Dysfunctional Teams? Four Things that Don’t Help and One Thing that Does
There are few things more affirming, more hopeful, than watching teachers collaborate effectively with one another. When the principles of the PLC are implemented with fidelity, when team members trust one another and honor group norms, when teacher create engaging lessons and learn from one another, it is easy to be hopeful. It all seems so obvious then. Of course, this is what we need from our colleagues. This is the kind of work that had the power to transform a school and our profession.
Conversely, there is nothing more discouraging than watching teams go through the motions, or even actively thwart the efforts of school improvement. It compromises the credibility of a school’s efforts, making teachers and administrators distrust the process. All the promise of a PLC is called into question when teams are dysfunctional. Therefore, there is no greater mandate for a school than addressing dysfunction and providing teams with the support they need to become more effective.
So, what to do, then, when your team is just playing at being a PLC? What fixes are there for co-blab-eration? What can we do for teams that are earnestly pursuing the wrong path week after week?
Just as there is no one blueprint for a school to become a PLC, there is no universal fix for PLC-lite. However, I know for sure what doesn’t work, because I’ve been guilty of trying it.
What doesn’t work:
Directives: Every school administrator, at some point in his or her career has been tempted to give a directive to solve a problem. Indeed, it is essential that school leadership establish the “tight” expectations of team meetings. Teachers should know there are nondiscretionary expectations for team meetings. However, you may quickly find that teams can follow all your directives and still not be a PLC. Directives alone don’t engender collaboration. Rick Dufour states: “Top-down fails to generate either the deep understanding of or the commitment to the improvement initiative that is necessary to sustain it.” (2006).
Teacher shuffle: If team members don’t work well together, the easiest solution may seem to be replacing them with teachers who will. In every team you may find a log or a hog. There is probably someone who always arrives late or sits there grading papers with a sour look. Swapping one teacher out for another doesn’t solve the problem of a dysfunctional team, however. And sooner rather than later, you’ll run out of teacher combinations and your team still won’t work if you don’t create the conditions that support your school’s collective commitments.
Increased administrator presence: As an administrator, I’ve been deluded enough to think I could supervise a team into working well together, but quickly realized just showing up at meetings isn’t enough. The effective administrator should prioritize team meeting time and be present with teams as they engage in this work. Teachers need to see that the collective commitments of the PLC include all members of the school, but administration can’t just supervise a team into effectiveness. They must engage in the work in meaningful ways and provide the support teams need in the process.
Ignoring it: When all else fails, ignoring the problem is very tempting. Maybe teachers will figure it out on their own? Maybe they just need more time to get used to the process? Maybe they will have an epiphany one day and become a functional team dedicated to the collaborative process? Embarrassingly enough, I have tried this approach, and can attest to the fact that it never, ever works.
Fortunately, despite my failed attempts to “fix” dysfunctional teams, I have learned some things. While most dysfunctional teams are flawed in their own unique way, they usually share one thing: they lack data. When teachers gather in teams at the end of a long school day, they usually have no problem finding things to talk about. When there is no data to drive those conversations, teachers can find themselves trading war stories. Teaching is hard work and it is cathartic to share the challenges of the day, but this is not the work of a PLC.
Team members must be aware of their current reality. Long-term data, such as state accountability scores and yearly survey data can paint a clear picture for teachers and give direction to SMART goals that will drive the work of the team. Common formative assessments provide the timely data teachers need to guide their instruction and recovery efforts. Rick Dufour calls common formative assessments the “lynchpin” of the PLC process (2010). Common formative assessment data allows teachers to analyze what worked, what didn’t, and which students need additional support. Ideally, through this process, teachers begin to trust one another and to trust the collaborative process that drives a professional learning community.
Data doesn’t fix everything that can go wrong in a PLC, but it is essential to its success. To support teacher teams, schools must facilitate the creation of common formative assessments and provide access to the long-term data that teams need. While there is no panacea when things go wrong in a professional community, and plenty of ways to go wrong in attempting to “fix” a struggling team, data delivers the mandate for teachers to begin the process in earnest. When meaningful data drives teacher work, a truly collaborative team can realize its greatest potential.
DuFour, R. (2006). Learning by doing: a handbook for professional learning communities at work (3rd ed.). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree
DuFour, R. (2010). Raising the bar and closing the gap: whatever it takes. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.