Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Revitalizing Your PLC

Educators have a rare opportunity every summer to rest, relax and recharge.  Most people in many other businesses and professions do not have the same luxury. Sure, they can take vacations, but rarely do they get to STOP and START over each year. As educators we get to wrap-up one year, take a break, and start fresh with a new school year. This summer, I had the good fortune to rest and relax with family and friends, as well as to refresh and revitalize with other educational colleagues. I enjoyed both.

My “working holiday” this summer included collaborating with the staffs from many schools across several states including Nebraska, Kansas, Michigan and Illinois. What continues to amaze me, as I travel and share in this work, is how many similarities there are despite the differences in locations and locales. Rich or poor, large or small, urban or rural, most of these K-12 educators face many of the same challenges. The common theme this summer was: “How do we revitalize our PLC?”

Almost all of the schools and districts had already had some level of implementation for their Professional Learning Community (PLC). Each of the schools I worked with was at a different place along the PLC continuum, but most had come up against road-blocks, or lost momentum for one reason or another. This is not surprising. DuFour et al often talk about the PLC Continuum, ranging from “pre-initiating” to “sustaining” (See Learning By Doing” for great rubrics on this). All of the schools were looking for ways to get back on track.  As I worked through some of the issues with these folks, a number of common themes emerged.  I’ll share some of the highlights here:

Many of these schools had done some work on these key concepts of a PLC. To varying degrees of success, they could point to documents or mantras that showed they had done some of this work at some time.  The question that I have in these situations is, “Is your mission and vision alive and kicking, or is it just a statement on the wall?”  Even if a staff or a PLC team did this work a few years back, it is important to revisit the mission or vision and to review and refine the values and goals.  What made sense to a sub-committee five years ago may not be crystal clear to the new team today.  It’s important to review these things regularly to make sure we all are still on the same page. It is equally important to identify the difference between and wish or a dream and a measurable goal or target. We need to ask ourselves: Do we have SMART Goals, or just rosy intentions?

Most of the schools and districts I have worked with have committed on some level to create collaborative meeting times for their PLC teams.  Some places have more time than others.  What was clear though, as I listened to each of the teams, is that meeting time alone does not ensure collaboration and collective inquiry. Harvard professor David Perkins warns against “co-BLAB-oration” - when teachers get together but talk about the wrong things. If teams aren’t diligent about this, PLC meeting time can easily slide into gossip or administivia.  It’s critical to keep the focus of every meeting on the “Big 3”: Learning, Collaboration and Results. The question we should be asking is: Are the teaching strategies we currently use making the biggest impact on kids and their learning?

We can’t have meaningful conversations about learning and results if we are not clear on what it is we expect kids to learn.  Most teams, even those who have been in a PLC for years, can usually do a better job of defining and refining those essential “Power Standards” (Ainsworth) that the team agrees are the critical learning outcomes for their grade and subject. This means having conversations with colleagues about what is “critical and essential” versus “somewhat important and nice-to-know”. Research by Marzano and others make it clear that we will never be able to do a perfect job of every single outcome, so we had better make sure we are clear about which ones we will do a terrific job of in our school.

Once the priority learning outcomes are clearly defined by a collaborative team, they can then do the work of creating some common formative assessments. These in-house, teacher-created, real-time assessments help both students and staff identify what the kids have learned, and who needs more time and support in order to learn what we have agreed is essential. We need to ask: How do we know if the kids have learned the most essential outcomes?

At many of my workshops, teams are eager to jump right to the intervention portion of the PLC.  This is risky. When asked to give a session on “Pyramid of Interventions”, I usually inquire: “Do you want to build a pyramid of interventions, or do you just want me to show you where you can send the kids who don’t get it?”  It’s important to remember that the first, best place to start our interventions is in the regular classroom setting. That is where most teachers spend the most time with the most kids. The better job we do of differentiating instruction and assessments to accommodate student differences in the regular classroom, the fewer students will need to move “up the pyramid”.  Intervention can be time consuming and costly, so we want to get the best bang for our buck.

If a PLC team is clear on the essential learning, and they have some common formative assessments to help identify those students with gaps, then they are more ready to properly place students into targeted intervention. The next challenge that comes up very often is TIME. Where do we find the time for intervention for students with gaps, let alone the time to enrich the learning of students who are already there? In most schools, the answer has not been a big pot of new money! No, we have to get creative. The solutions are as diverse as the many schools struggling with this challenge. A great place to start looking for answers is in Buffum, Matos and Weber’s two books on RTI. The answer lies in collaboration and flexibility. There are many great examples at the “allthingsplc” web site and blog. The question becomes: How can we alter our bell schedule, or adjust our staffing, so we can find those precious moments for both intervention and enrichment?

At every school where I have helped to implement or refresh their PLC, the staff has had to first reflect back and ask:
  • How are we doing now? 
  • How do we know?
  • How would we prefer to see our results?
  •  What are we willing to do differently to get different results?

The high school where I am now principal has been following a PLC model for a decade now. Our results are pretty good, but there is room for improvement. Over that same ten-year period, each department has been at a variety of points along the PLC Continuum. Are we all at the “sustaining” stage in all aspects of a Professional Learning Community? No.  But I am confident that we have the passion and expertise to collaboratively reflect, refine and revitalize our PLC. I’m looking forward to continuing the journey with this team. And, after a great summer break, I am refreshed and ready to get back at it.