Leading and Monitoring the Work of Teams While Incorporating Virtual, Face-to-Face, and Blended Instruction
When I began my new journey as a secondary school principal in the summer of 2019, everything was relatively normal—meeting new staff, identifying great things happening at the school and uncovering new challenges, a secondary master schedule, collaboration efforts to develop a mission, vision, values, and goals. I remember asking myself questions such as, what would be my primary message to the staff? Where will I first focus my efforts? How will I get staff to commit to the PLC Process I had become so passionate about and the journey I was about to ask them to embark on with me?
I quickly realized I had many of those answers and knew exactly where to begin! It was time to review Learning by Doing, Third Ed. (2016). This resource has served as my lifeline in previous schools and, along with many book-related reproducibles available for free to drive and support this work, it seemed like a no-brainer to use now. So, what did we do, you ask? During the first year, I developed a guiding coalition and we followed the advice mentioned in Professional Learning Communities at Work and High Reliability Schools (2020): “The first step educators in a PLC take when making decisions is to learn together.” We built shared knowledge around the three big ideas of a PLC:
1. Collaborative Culture
2. Results Orientation
3. Focus on Learning
Every staff member had a copy of Learning by Doing and each week we reviewed specific chapters that were relevant to where we were in the process. The guiding coalition had already studied Learning by Doing, and therefore were able to lead discussions within their teams. We were gaining so much momentum and the culture was shifting in the right direction. Teams were radically changing and making significant improvement; their effort and commitment had always been great and now the energies were becoming more aligned. I could see it, I could feel it, and I found my new staff to be thoroughly impressive.
Fast-forward nine months to the spring of 2020 as an unprecedented pandemic was beginning to surge. We had previously applied for the PLC grant through a partnership between the Arkansas Department of Education and Solution Tree and had just received notification of the award in April. This could not have been better timing and was truly a game changer! The pandemic was now beginning to force schools to quickly “pivot.” At first the schools were to only teach virtually and gradually charged to accomplish the task of learning for all by offering three learning options: virtual, face-to-face, and blended learning. This was a very difficult time for educators, yet very inspiring for me as the leader as I watched our teachers increase their proficiency with technology and how they adjusted their plans to meet the needs of our students. I remembered reading an excerpt from the final chapter of Learning by Doing titled, “The Fierce Urgency of Now” (p. 257). It could not have been more relevant or timely in one of the most challenging times I have faced as a leader and one that has stuck with me throughout this school year. At the end of the chapter, Rick DuFour writes:
“The 13th-century Persian poet Rumi writes, ‘Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today, I am wise, so I am changing myself.’ It is time for our profession to become wise. It is time to stop waiting for others. It is time for every educator to take personal responsibility for helping bring the PLC process to life in his or her school or district. And it is time that we act with a sense of urgency, as if the very lives of our students depend on us, because, more so than any other time in our history, they do depend on us.” (p. 262)
As the principal, I began to reflect on myself as a leader. How would I respond during this time of uncertainty? No one had prepared me to be a principal during a global pandemic. I realized quickly that no one was prepared for this, and we would have to rely on each other as a staff to keep the focus on the right work. I realized that I had to step up as a leader to keep a relentless focus on learning, both for the students and the adults. Using an analogy I learned from DuFour, I started taking a much closer look in the mirror and stopped looking out the window. Whatever I did next would send a message to my staff about who I was as a leader and what I felt was important enough for me and the guiding coalition to consistently monitor. According to DuFour (2015), “Leaders who are inattentive to the work of teams sends the message that the work is unimportant.” (p. 233)
As we entered the summer of the 2020-21 school year amid a global pandemic, we turned our attention towards the PLC process because the process is applicable in face-to-face or virtual instruction. We focused on these areas we felt were critical for our school to improve.
- Implementing the PLC process and begin laying the foundation
- Becoming Accredited as a Highly Effective School
- Becoming a school certified in Level 1 of the Highly Reliability Schools framework
We developed and reviewed our mission, vision, values, and goals for the 2020-2021 school year. Teams developed essential standards, learning targets, assessments, and SMART goals. We began to utilize Maria Nielson’s 15 Day Learning-Assessment Cycle and some teams started developing proficiency scales. We were doing all this great work, but we quickly realized we were missing a critical component: tracking the work of collaborative teams. Paul Farmer shared a tool from his new book, still in production, Farmer, P., and King, D., (2021) “PLCs and Virtual Implementation” this was an easy to create and modify tool to help leadership track and monitor the important work of collaborative teams in a PLC. I knew instantly this would help tremendously and started to revise the tool to meet our school’s needs. Our teams were great at tracking their own work which caused the development of many documents in many locations that took tremendous amounts of time to find in the world of Google Drive. Documents were endless and were spread all over google drive. We then applied our modified version of the tracking tool to help, Track the Work of Teams. The tracking tool began to evolve as we continued to add items that directly related to the work of teams this year that we had researched and learned as a guiding coalition to be critical components to the work of collaborative teams. This was a game changer in three ways for our teams and the leadership of the school. First, it serves as a hub for all collaborative teams to house, review, pace and improve their collaborative work in each essential standard unit of study. Teachers now had an explicit focus on the right work and at the same time defined for us what is tight and what is loose. Second, it provides the guiding coalition with feedback of where to plug in support for teams that may be struggling on a particular component within each unit of study. Lastly, it serves as a celebratory tool for staff.
This tool has provided our teams clarity around the right work and gives teams explicit focus areas centralized around the four Critical Questions of a PLC. The routine of asking teams to put hardcopies in the mailbox, email attachments, and maintaining three-ring binders for each team or having teams fill out forms to prove they are collaborating on the right work are in the past. With teams maintaining their work online more than ever before this tool for tracking has become my new norm. In looking ahead to this summer and next school year we are planning to use this document to drive our summer professional development and make improvements to the processes throughout the school year.
As I reflect today on my work as a leader, I find myself looking in the mirror each day before I walk through the school doors asking myself, “What message am I sending my staff today through my actions and behaviors as a leader?”
In the comment section below, please leave examples of how you track the work of your teams so we can all learn together.
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
DuFour, R. (2015). In Praise of American Educators, And How They Can Become Even Better. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
DuFour, R. (2004). Leading edge: Are you looking out the window or in a mirror?
Journal of Staff Development, Summer 2004 (Vol. 25, No. 3)
Marzano, R. & Eaker, R. (2020) Professional Learning Communities at Work and High Reliability Schools. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.