Why a Strategic Implementation Guide is a Must for a PLC
When I first was introduced to the concept of professional learning communities, it just clicked. This is how we should lead our campuses. The focus on student learning through targeted assessments and then intervention seemed so organically simple. Like most who attend a PLC at Work® Institute, we came back to our campuses with a vision of the work and what we wanted our campuses to become, but we soon found out what is simple in theory is much harder in practice. There are two issues I have run into that always seem to hinder the PLC process: the work of collaborative teams and sustainability.
I have had the opportunity to start the PLC journey in three different organizations and each one has increased my knowledge of the work. Starting an initiative is not difficult and the PLC process is no exception. It is easy to demonstrate how the PLC work will benefit both students and teachers. Furthermore, centering the work on the four critical questions of a PLC makes the work appear to be simple (DuFour et al., 2020). However, once we put people together who are used to working independently, conflict will inevitably occur. The key is to make sure that it is productive conflict and not personal.
I caused a great deal of personal conflict within my first two organizations. We developed background knowledge together, along with our mission, vision, values, and goals. We defined our essential standards and established meaningful teams with collaborative time embedded in the day. However, when our teams began to do the work on the four critical questions of a PLC, many of them ended up in personal conflict. This occurred because I did not provide guidance. I made the mistake of believing that just by placing my teachers in collaborative teams they would eventually find their way to success. With many of these teams we provided coaching from administrators and instructional coaches during their meetings to help them through the work. But even this had major flaws because the advice would sometimes be conflicting to what a previous administrator or coach had said. As a result, many of these teams lost interest or faith in the process and were stuck in the world of PLC Lite. Unfortunately, our high functioning collaborative teams were not immune to the world of personnel conflict either. A team that one year was rocking and rolling would find itself in conflict the next because of a loss of members or additions of new ones. No matter how much professional development or coaching we provided it just seemed that we were destined to continuously have to deal with the struggle and failure of some of our collaborative teams.
This all changed when I read Amplify Your Impact: Coaching Collaborative Teams in PLCs at WorkTM and was introduced to the Strategy Implementation Guide (SIG) (Many et al., 2018). We know that when we define learning targets students are more likely to be successful. This is no different for the work of our collaborative teams. The SIG is, as Tom Many would say, “a flight plan for our collaborative teams to follow.” It is centered around anchor statements that are key to collaborative team success. An organization’s guiding coalition creates anchor statements and a continuum to help guide collaborative teams on how to hit these targets. In our district we centered our work around the following five anchor statements:
Educators work in teams and take collective responsibility for student learning rather than working in isolation.
Collaborative teams implement a guaranteed and viable curriculum, unit by unit.
Collaborative teams monitor student learning through an ongoing assessment process that includes frequent, team-developed common formative assessments.
Educators use the results of common assessments to improve the individual practice, build the team’s capacity to achieve its goals, and intervene and enrich on behalf of students.
The school provides a systematic process for intervention and enrichment.
Example of first anchor statement and continuum:
The rubric above for our first anchor statement had an immediate benefit of building a shared understanding of what our collaborative teams should look like amongst our district guiding coalition. More importantly it solved two of our biggest problems. We now had a tool to guide and coach our collaborative teams with a consistent message. We also had a guiding document for new team members in our district to have an understanding of the essential work of collaborative teams so they could hit the ground running from day one.
As a result of our work with the SIG, our collaborative teams have functioned at a higher level. We also have a better handle on when and how to intervene with our teams who slip into the realm of personal conflict. In my experience, most leaders are hesitant to be tight about what happens in collaborative teams because they don't want to take away autonomy of their teachers. However, by not defining the expectations of the collaborative teams’ work, they are actually inhibiting their teachers' ability to move from personal conflict to productive conflict. This prevents teachers from improving the art of teaching where autonomy really takes place. After seeing the impact the SIG has had on our district, I truly believe it is something all PLCs should be doing. We are tight about our mission, vision, values, and goals and the four critical questions, but loose on the actual work of collaborative teams. If we all want to be successful, we have to be tight about what we expect from our collaborative teams and provide a road map for success.
DuFour, R. (2015). In Praise of American Educators: And How They Can Become Even Better. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
DuFour, R., DuFour, R. B., Eaker, R. E., Many, T. W., & Mattos, M. (2020). Learning by Doing: A Handbook for Professional Learning Communities at Work. Bloomington, IN, IN: Solution Tree Press.
Many, T. W., Maffoni, M. J., Sparks, S. K., & Thomas, T. F. (2018). Amplify Your Impact: Coaching Collaborative Teams in PLCs at Work. Bloomington, IN, IN: Solution Tree Press.
Brian Greeney EdD