Rebecca Nicolas

Rebecca Nicolas, EdD, is an administrator at Fern Creek High School in Kentucky. Her work is focused on the implementation of the PLC process and the integration of collaborative teams.

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:

  1. 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).

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.


Katherine Kelly

Hi Rebecca, thank you for your post! I was able to connect to your post from personal experience. I was wondering, in your district have you implemented forms for your teachers to fill out that include SMART goals and reflection on student data? In moving from one district to another, I have found that the PLC process worked much better when these forms were very specific.

I really liked your comments on directives, teacher shuffle and increased administrator presence. I have seen all three of these play out within the schools I've taught in. I had one administrator that sent out many directives in terms of PLCs and the teachers did not understand them and felt like that they were just asked to be doing a lot of extra work. In addition, without administrator presence on a consistent basis it's easy for teams to "slack off" and not see the end goal for their students.

One question I had for you was about the "teacher shuffle." From an administrators perspective, what is the best way to handle a "log or a hog" as you put it? If the teacher shuffle is not effective, at what point does an administrator step in? How should teammates handle this situation?

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Rebecca Nicolas

Hello Tiffany,
Thank you for your comments and questions. The most effective teams with whom I have worked are organized around common content classes. For example, for a secondary school, all Alg. I teachers are on a team, all Biology teachers are on a team. Teams then work through the four critical questions which helps them answer so many of the questions in your post. They determine what they want students to know and be able to do. They create common formative assessments to determine student progress in mastering that content. The data produced by these common formative assessments is the most helpful data these teams use to refine their practice and to determine next steps and interventions for kids. This is not the only data a team can use, however. Data from state tests, data on non-cognitive indicators like attendance and behavior can all be used, but CFA data is the data that drives instruction.
Gathering data can be a chore, but it can be simplified by using Excel, or even grading software programs like Gradecam.
I hope I have helped to answer some of your questions. The best resource I can recommend is Learning by Doing. It is the essential handbook for any PLC. Good luck in your PLC journey.

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Tiffany Hehe

Hello Rebecca,

I have seen a lot of these attempted "fixes" in my building, except maybe "replacing" team members. In fact, the school was just focused on hiring those who would be able to work together in spite of those "set in their ways." The idea of bringing in data is one that I think we have struggled with because we tried it before, but it became just another added chore in terms of gathering, organizing, and evaluating. More progress was made when we weren't focusing on data. I don't doubt that it is an important tool to a PLC, but the question is what data is most important? Where is it coming from? What should we be evaluating? What should the goals of our meetings be? Our administrators have given us a form of what types of things we should be addressing in our meetings, and I'm just curious if what they are asking of us, jives with what a PLC should be doing.

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Jordan Meece

Hi Rebecca,

I really enjoyed reading your blog post about dysfunctional teams as I am able to easily able to relate to this topic in my current school district. One of the ways you mentioned about not being able to solve the problem was moving teachers to new grade levels or to a different position. This is often a strategy our administration uses to solve the problem of a dysfunctional team. I agree with you when you say this will not solve the problem. In my school when a person is moved it usually just makes another dysfunctional team instead of solving the actual problem. I also like how you stated that administrators have to engage in the meetings of a PLC and not just supervise the meetings. I really like that you said the thing that teams lack the most id data. I couldn't agree more with that conclusion. Many times we are brought to meetings and do not have enough data to have a meaningful discussion. I have also seen where only part of the team has enough data to have a conversation and other members do not bring any data. It is not successful when only a few members have their data to share at the meeting. It would be helpful for your blog post to be shared with schools!

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Kirsten Jones

This post was helpful to me. I am a preschool director at a school that has struggled for a while. I am fairly new to this school, but not the director role. I am striving to develop a PLC within our small walls where teachers can learn from each other and support the students more effectively. Your list of things that do not work makes complete sense, yet they were not things I had considered. My leadership style is more encouraging than demanding, so I do not see myself giving directives, but I have ignored a problem before while I took time to process it. In order for this to work at my school, I need to make sure the teachers feel supported, encouraged and have all of the information they need for this process to be of any benefit. I must lead by example!

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