Mona Toncheff

Mona Toncheff, an education consultant and author, worked as both a mathematics teacher and a mathematics specialist for the Phoenix Union High School District in Arizona.

Critical Issues for Guiding Coalitions

Change is messy. Change is hard. Change is unpredictable.

These are the types of phrases I have heard over the past few months as educators around the globe prepared for several changes to the school day and instruction due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, in reality, these statements reflect how change is felt and dealt with at any time.

Whether the change is in a revamped bell schedule, or reflects a school shift from teachers working autonomously to collaboratively and taking collective ownership for student learning, I’ve learned that change is messy, hard, and unpredictable. So, when change is needed to improve the learning of every student, who leads the effort, especially when the pandemic is throwing so much change at educators every day?

During this unprecedented time, intentional work leading change is crucial. One person alone cannot solely lead an entire school to become a professional learning community. Therefore, it is important to foster a shared leadership model—a guiding coalition—to identify and support any needed changes. Dufour et. al. (2016) defines a guiding coalition or leadership team:

"A guiding coalition is a district or school leadership team designed to be an integral component of leading, inspiring, and supporting the change process to becoming a professional learning community."

In her book, Dare to Lead, Brené Brown, (2018) states, “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind” (p. 44). How can a guiding coalition provide clarity on the team actions needed to support improved student learning? A guiding coalition coordinates the school’s effort to implement the PLC process, which monitors and supports the work of the collaborative teams.

One of the primary roles of the leadership team is to clearly articulate the work of teams, as well as what that looks like and sounds like for all team members (Kramer, Schuhl, 2017). The guiding coalition provides clarity on how collaborative teams answer the four critical questions for student learning:

  1. What are students supposed to know and do?
  2. How will we know when students have learned it?
  3. What will we do when students haven't learned it?
  4. What will we do when students already know it? (Dufour, et. al., 2006, 2010, 2016).

The guiding coalition can do this by answering the four critical questions, but in relation to teams. Consider the following revised critical questions:

  1. What do we expect teams to know and be able to do?
  2. How will we know if teams have learned it and can do it?
  3. How will we respond when some teams need additional support?
  4. How will we stretch teams to continue deepening practices that ensure the learning of every student?

A reflection tool from Learning By Doing that a guiding coalition can use to provide clarity on the right work is the Critical Issues for Team Consideration. This tool clearly articulates what team actions are expected to complete and provides an opportunity to self-assess and monitor their collaborative progress (Dufour, et. al., 2006, 2010, 2016).

As I began to work with guiding coalition teams, I found that modeling how to use the Critical Issues for Team Consideration as a reflection tool was an important first step. I adapted the tool to address the essential actions that guiding coalition teams need to take to monitor and support the work of the collaborative teams.

The guiding coalition can complete the reflection tool individually, and then as a team compare the results to identify possible next steps. For example, one of the teams I met with this year completed the reflection and noticed that the team members had a variety of responses from the following statement:

“We have developed strategies and systems to support teams with developing a collective response to student learning and responding to students who are or are not proficient on the essential standards.”

After they discussed the variances, they came to realize that essential standards were selected for mathematics and English, but the other content areas were not consistent with selecting and monitoring essential standards. Thus, the guiding coalition created two intentional action steps for the 2020-2021 school year to move the other content teams forward with creating a collective response to student learning around essential standards.

Which critical issues are your teams addressing? How is your guiding coalition monitoring the work of teams and leading teams to effectively answer the four critical PLC questions? What are the roadblocks your guiding coalition needs to remove so teams can be successful improving the learning of every student?

Change is messy, Change is hard. Change is unpredictable. But change is doable with focused and intentional leadership. Consider how your guiding coalition can clarify the work ahead for collaborative teams and provide the support needed along the way.


Brown, B. (2018). Dare to lead: Brave work. Tough conversations. Whole hearts. New York, NY: Random House.

DuFour, R., DuFour, R., Eaker, R., Many, T. W., & Mattos, M. (2016). Learning by doing: A handbook for Professional Learning Communities at Work (3rd ed.). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press

Kramer, S. V., & Schuhl, S. (2017). School improvement for all: A how-to guide for doing the right work. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press


Brig Leane

Great adaptation of the Critical Issues for teams!

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