Anthony Muhammad

Anthony Muhammad, PhD, is a much sought-after educational consultant. A practitioner for nearly 20 years, he has served as a middle school teacher, assistant principal, and principal, and as a high school principal.

Building Team Efficacy

For 10 years, I have had the pleasure of working with collaborative teams of teachers who are in the beginning stages of their PLC journey. Over that period of time, I have had the opportunity to witness some phenomenal teams and some very dysfunctional teams. What separates the two? The answer is efficacy.

Efficacy is simply defined as the ability to produce a desired or intended result. This may be defined simply, but there is a high level of coordination and focus required to achieve collective efficacy. In order to produce a desired result, the team must first agree on what result they want to produce and the methodology to produce it, and then work collaboratively through the process. Wayne Hoy, from The Ohio State University, provides a tool that helps teachers measure where they are on the efficacy continuum. You can access the tool here.

In a PLC, the desired result is student learning. Not just learning for a few, but a PLC team works toward learning for every student. My experience has taught me that educators tend to embrace this concept philosophically but become stagnant when they do not have the tools, structures, and attitudes necessary to bring that wish to reality. If frustration sets in, teams can revert to psychological defense mechanisms, which make the process even harder.

So, in 10 years of observing, guiding, and coaching teams, I have seen two common threads that all of the teams with high efficacy possessed; they kept their collaborative conversations focused on the four essential PLC questions, and they never spoke negatively about students, parents, or colleagues. These might sound like simple principles, but they become the foundation for powerful collaboration.

  1. Keep the collaborative focus on the four essential questions: What do we want students to learn? How do we know if they have learned? How do we respond when students don’t learn? How do we respond when students have learned? These four corollary questions were designed to keep the collaborative team focused on the real work—student learning. To stay totally focused on these corollary questions takes discipline and peer pressure. When times get tough, it is easy to start to venture into other topics and vent frustration over things that are outside of our control. Make a commitment to stay focused on these four questions, and your efficacy will increase.
  2. Avoid speaking negatively about students, parents, or coworkers. One of the biggest issues that we hear from schools struggling with the PLC process is that the collaborative meeting can turn into a “complaint session.” Complaining is the by-product of frustration, and it is very counterproductive. It breeds pessimism and a negative codependence with colleagues that prevents the team from finding quality solutions to problems because they are consumed by the negative atmosphere that they have collectively created. Students, parents, and coworkers are flawed, but spending precious time venting to others about their imperfections only serves to undermine professional effectiveness.

I would highly suggest that any school or team struggling with getting good results from their collaborative teams try my advice. What do you have to lose? If you apply these two simple principles with fidelity, I am confident that your teams will soar, and your students will be the ultimate beneficiaries.


Caitlin Dodeci

I really enjoyed reading your post about PLCs. I have to agree completely with the first principle you bring up: focus on student learning. We as educators know the reason why we teach and the goal each day has to be the students. I go to work determined to work with my students and help them find success and mastery of some skill. Our district, along with many others, have been preparing students for state tests and there has been a strong focus on student growth. Each day, whether there is a scheduled meeting or a random gathering, teachers are talking about strategies to use with their students. We all want to find what works and what needs to be improved, even if it is only for a small group of students. The goal is for all students to find mastery and feel successful. Students should enjoy learning and we need to appeal to their interests and make the instruction about them. I think it is so valuable for teachers to lay down the basics and look at what the students should learn, how we know they have learned it, and how to respond when they have or have not learned it. If we have these principles in mind when we go to a grade level or PLC meeting, so much more can be accomplished.
I completely agree with your second principle, in that if we allow gossip or off-topic conversations to be held, things can get out of hand. It is important for teachers to enjoy adult conversation and have a social life, however there is a time and place for that. Never should the conversation focus on parents or students in a negative way or by name. Teachers must talk about things so they do not keep things bottled up, however we must maintain a professional attitude.
I can make a connection to the PLC meetings held at my district. I am a 3rd Grade Reading Intervention Specialist so I attend the 3rd grade PLC and grade level meetings. Not everything applies to me, however I am able to give input or advice to add to the discussion and decisions being made. There is too much hostility in our PLC meetings because there are feuds and dislikes amongst teachers. It makes for an uncomfortable 40 minutes for everyone; people do not agree, everyone strongly presents their opinions, and feelings get hurt. This is something that our principal is aware of and things are being dealt with. It is eye opening when I sit back and observe how personal opinions and experiences can get involved and make a mess of a situation. Our PLC meetings start to feel unproductive and we easily get away from the main goals, whether it be assessments or materials or student growth. I know the teachers in my building care about their students; I think their passion and strong opinions are the reason things can get out of hand sometimes. I think if they are all reminded of the questions in your first principle, the meetings will be more likely to stay on task and be successful.
I wonder if posting these questions somewhere during our meetings would be a good strategy to stay focused! I appreciate your guidance and advice on this matter. I found your post inspiring and I wanted to share my thoughts with you. I am glad I was able to participate in this blog.


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Cindy Clark

You have provided strong, practical advice for those of us that are in the pre-initializing stage of the PLC process. Far too often, a collaborative meeting can be thrown off track by side discussions or comments that are not intended to be discussed. Therefore, developing the norms and expectations that will set boundaries during the collaboration time is essential. I agree with LinZe that meeting agendas need to be utilized. With that being said, meetings can still become distracted unless the norms and expectations are carefully followed.

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This is great advice for schools working to implement PLCs. Although it is often easier said than done, in my own experiences so far, the key word mentioned is FIDELITY. When these suggestions are followed with fidelity, work in PLCs is sure to improve. My grade level team is great, and we collaborate well. It is easy for us, though, to get distracted from the four key questions. Once we get off track it is nearly impossible to get back on, and then a half hour has been wasted. Agendas should be put in place for each collaboration to help teachers stay on track and focused. This is something that has helped my team.
I also think there is a time and a place for teachers to vent about parents, students, and other colleagues. As humans, I feel like it is only natural for us to need to express our feelings at some point. During collaboration in PLCs is not the time for these conversations. PLC teams should set boundaries and limits to topics of conversation. These should be set at initial meetings. When teams understand these boundaries and limitations, they are more likely to accept when it is and is not appropriate to have such conversations.

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Muhammad: You provided practical resources that can be applied. I will give a copy to my team next week! Of the two questions regarding students, the two questions that elude teams that I work with are the last two: (1) How do we respond when students don’t learn? And (2) How do we respond when students have learned?

These two questions require teachers to dig deep and discuss instructional methodologies. If teachers are unable to challenge themselves and their practice, change is unlikely. In addition, the era of accountability, frequent student assessments have negatively affected the attitudes of teachers. As you stated, we must focus on those ideas that we can change.

I was sitting in a PLC meeting and the leader was discussing group norms and team expectations. One participant voiced that the team should be supportive when teachers need to gripe about situations. How can a group leader provide opportunities for teachers to voice concerns in order to help teachers feel that they are not working in isolation, yet maintain the focus of the PLC meeting?

You rendered excellent questions that can help my team understand the reason for the meeting. However, what other practical tips do other schools utilize to ensure that teachers’ voices are heard regarding their practice that involves more than student learning? Sometimes-not all- these concerns are affecting their practice- albeit frequent student misbehavior that are not dealt with by administrators in a timely manner

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