Ronald GallimoreEveryone's a teacher to someone (John Wooden)

Some Examples of the Problems Districts Face When They Try PLCs

In my last post on July 30th, 2013, I mentioned an article that Brad Ermeling and I did based on visits he made to 40 districts trying to operate PLCs –– professional learning communities. He was invited to visit because they had run into a problem. He discovered two types of PLCs, each of which had some challenge.

“Compliance-driven” was one variety of practice Brad observed. These districts described as PLCs meetings in which teachers were expected to work on mandated districts initiatives, such as training on new curricula and materials, analysis of district assessments, accreditation preparation, etc. Of course this variety of PLC might well be effective, so it would be a mistake to discount their value even if they don’t meet consensus PLC criteria.

A second variety was “workshop-inspired.” About 25 of the 40 districts had sent a teachers and administrators to a local or national workshop, typically led by well known speakers. The workshops provided inspirational case examples of districts and schools that had used PLCS to transform teaching and improve achievement. According to the experts, transformation was achieved by a focus on student learning, embracing high expectations for all, and becoming a community of teacher learners. Returning to their districts, the workshop attendees faced a daunting reality. Workshops had inspired but not provided an implementation model. While there were vivid illustrations of what a PLC looked like once it was up and running, there was almost no guidance for where to start, and how to sustain what for most districts was a radical departure from existing culture.

What Brad discovered in both compliance-oriented and workshop-inspired districts was a little time spent studying and improving instruction. In some districts there was confusion, for example, one educator told Brad “we’ve always been told this [PLC] os mot about teaching; it’s about student learning.” As a result, in many districts he visited the prevailing take-away from the PLC workshop was the need to focus on analyzing student assessments. A group of teacher leaders at a charter school said “we never have an opportunity to work on instruction related to our daily classroom teaching.”

It will be a shame if PLCs get labelled as another reform that came up short because the field did not develop implementation models. It’s an old story documented many times. A great idea is launched, but too little attention to paid to that vast gap between intention and outcome ––implementing intentions so they have a chance to produce outcomes. One of the saddest stories in American education is how often we repeat this cycle of enthusiastic beginnings and tawdry endings. For an insightful, if depressing example, read Seymour Sarason’s classic (1971) account of the fate of the New Math Reform of the 1960s. Sarason’s The Culture of the School and the Problem of Change is as relevant today as it was 40+ years ago. It’s documents why perhaps the dirtiest word in education is implementation.

Helping troubled teacher teams learn to collaborate

In the Fall, 2012 issue of The Learning Principal, Dr. Brad Ermeling offers up sage advice for helping troubled teacher teams. To illustrate his point, he uses the example of a middle school team that never seemed to get beyond arguing and debating to doing something. The principal was stumped. Everything tried had failed. Calling in national experts to conduct a workshop had not helped. Team building exercises hadn’t helped. Brad took a very different approach. Instead of working on their “collaboration skills” he asked the team if they wanted to stop fighting. Yes, they all did. Ok, he said let’s start right now my first day on your campus working on something your students are struggling to learn. Let’s end today with agenda for tackling one problem you all agree needs a solution, and getting some better teaching. The principal pitched in and told the team to give this work a priority; she freed up more time for them to work on developing and trying out some lessons, by relieving them of some other work. A few months later some still did not like each other very much, but by focusing on helping their students they were able to put aside their personal conflicts and work on improving their teaching.Together. There’s more that Brad and the principal did, spelled out in his article. But here’s a point worth emphasizing. Brad was operating on the principle that behavior change often precedes attitude change. Instead of working on their conflicted attitudes, he got them working to solve a common problem. Sweating and struggling their way through to better teaching and improved student learning bonded a fighting group into a cooperating team. For more information read Brad’s article .

Ermeling, B. (2012, Fall). Breathe new life into collaboration: five principles for reviving problematic groups. The Learning Principal, Vol. 8, # 1, pps 1, 4-6.
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