Traditional PLCs are often dull and leave educators feeling like they're another task to do in their already busy schedules. Casey Watts, IC in Texas, offers a few fun strategies that re-shift the focus of your current PLCs to be ones focused on a shared culture of collaboration.
t's no surprise when instructional leaders state their concerns about Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) or when teachers complain about PLCs being "just another meeting." PLCs have been a hot topic for some time now and that will most likely continue. Below I'll share some common pitfalls leading to lackluster PLCs and a few ways to begin revitalizing your upcoming sessions.
The challenges with traditional PLCs
Before we dive into the common struggles with PLCs, you should take a moment to reflect on your experience with them:
- What do you want or hope for with your PLCs? What do you want them to look or sound like?
- What's the challenge for you? What’s keeping your PLCs from meeting your expectations?
I'm willing to bet that your responses to the first questions match the qualities and characteristics of a PLC as defined by the authors of Intentional Interruption and PLC+ (both phenomenal books that you'll want to put on your wish list):
- Central to learning in all interactions and conversations
- Founded on supportive relationships, creating a space to be vulnerable and where asking hard questions is common practice
- Purposeful and intentional in improving pedagogy and student outcomes
Are you nodding your head now, thinking, "Yes, this is what they should be!!?" I'm also willing to bet that your experience with PLCs is similar to mine and has left you with a face that's also just as similar!
Let's think back to the second set of questions I asked earlier: "What's the challenge for you? What's keeping your PLCs from being what they could be?" Here's what I find is usually the cause of lackluster PLCs:
- Lack of understanding: Often, participants participate, but don't fully understand the "why" or "how" of PLCs. We cannot expect educators (or anyone for that matter) to willingly and actively engage in something with an unclear purpose.
- Previous negative experiences: When not addressed properly, these negative experiences can continue to fester and bleed into the climate of the PLC. Furthermore, teachers may have a lack of mastery experiences with PLCs. If teachers are not experiencing success within (or because of) PLCs, then the session simply becomes another chore to check off their "to-do" list.
- Toxic environments or relationships: Sometimes, teachers are part of (or a contributor to) toxic environments that result in tension, dissension, and resentment. This can provide much dramatic gossip, which is certainly not conducive to positive student learning outcomes.
- Inconsistent structures: Inconsistent scheduling of meetings or an unclear focus or framework for PLCs are both challenges to overcome. Without clarity and consistent structures, your teams are left playing catch-up or barely scratching the surface of deep, meaningful learning.
- Lack of collective efficacy: At the root of it all, the main reason that many PLCs suffer is because of a lack of collective-ness, self-efficacy, or both.
Now, you may be thinking, "Yes, but that's why PLCs are important." And that's absolutely true: collective efficacy is what we want. But if your teachers are unaccustomed to the deep, vulnerable work required by PLCs—the kind of work that has the greatest impact on students—then plopping new structures into existing PLCs with little groundwork can instead effect high resistance and toxic environments. This is the opposite of collective efficacy.
Building collective efficacy is the proverbial marathon, not a sprint; treating it this way ensures the longevity of your learning community. But how do we address it to revive our PLCs?
The secret: build a culture of collaboration
We should consider the characteristics of a strong PLC (central to learning, supportive and relational, purposeful and intentional) and multiply those characteristics intentionally, relationally, and oh-so patiently.
As coaches, we are the multipliers in our organizations, creating the mastery experiences that our teachers need to thrive in teacher-led PLCs.
Practical ways to build a culture of collaboration
Now you know the why behind uninspiring PLCs and the secret to invigorating them. Next up, I want to share four extremely practical and fun strategies to lay the groundwork for your culture of collaboration:
1) Collaborative studies
These are the stepping stones to multiplying a strong and meaningful culture of collaboration. We want PLCs to work so well that they shift beliefs, mindsets, and behaviors through teacher empowerment.
Collaborative studies make this possible because they are invitational, provide organic conversation opportunities, and empower teachers.
Learn all about collaborative studies in Casey's blog post series!
2) Identify native geniuses
Make a habit of studying people to identify their talents and find ways to maximize their potential. As humans, when we're recognized for our genius and how we skillfully and naturally survive and thrive in our community, we feel we are a crucial component of something bigger than ourselves.
As instructional leaders, we can recognize that genius in others, encouraging them to be vulnerable, to take risks as educators, and to collaborate with colleagues. You can find out more ways to create a positive culture of collaboration in Liz Wiseman's, The Multiplier Effect: Tapping The Genius Inside Our Schools.
A dear friend of mine, Allison Peterson, is responsible for coining this phrase in the #newtocoaching Facebook group. This strategy speaks for itself! It's often easy for teachers to get bogged down by the overwhelm of a never-ending to-do list, or the negativity from disgruntled colleagues, or the inability to fix a broken system. But as coaches, we can take steps to combat that, even if they are baby steps!
Providing a dedicated space in a common area for teachers to post their wins (both big and small), can be one baby step to fostering a culture of collaboration.
Where do you plan on creating your own #winsoftheweek board at your school?
More importantly, you'll want to listen carefully for those small wins and take steps to provide teachers the next step in actually getting those wins on the wall! Do not assume that they will take that step on their own.
Furthermore, draw attention to the #winsoftheweek in as many ways as possible—get creative!
4) Strategic facilitation of meetings
Of the four practical ways I'm providing to begin building a culture of collaboration, this is hands down the most challenging! Strategic facilitation of meetings takes stamina, grit, focus, and the power of the mind. Then why have I suggested it as a practical way to build collaboration? It's practical because it is ever-present.
We are in meetings all the time! What's important to maintain is the belief that every conversation matters; therefore, every meeting matters. And if the meeting doesn't seem to matter, begin to question how you can make it matter. Strategically facilitating meetings can make them matter, thus promoting that collaborative culture we desire. Treat every meeting as though it's meant to be collaborative. Here are some things you can do to do just that:
- Strategically place yourself (and possibly participants) so that everyone sees everyone. This provides a scaffold to support collaboration and positive body language.
- State, restate, or clarify the purpose of the meeting.
- Open the floor as much as possible and acknowledge what others have to say. Then make connections for them: "I'm hearing ___ and ___ both say…" And then suggest collaboration: "Could both of you partner together to…?"
- Find ways to highlight those in the organization that aren't present in the meeting. For example, when meeting with a fourth-grade team, share what you've learned about fifth-grade team members that could spark curiosity and potential collaboration.
- Close the meeting with clarity! Restate the purpose of the meeting, paraphrase what's discussed, and have the team identify the next steps as a team or individually.
Pro tip: For additional mistakes to avoid during meetings, check out this list 10 common mistakes from Solution Tree.
So do you believe it? Do you believe that the secret to the PLC you're envisioning is first to build a culture of collaboration? Imagine how much more your staff can gain in day-to-day interactions and instruction when that "learning" piece of the PLC is valued and sought out because you've supported a culture of collaboration!
Are you ready? Are you ready to build that culture of collaboration? Are you ready to reap the benefits?
I am doing it, and the teachers I'm currently working with are inching closer each day to embarking on PLCs that will be both challenging and empowering, closer to PLCs that will inevitably lead to significantly improved learning outcomes. And I would love nothing more than to be in the trenches with you.
As you embark on collaborative studies, begin to notice and note, encourage wins of the week, or strategically facilitate team meetings, post about it and leave the hashtag #cultureofcollaboration. Let's share about our struggles, our endeavors, and our wins as we unveil this secret for our fellow instructional leaders!
About our Guest Blogger
Casey Watts is an instructional coach and leadership strategist in deep East Texas, with over 15 years of experience in education serving various roles. In addition to her work as an instructional coach, she enjoys educational consulting on the side.
Above all, Casey envisions communities of educators inspired by their careers, feel validated in their collaborative efforts, and end the school day fulfilled and eager for more! Through innovative conversations and coaching, she explores with fellow educators limitless instructional and leadership strategies that transcend content areas and grade levels to fulfill that vision. She enjoys writing about these strategies and more ideas on her blog.