'Better' Doesn't Happen All By Itself
My granddaddy used to say, “Tighten up every little chance you get. ‘Better’ doesn’t happen all by itself.”
And my granddaddy was always right. (With the exception of his warning not to shower or stand under a garden hose after eating watermelon seeds, because vines would sprout from my ears—a myth I disproved in 4th grade on a double-dog dare.)
High-performing collaborative teams, the ones that are deeply committed to guaranteeing high levels of learning for every child every day, are keenly aware that this journey is one of continuous improvement. Teams engaged in and sustaining the PLC process not only commit to the idea of collectively striving to be better for students; they embrace it. They are disruptors, innovators, driven-by-results kind of people, and they aren’t resting on any laurels. The best teams know that complacency is the enemy and that greatness is a quest.
So what’s next for the relentless go-getters that will have nothing to do with what Rick DuFour called “PLC lite?” How do teams move from “good” to “great?” I’ve had the privilege of serving with and learning from some of these teams, and here are a few notable practices and behaviors that they all have in common:
1. Great teams are constantly evaluating their current reality.
Many teams use surveys that help them reflect and identify strengths and growth opportunities within the PLC process. They work collectively to prioritize an area of focus, determine key “best next steps” for improvement, set goals, and monitor their progress. One of my go-to team reflection activities is Critical Issues for Team Consideration from Learning by Doing (p. 69-70).
2. Great teams speak a common language and engage in practices that define beliefs and drive behaviors.
You won’t hear teams or complain about how the student population or demographic has changed. Labels that indicate programs or services aren’t even used in strong PLC cultures. Each teacher makes it a point to know students in the entire grade level or content area by name, strength, and need. When these teams refer to every student learning at high levels, it isn’t just a catchphrase—it’s a shared responsibility.
3. Great teams refine their collective commitments.
These teams constantly evaluate the effectiveness of their norms, protocols, and systems. If something isn’t working to help build strong teams or support students in achieving mastery level learning, it is either corrected or abandoned.
4. Great teams deepen their understanding of essential question No. 1, “What do we want students to know and be able to do?”
They work to break down each essential learning target into a step-by-step path to mastery. They build shared knowledge around the probable pitfalls and misconceptions that students might face along the way, and are ready to proactively intervene. They pair “I can…” statements with guiding questions that help engage students in determining their own best next steps on the path to mastery.
5. Great teams respond to essential question No. 2, “How will we know when they’ve learned?” by digging in and analyzing student work.
These teams go beyond measuring student learning for grades and feedback, and look at student work as an indicator of whether or not their teaching practices have been effective. They seek to find strengths and opportunities in their instructional design and implementation. They also reflect on ways to bring students into the conversation. The best teams aren’t afraid to ask students, “How’d we do as teachers?”
6. Great teams relentlessly pursue mastery of essential learning targets.
When addressing essential question No. 3, “What will we do when they don’t learn?” these teams don’t provide a one-sized-fits-all intervention. It is laser-focused on every student’s specific strengths and needs. They go back to their instructional design plan and create differentiated and focused re-engagement opportunities. They analyze success criteria and pinpoint exactly where the learning broke down and respond intentionally. These teams look at the skills within the skills as they design intervention.
7. Great teams know that designing deeper learning when students do reach mastery is as important as responding when students don’t learn.
Even the most well-intentioned teams can get stuck answering essential question No. 4, “What will we do when they do learn?” The best teams know that learning doesn’t stop just because you can work a problem with no mistakes or answer a set of comprehension questions. Teams that are on a quest to elevate their practice take a closer look at how to engage students at the highest level of rigor. They develop ways to spark student inquiry, create rich problem-solving experiences and design ways for students to wrestle with productive struggle. The best teams also don’t leave this question as an elite status that only a few students achieve. These teams believe all learners must have access to move beyond mastery, and provide the support to get them there.
8. Great teams know that the PLC process depends on individuals committed to engaging in effective collaboration.
There isn’t a team that’s truly engaged in the right work that isn’t functioning as interdependent members upholding the team’s shared mission, vision, values, and goals. These teams value each other’s voice, and invest in each other’s professional growth.
Teams don’t develop these dynamic practices overnight. They evolve as shared knowledge is built and risks are taken. It probably gets a little messy along the way—in fact, you can count on it to be less than perfect. Even the best of teams can’t expect to be great at everything at once. Wherever you are on the PLC journey, take stock of your current reality and identify one best next step to elevate your practice. Build shared knowledge, engage in the right work and be sure to extend some grace along the way.
Remember, “better” doesn’t happen all by itself. The best teams know that it is joyfully, intentionally, and collaboratively hard-earned.
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.