I Finally Drank the Kool-Aid!

Those who know me the best always think it’s hilarious when I’m asked to make staff development presentations because I’ve got a history of resisting even the most well-intentioned reform efforts.

Heck, the closest that I’ve ever come to getting fired for insubordination was when I put Kool-Aid and Dixie Cups out on the snack table in a Jonestown-esque reference to the cultish feel of a Stephen Covey presentation that was serving as our formal staff development plan one year.

Not exactly one of my more professional decisions!

But in a lot of ways, I’d grown tired of the way staff development was chosen in our building. Rarely were teachers involved in any of the decision-making, rarely did the selections have any direct impact on teaching and learning in our school, and rarely did the selections stay around long enough to become a part of our school’s culture or driving philosophy.

We were on the Merry-Go-Round of professional learning, and my head was spinning.

What made the ride even more frustrating was that most of the “programs” we were exposed to were drawn directly from the latest cliche-craze sweeping the business world. We read Who Moved My Cheese, studied the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and tried to move from Good to Great.  We had Crucial Conversations and Crucial Confrontations.

While most of my colleagues recognized that these programs were a huge waste of our time and our building’s resources, they were largely unwilling to challenge the status quo. “Nothing’s going to change,” they would say, “This is how professional development has always been chosen. Just bring a big stack of papers to grade and you’ll keep busy.”

But I’ve never been real good at “just keeping busy.” In the context of today’s high school reform efforts, I’m driven by relevance—always questioning the decisions that influence what happens in my classroom.  In fact, my peers call me “The Why Guy” because I ask the same three questions over and over again when reflecting on school-wide decisions:

Why This?

Why Now?

Why Bother? (Usually uttered in hushed tones under my breath.  I may be borderline belligerent, but I’m not stupid!)

What gets me in the most trouble is that I don’t go away easily! If my school’s leadership struggles to answer any of my three whys, I automatically go into attack mode. “If we can’t answer these questions legitimately, then we’re wasting time,” I’ll say. “And I ain’t got time to waste! Do you know how hard classroom teaching really is?”

Having gained notoriety as a somewhat surly cuss, most everyone was surprised when I emerged as an active proponent of professional learning communities as a form of staff development. In fact, many would consider me to be on the Varsity PLC cheerleading team—a huge digression from my typical pattern of behavior when it comes to PD.

Why have I finally decided to embrace a staff development initiative? Because PLCs answer my three whys better than any effort I’ve seen in over 15 years of teaching:

Why This:  PLCs are the right staff development initiative because they inherently value the knowledge and expertise of practitioners—as opposed to the knowledge and expertise of heavily paid outsiders who may or many not have any experience working in schools or with children! In buildings functioning as learning communities, teachers working together are empowered to find solutions to challenges interfering with student growth and development.

That kind of confidence in the ability of teachers is just plain refreshing in an educational environment where outside experts have become the in-thing!

Why Now:  Education stands at a critical juncture. In an increasingly flattening world, our students are going to have to compete in a global marketplace for gainful employment.  Estimates show that the largest English speaking nation in the world will be China in the next decade—creating a sense of competition that we have never had to wrestle with as a nation until now.

These new realities have introduced fear into nearly every conversation about teaching and learning.  Many members of the general public question the ability of teachers and schools to produce meaningful learning results. Scrutiny and criticism increase exponentially each year, resulting in greater restrictions and controls on the work we do in the classroom. Standardized testing and scripted curricula are direct responses to the lack of confidence that decision-makers have in the ability of educators.

Isn’t it time that we show what a committed group of teaching professionals can do when given the freedom to explore their practice in a meaningful way?

Why Bother:  The moralistic, high-minded answer to this question would be, “PLCs ensure that every child has access to the best instruction regardless of instructor—and every child deserves our best.”

Sounds lovely, doesn’t it?

Sure, but as a practitioner who is already swamped by the day-to-day demands of a profession that can be simply overwhelming, I couldn’t give a rip about moralistic, high-minded answers!

Good thing, then, that there’s a more practical reason that educators should embrace learning teams:  Collaboration done right helps to lighten the load for everyone. In the past few years, I’ve actually seen the time that I invest in planning daily lessons go down as I’ve taken advantage of learning experiences and materials shared by my colleagues. We’ve even gotten creative about regrouping students across classrooms during the school day to provide the kinds of remediation experiences that I used to deliver in after school tutoring sessions.

Now don’t get me wrong: Learning communities aren’t all sunshine and daffodils.  In fact, for the first few years, I even wondered whether collaborative work in schools was possible. Having spent the majority of our careers working in complete isolation, my team struggled to learn the skills necessary to work together effectively and spent a significant amount of time “storming” our way through meetings.

But I’ve never been more energized or more effective in my entire teaching career either. I approach professional development with an unusual zeal because I know that I’m going to get to explore my practice with my peers. Together, we learn more about instruction that works and we polish the things that we do best.  We have a commitment to one another and to our students that is nothing short of energizing—and that commitment brings us back year after year to work together again.

I guess I finally drank the Kool-Aid, huh?.


13 thoughts on “I Finally Drank the Kool-Aid!

  1. Bill Ferriter

    Hey Glenda,
    Thanks a ton for stopping by and glad to know that your district is working towards PLC Implementation. As a classroom teacher, nothing has changed my practice more than meaningful opportunities to collaborate with my colleagues.
    Heres a few online resources that might be helpful to you:
    My collection of PLC writings here on The Tempered Radical: Ive written a ton about PLCs in the past few years because it it a
    reform strategy that I believe in. If you spend some time poking around
    in these posts, youll find everything from strategies for building
    effective mission and vision statements to strategies for manipulating
    data. Because PLCs are a topic that I care about, youre likely to
    continue to see this collection grow over time as well.
    A great introductory post explaining why teachers should care about PLCs: One of the first challenges that youll have to tackle when trying to implement PLCs is convincing teachers that PLCs are worth their time. The post below is my rationale for why teachers should see PLCs as something more than just another thing to do. It tends to resonate with teachers because it was written by another teacher who shares their concerns about the struggles of finding meaningful PD in schools.
    The free resource collection for my book on PLCs: About two years ago, I took everything that I learned about successfully structuring and sustaining PLCs and put it together into a book titled Building a Professional Learning Community at Work. The book has been remarkably successful—most recently winning the 2010 Staff Development Book of the Year award from the National Staff Development Council. The resource page on my publishers website includes over 70 downloadable handouts that can be used to help PLCs work through the same kinds of implementation challenges that we faced when we first started to shift to a professional learning community in my school.
    The All Things PLC Website: Whenever Im looking for inspiration and encouragement around PLCs, I turn to the All Things PLC website. It is a site that is maintained by Solution Tree PLC experts Rick and Becky DuFour—-and the resources that theyre gathering are nothing short of remarkable. Theyve got blog entries tackling the most common questions asked by schools shifting to PLCs. Theyve got links to tools and resources that PLCs will find valuable. Theyve got contact information for dozens of schools that are doing PLCs correctly. Its pretty comprehensive and valuable stuff.
    Hope this helps…..

  2. Glenda Robertson

    We have just started PLCs this year and I want to make ours as effective as possible. Any guidelines or suggestions would be so welcome. I haven’t found too much on the web but then maybe I’m not looking in the right places.

  3. Debbie Moncayo

    I, too, am a frustrated school administrator.We have created a schedule that enables collaboration (3-4 times a week our teachers have 30-50 minutes of common planning time and each Wednesday, we have 2 hours for professional development). We have developed curriculum maps and common assessments. There are multiple sources of data telling us that we are not performing to our potential. I have smart teachers who care about kids, but we still cannot make transfer that this collaborative time should center around how our teaching impacts student learning. We are not comfortable with self-reflection regarding practice. Unless the literacy, math coaches and I are present at each grade level meeting, the meetings quickly turn into a laundry list of field trip items or schedule minutia. I am in a quandry as to how to have teachers transfer ownership of the discussion as it relates to teacher behavior that impacts student learning. Just building the schedule that gave teachers time for collaboration and providing them with training has not made them connect the dots and put student performance and the responsibility for its improvement within their ability to change things.I’d love input from teachers and other administrators whose staffs have made this leap that we cannot seem to make.

  4. Sue Mehl

    I am interested in input from anyone adopting and experiencing the PLC format. I am really hoping to find out how high schools have configured their time to get more common time for planning. We want to be able to meet, plan and work on a fairly frequent level rather than once or twice per term. Thanks for any ideas or links to more information!

  5. Damian Bariexca

    Bill, we’re currently doing this at the high school where I teach. We have a “teachers teaching teachers” menu-driven model of PD in which a smaller group of us (20-40, depending on the month) run simultaneous workshops for the rest of the faculty. Teachers are sent a “menu” of options, choose their top 3, and are assigned a session based on their preferences. Overall response to this new model has been overwhelmingly positive.
    Caught your Tweet about this in a most timely way; I JUST – as in less than five minutes ago – finished writing an essay on this very topic for my application for PA education jobs.
    Bravo to you for making PD relevant and authentic to your teachers.

  6. David

    I hear you and I hear your teachers.
    First, they can’t afford NOT to partake in prof. development if they want to do a better job with less stress.
    Two. Maybe they know this above but sometimes only good things come from a little “pushing” . Meaning, you know your teachers, their character/disposition. Choose well and chose those who can lead. Have them direct the Prof. Development and be the sparkplug. Give some incentive. Your job is to light the fire….then sit back in its warmth 🙂

  7. Mary Kelly

    As a principal, I would love to have my teachers direct professional development. I have offered them time within the school day, release time, and the resource of the school budget. I have carved out an hour for professional learning communities, and I tell them to tell me who would like to use it and what they need.They tell me they are too overworked to take an interest in staff development and just want me to do it. Any solutions for how I can transfer my passion for PLCs to the teachers?

  8. Beverly Maddox

    I think your attitude toward PD that is not responsive to expressed or implied faculty needs is shared by many of us. My principal has advocated PLCs for two years now, but the faculty has not embraced the idea, most having evolved into a mode of passive-aggressive participation in any PD. Only a few of us have done any investigation of what a PLC is an what it can do for a faculty. I’m going to share your story with some of my colleagues who are a bit more open to PLCs and with my administrators, hoping they will appreciate your insights and will embrace your example. Like Mary Ward, may I refer my principal to you? I’ll definitely point him to this blog.

  9. Mary Ward

    Bill, this blog is timely because my new principal is big on PLCs and I have always felt isolated and have been when it comes to planning times with members in my department. I would like to use your expertise when we finally drink the Kool Aide and put PLCs in place starting with this school year. It will be a fight because as a staff we have acknowledged that students fail to test well but we have not across the board acknowledged that to a great extent it is our fault. I just want to know if I can refer your name to my principal?

  10. loonyhiker

    We must have worked in the same district because we read the same books! After that, our school did have PLCs which I enjoyed. Unfortunately not all groups had effective leaders so not everyone enjoyed them or felt like it was productive. I think from the onset there needs to be clear directions and expectations for this to be successful.

  11. Bob

    Thanks for your observations about PLCs. Glad you like the “cool-aide” :). I do quibble with your conclusion: Standardized testing and scripted curricula are direct responses to … the ability of educators. I’d suggest that the concern is with the degree of competitive student academic performance, irrespective of teachers’ abilities, efforts, intentions, etc. Options exist to increase student performances, including through PLCs, right?

  12. Mike

    Ah yes. Actually learning from professionals with current experience. Of course, that makes sense, so it couldn’t possibly be allowed.
    I’ve advocated that for years, and often made the suggestion to implement it, rather than the kind of IQ lowering, suicide wish inducing tripe that passes for professional developement in my school district, which, by the way, is a good place to work, yet we’re still infused with idiocy whenever an in-service day is contemplated.
    In Texas, where I teach, we are required by state law to have “Site-Based” management committees in every school comprised of teachers, administrators and members of the public. Of course, there is no requirement that anything these committees suggest be implemented, and so it is for most of them. Administrators can proudly proclaim their democratic leanings in having such committees while studiously ignoring everything they suggest.
    With that in mind, why would any administrator find value in having teachers, mere teachers, work together to learn anything? After all, they’re only teachers, what could they know?

  13. Jose

    This was well said. I always found myself in PDs wondering when I’m going to leave. Imagine if teachers could choose what exactly they could do during their own professional developments. What a novel idea.

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