Peter Noonan

Peter Noonan, EdD, is superintendent of Fairfax City schools in Virginia. Previously, he was the assistant superintendent for instructional services of Fairfax County Public Schools.

Using Protocols to Support Collaborative Teams

Over the course of the past summer I’ve had a number of opportunities to travel across our country speaking with school divisions, site leadership, and teacher teams about the tenets of professional learning communities (PLCs). While I find that every area has its own “feel and flavor,” my big takeaway from all of these observations has been about what unites us, rather than what divides us. No matter the division or school, kids are kids, teachers are teachers, schools are still schools, and we are all looking at new and different ways of refining the work of our collaborative teams to ensure high levels of learning for all.

To this end, the book Learning by Doing (DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, & Many, 2006) offers an outstanding list of critical behaviors and actions that collaborative teams engage in on a daily basis. (This tool is on pages 130–131 and is downloadable for free at This critical issues-rating protocol is an excellent resource for teams beginning to identify their greatest needs as well as supporting experienced educators in collaboration with finding new ways to become better at the process.

One way that I have been able to support teams over the last several years is by the use of specific protocols to support collaborative structures. There are two protocols in particular that have been exceedingly helpful with some of the teams that I’ve worked with. The first, from the Coalition of Essential Schools, is called the Tuning Protocol. The Tuning Protocol is one that is specifically used for looking critically at student work. All too often, our teams forget the value of looking at work produced between and among teachers’ individual classrooms. It is this observation of the produced work that helps us create exemplars to learn from and to benchmark against.

The second protocol that is been extremely helpful in our teams has been the Text-Rendering Protocol. This protocol is used when reading a passage of text, an article, research, or a piece of literature. There have been a number of occasions when I’ve led book groups and didn’t use protocols, and our free-form conversations have been “driven into the ditch.” This protocol is an excellent way to help teams engage and focus on the topic at hand. It also provides voices to all present.

So, while the work across the country is taking me to some very diverse places, I have found that by using protocols to support collaborative teams, our teachers have become extremely focused, learn from each other in ways that create embedded professional learning, and help support student achievement. I suggest you take a look at protocols when you are working with your teams to take them to the next level.

DuFour, R., DuFour, R., Eaker, R., & Many, T. (2006). Learning by doing: A handbook for professional learning communities at work™. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.


Chevonnese Johnson

I Strongly believe that collaborative work is extremely important in the teaching and learning process. It has provided positive insights for me and has helped me to grow professionally. I have never thought of it using protocols. your blog sparked my interest because i am aware of the fact that many teachers use the easy way out. I believe that PLCs would function more effective with the use of protocols. people in general work effectively when they have guidelines and a standard to maintain. I am sure many people will find this information very useful. Thank you.

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Erin Houghton

Thank you for the link to the Text-Rendering Protocol. I have been looking for additional strategies to ensure that all of my students participate in discussions and collaborative activities. This will be one more way to give them all a voice and I like that it is general enough to be used for almost any type of text.

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Ortega Ross

Professional Learning Communities if implemented in the right way can definitely improve student success. Educators are so use to working independently with their own children on their with their own material that we have forgotten that it is about all of our children being successful. A great professional community takes the grade level as a whole not as one individual class. Thank you for the links that provide ideas of how to implement a great PLC.

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Kelly Mead

I found that I agreed with the necessity for a protocol when conducting or participating in PLCs. The school district I work for has just begun to implement PLCs and we do not have an established protocol. I feel this has made our meetings less productive than they can and should be. I hope to suggest the idea of an established protocol to the PLC I am working with when we meet next.

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Danielle Thierry

At first I was thinking that by using protocols your PLC's would become scripted. After reading about the different protocols in your article, I found them interesting. Many times my PLC times are not focused, and not productive. We drift into talking about items that are off task, or teachers will complain about issues, but not try to try up with a solution. I will have to suggest these protocols to my co-teachers during our next PLC.

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Amber Nicholas

I enjoyed reading your post and gained a lot of insight towards the topic being discussed. Professional Learning Communities are a valuable part of education for teachers. When participating in PLC’s it provides an opportunity for teachers to discuss and reflect upon what is and what is not working in the classroom. It is a time when teachers generate professional outlooks and suggestions to help one another in producing best practices in the classroom.
The Turning Protocol and Text Rendering Protocol are interesting concepts that I look forward to investigating and applying within my PLC. It is imperative that staff remains on the same page when it comes to professionalism and learning achievement. Through PLC opportunities, teachers will learn ways to serve students effectively and reach all their individual needs.
In my personal PLC, I believe they need to be improved upon. Often times, we are given a few handouts and then head our separate ways. I will pass on these ideas in hopes they can improve our PLC structure and outcome.

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Amber Asche

My first thought, when reading this, was that collaboration would become almost scripted using protocols. I almost did not click on your links. However, I did go to the Tuning Protocol link. I am glad that I did. The article points out that it does seem "stiff" to put the use of protocols into practice, and seeing this made me want to keep reading. After doing so, I compare a PLC without protocols to a country without rules or leadership. Everything is in disarray until it all collapses. Why should Professional Learning Communities work differently. Thank you for the blog and the links. These are great things to think about incorporating into PLCs.

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