The Case for Coaches in Professional Learning Communities
I spent most of my young life in a dance studio. For sixteen years I trained to be the best dancer that I could be. I was never the most talented dancer in the room, but I had an instructor who constantly coached me to be better and pushed me to work harder. All the while, she was doing the same thing for all of the other dancers in the company. She encouraged us as we worked together to ensure flawless performances as a team, while simultaneously improving our varied individual skills. On the stage it was always about the team performance, but she also knew that we could only be as good as our weakest dancer.
As an instructional coach in a professional learning community, it is easy to relate to my dance coach. It is a balancing act of working with teams to help ensure the fidelity of the three big ideas of a PLC and also provide the time and support to individual teachers who need it. If the support for the most struggling teachers in the building is not provided, then the collaborative team structure can suffer. As a dancer, I did not have to worry about the person next to me who was struggling, because that was the job of my instructor. I was able to stay focused on my contribution to the performance.
It is the same thing in a PLC. If members of a collaborative team become worried about individual teacher performance, then they can get derailed from focusing on the four critical questions that should be guiding their work. The work of the coach keeps the focus on the performance of the team.
What Does Coaching Look Like in a PLC?
1. Training Team Leaders
When working with schools, I am often asked how I manage to facilitate all of the collaborative team meetings and still do anything else. My answer is simple. I don’t. As coaches, we should embrace the idea that we are there to support the work of our colleagues and empower them to lead.
The first step in doing this is to train collaborative team leaders. Working with each team leader to establish goals focused on the “right work” is essential to the PLC process (DuFour et al., 2016). The leaders need to be equipped to be those effective initiators of change within the school and their team. Coaches can help to clearly articulate the why, what and how questions of the PLC and ensure that all team leaders are prepared to lead the work.
Team leader coaching is part of the comprehensive professional learning plan at our school. Team leaders meet as a group five to six times each school year for training, Q and A, and reflection. As the coach, I also schedule one-on-one “check-in” meetings to address any specific concerns for their team. My role is to help make their job easier, troubleshoot when necessary, and encourage them along the way.
2. Supporting the Team
During the early days of our PLC work, I thought my job was to diagnose the team “problem” and tell them how to “fix” it. It took a while, but I realized that it was my role to help the team reflect and think about their process. One of the most effective ways to support the collaborative teams in your PLC is through the use of an instructional leadership team. At Fern Creek High School, all of the principals are highly involved in the collaborative team process. Weekly, the principals and I sit down to collaborate on how to best meet the needs of a team that seems to be lacking forward momentum. We determine next steps for support, through a coaching lens, based on observations, conversations, and work products for each team.
3. Coaching Teachers within the Team
Although I did not know it at the time, my dance coach was constantly differentiating instruction. She understood my learning style and how to make me better, and also knew what strategies would completely shut me down. Her goal was to make our performance great and to make the group stronger. She watched us interact with each other and determined who the leaders were- who could motivate others to accomplish our team goals.
As instructional coaches, we need to have the same mindset. Often the needs of individual teachers will surface through the work of the collaborative team. Maybe teachers will seek help with intervention strategies after reviewing data from a common assessment. Possibly a new teacher will struggle to implement a lesson that the team taught the previous year. While an effective team will often be able to help struggling teachers, sometimes there is a need for outside support. Coaches can provide that help through one-on-one planning, co-teaching, classroom observations and feedback, reflecting conversations, and embedded professional learning.
I have also learned through the years that some teachers just need someone to listen to them as they plan and reflect. I have come to realize that the best coaching sessions are when the teams and the teachers are the ones doing the talking. This is when the coach can truly help strengthen the work of the professional learning community by determining teacher needs within the collaborative team, so that ultimately all students can learn at high levels.
DuFour, R., et al. (2016). Learning by doing: A handbook for professional learning communities at work. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.