An interesting email landed in my inbox yesterday. Richard Carlander—of San Fernando High School—wrote:
I attended the PLC event in Hollywood last week and I had a question I posed to Rick DuFour and he gave me your name.
So here's my two-part question: What was the biggest challenge for you adopting the PLC approach, and what was the biggest improvement and benefit once the PLC was successfully implemented?
Thank you, I am most grateful for your time.
Richard’s questions are really important for anyone who believes that the key to reforming schools rests in the hands of the teachers, leaders and support personnel working in America’s classrooms—and any leaders who begin PLC initiatives without clearly defined answers to both are flirting with disaster.
I think Richard’s first question—what is the biggest challenge of adopting the PLC approach—is at once the most important to consider and the most likely to be overlooked. I’ve seen team after team embrace their early collaborative efforts with energy and enthusiasm, only to stumble to a full stop when predictable—yet unexpected—difficulties smack ‘em in the collective face.
As a result, I’d say the biggest challenge of restructuring schools and/or teams of teachers into highly functioning learning communities is building awareness about what exactly it is that teachers need to know and be able to do in order to work together effectively.
There are a TON of new behaviors and skills that are necessary before a collaborative community can flourish. They include:
- Teachers need to learn about the stages of team development and be introduced to the structures and processes that can move teams forward.
- Teachers need to understand how to build trust between team mates and how to resolve the conflict that is inevitable between passionate colleagues.
- Teachers must be able to structure conversations around data and adopt a spirit of experimentation, innovation and focused action.
- School leaders need to recognize the importance of a shared mission, learn to use a core team of teachers to spread that mission, and quickly differentiate professional development opportunities for the range of learning teams in their buildings.
The good news is that countless writers and school change experts—including little ol’ me—have written at length about all of these topics. With a bit of determination, ANYONE can find practical tools, resources, strategies and suggestions for supporting the development of any learning team and/or community.
The bad news is that widespread organizational knowledge about the PLC process is still uncommon in most schools, which leads to simplified processes and practices OR frustrated teams ready to throw in the towel because they are convinced that PLCs are impossible at best and downright crazy at worst!
What’s the solution for overcoming this challenge?
A broad guiding coalition that reads, writes and thinks about PLCs at every turn. Schools need to have book studies together to build shared understandings of what IS happening in their buildings as well as what is LIKELY to happen in their buildings.
Awareness takes nothing more than a determination to understand—and determination costs nothing except for time. The schools that succeed in their efforts to restructure as professional learning communities make understanding the process a priority.
Richard’s second question—what was the biggest improvement and benefit once the PLC was successfully implemented—is my favorite to answer. The biggest benefit of successfully implemented PLCs is highly motivated and energized teachers and school professionals.
Now I know what you’re thinking: “Shouldn’t the biggest benefit of PLCs be more successful students?"
And I guess if I wanted to be all lofty and high-minded, that would be my answer. But as a teacher-leader type that likes to speak the uncomfortable truth, I think conversations about improving student performance need to start and end with improving teacher working conditions.
I mean, think about the professional culture and life in schools that are constantly facing sanctions because of shortsighted state and federal policies. Teachers work from heavily scripted curriculum guides developed by “experts” who haven’t set foot in a classroom in 20 years.
Test preparation takes up ridiculous amounts of class time. Innovation is not only tacitly discouraged, it is actively stifled. Consequences for ‘failure’ (read: low scores on multiple choice exams) are severe, and as a result, the ONLY thing that matters is not failing.
What kinds of teachers do you think you’re going to be able to recruit to those buildings? Will motivated, intelligent, passionate professionals be drawn to schools where motivation, intelligence and passion is just plain frowned upon?
Now think about the professional culture and life in schools that function as professional learning communities. Teachers are seen as experts and there is a real belief that the answers for reaching every child can be found in the collective knowledge of the adults in the building.
Colleagues are encouraged to polish practices together. Innovation is not only encouraged, it’s required and celebrated.
Sharing—core beliefs, instructional techniques, students—is a part of the fabric of the community, successes are a result of collaborative efforts, and a commitment to continuous improvement is more than a cliché tacked onto the front cover of the faculty handbook. It’s a way of life.
What I’m trying to say is that good teachers—like any good professional—are drawn to the kinds of work environments where they can be challenged and where they know that their efforts are valued and respected.
That’s exactly the kind of environment that you’ll find in highly functioning professional learning communities. As a result, teacher retention rates rise in the best PLCs, turnover drops, and principals end up buried in resumes from really talented folks who want to get on the right bus.
Oh yeah—and test scores go up, too. That’s a given considering that one of the single greatest school-based factors influencing the success or failure of a student is the quality of their classroom teacher.
Does any of this make sense?
If not, you might want to check out these PLC posts that I’ve written that carry some of the same themes:
Of course, you could also poke through all of my PLC related posts here. There’s GOTTA be something there worth reading!