would cause us to change or abandon previous work. I agree that PLCs need to have established expectations as to what should be accomplished. Furthermore, those expectations should not be changed on a weekly basis. Consistency helps not only teachers, but students learn to focus on the ultimate outcome.

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Daniels Bilmanis

I have been involved with a PLC of Geometry teachers at my school for two years now. The first year was a bit of a challenge because it was mandated by the administration, so most of the teachers did not "buy in" to the idea and therefore was not very effective. There was not very much thinking and much less doing the "right things" in that PLC. This year my PLC was better since we were regularly doing two of things you suggest: 1. deciding essential knowledge, understanding, and skills of the course and 2. writing common assessments. I now the benefit doing these and am hopeful that my PLC will continue to grow so that we can improve our effectiveness. Thanks for you helpful suggestions in this article.

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I loved your story, it made me think of the MANY times I sing incorrect lyrics to songs I've loved my whole life.
I am a Special Ed. teacher, and I agree with your feelings on PLC's. I am finishing up my first year as a teacher and for the entire year I have been part of a team in which we have scheduled team preps together. I find it difficult to implement a true PLC when teachers are unwilling to change their ways. I co-teach throughout the day, and the only form of a PLC that I benefit from is when I am lesson planning with my Math teacher. I believe PLC's are a critical component to student growth, however, I feel that executing the PLC properly is the real struggle.

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Nicole Adami

I agree that PLCs should be simplified and focused. Our school graciously accepted the challenge to embrace the districts plan for PLCs. The idea is great. First, come up with smart goals for reading, math, and writing. Then, fill out several sheets of paper describing goals and how to reach them. Design an assessment and compare results. Finally decide whether to continue the goal or implement a new one.
One goal, if well thought out, should take at least an hour to study data, decide a goal, create lessons, fill out paperwork, and design an assessment. We are expected to have three goals every four weeks. We have had hour long PLCs maybe once every couple months to work on these goals, but the rest we are expected to do our own. Completing goals along with the regular curriculum planning and everything else that goes along with teaching is too much.
Giving teachers time to work every week or simplifying the goals to one or even two subjects could make a world of difference. Instead of rushing to finish the paperwork in the hour time frame, we would have time to indulge in conversation about how to reach our students and "do the right thing".

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Caitlyn Mercado

I could not help but smile as I was reading your story. It reminds me of the many times I have been embarrassed by things I have done or said in front of my colleagues. I have learned over the last couple of years that those moments are what brought me closer to my colleagues. I find your post very intriguing. We are discussing PLC's in the Masters course I am currently doing and these suggestions/topics are ones I have been seeing repeatedly through different readings. I never fully understood the benefits of a PLC until this last school year. My first year of teaching I was in a district where our Professional Learning was not very meaningful, and they tried to study data and implement interventions to help students, but they implemented so many at one time we did not know which one was working. It also was not a succcess because not every person on the staff was working together but more in isolation.
I have been very lucky this last year to be a part of a school where PLC is a priority. Not only do we study student data as a whole school at a lot of our staff monthly meetings (and our professional work days) but we also all study a professional learning book and discuss how the things we have studied/read have worked within the classroom. We come together as a team to see the pros and cons and learn from each other. My grade level team and I also meet weekly and discuss what has been challenges and successes with our students and the learning as well as what could we do to make it better. We have created weekly assessments to measure individual growth as well as quarterly assessments where we compare where our students are still struggling and what concepts they have mastered.
Having been a part of 2 different districts where the term PLC was brought about in different ways, I have been able to understand how easily schools think they are doing a PLC when in reality they are not. Then to be in a school that successfully carries a PLC and does more than thinking, it is a wonderful thing. We can see the student learning and not just the teaching we do.

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Nick Vuillemot

I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog. I too feel education faces an overwhelming amount of issues, and while we seek to overcome all of these challenges, many of our efforts fall short as we spread our resources too thin. I believe your notion of simplifying and focusing could lead to greater success for school communities. Collaborating for the right reasons, as you noted, is an important step in providing a PLC that fosters meaningful dialogue. Through these conversations, educators can begin to promote positive changes that enrich and enhance student learning. Thank you for your insights!

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Amy Hoffman

Absolutely! I work in a district where we like to take on every new thing that comes along. We have adopted a new reading program every year since I have worked in the district which will be 9 years this year. The district is so focused on being up to date with the times that we can never truly master our craft becasue we are always changing and introducing something new. I reallyliked what you said about Simplifying and focusing on the true importance of our craft. Thank you, I really enjoyed your blog!

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kimberly lind

I laughed as I read your story about the song. I too, feel at times, our teachers, and even myself, leave PLC with the wrong lyrics. It takes time and effort to create and follow a prescribe agenda that focuses on the right conversation. I truly believe, and have seen PLC work to improve student learning, when and only when, the conversation is geared around the "right" work, as you stated. Thank you for sharing.

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