The Power of PLCs. . .

Dear Readers,

Almost six years ago, I wrote the article below, detailing the impact that professional learning teams can have on the instructional practices of individual educators. 

It originally appeared on the Teacher Leaders Network website. It was later included in the Summer 2005 issue of the Journal of Staff Development.

In a move from one website to another, the file was deleted from the TLN site.  I thought it deserved a new home here on the Tempered Radical. 

I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

—Bill

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I am an outstanding teacher. Period. End of conversation. My college professors told me that I was, my students over the past 12 years have told me that I was, and my administrators have told me that I was. Who am I to argue!

And if you haven’t already figured it out, I struggle with humility.

I like being good at what I do and I feel that I’ve earned the right to be confident — all right, confident times ten — because of the time and energy that I have invested in my own professional growth.

The countless hours of reading and reflecting have given me the unique ability to be right about 99 percent of the time when it comes to professional decisions.

But I was wrong the other day — incredibly wrong.

What’s worse is that I was wrong about something that I was pretty sure that I was right about!

Confused yet?

Let me explain:  For the first time in my career, I am working in a school that is functioning as a professional learning community.

We are committed to looking carefully at our instructional practices with the goal of pinpointing what works with our students. When we identify the best of what we are doing, we try to amplify that knowledge by sharing it.

A current focus for my professional learning team (which consists of 4 other sixth grade language arts and social studies teachers) has been on the best ways to engage children in challenging classroom conversations. We have decided that we want our students to be active creators, rather than passive recipients, of new understandings.

In the course of our planning meetings, my colleagues had proposed that we begin to use Paideia seminars with our students. I almost choked when I heard the idea proposed and switched almost immediately into attack mode!

You see, over the years I’ve grown to see Paideia as an educational buzzword.

I’d heard about this wonderful "innovation" nearly ten years ago. After sitting through some terrifically ineffective staff development sessions and watching some even more ineffective seminars carried out by well-intentioned colleagues, I’d made up my mind that Paideia was something that my students could live without.

As we planned, I threw every objection that I could think of out immediately. "Students can’t effectively moderate their own conversations," I argued. "The students in the outer circle are completely disengaged during seminars. What’s more, the size of the inner circle allows students to sit and do nothing."

My teammates, however, didn’t budge.

"If the teacher has to sit on the sidelines during the conversation, who is going to challenge the students’ thinking?" I continued.

"What’s more, who is going to challenge their incorrect statements? What are we supposed to do…allow kids to talk about incorrect information for 50 minutes?

What damage will that do to their understanding of content? I just don’t buy this Paideia stuff," I said at the end of a very difficult planning meeting.

That’s when the women that I work with went into a full court Paideia press that would have made Mortimer Adler and Socrates himself proud!

For a week, I found copies of articles about the value of seminars in my box. I got email from colleagues in other departments about how successful seminars could be.

My principal dropped a copy of The Paideia Proposal in my box, and most incredibly, my ASSISTANT PRINCIPAL’S MOM (a staff developer in another county that uses Paideia regularly) contacted me to offer support.

When my team continued to stand against my position, the real truth came out: "Besides," I said, "I have a better way of doing classroom conversations."

My resistance to Paideia had little to do with any real understanding of the practice. My stand was based on my belief that the classroom conversations that I had been conducting for years were effective and on my unwillingness to change something that I was comfortable with.

I was stuck at an important crossroads.

I really enjoy the collaborative work that we have been doing in our building this year. I believe in the power of sharing best practices and know that if we are to succeed as a learning team, each of us has to reexamine what it is that we have done for years — including me. We have to trust one another and be willing to take risks.

And that is what I decided to do. I took an instructional risk.

I read as much as I could about Paideia (although I still refuse to use the term…to me, Socratic Seminars are less "buzz-wordy"). I listened to how my colleagues implemented seminars and looked at the materials they used with their classes.

I asked countless questions from teachers that had finished their seminars. "Did it work?" I wondered. "Were the kids in the outer circle bored? Were the kids in the inner circle able to carry the conversation? What about your low-performers?"

I probably spent 20 hours thinking about that one lesson.

When the day of my first seminar came, I was still doubtful. I knew that I had prepared my students for the format of the lesson and had done as much as I could to prepare myself.

I had all kinds of contingency plans in place. I knew what I would do if the kids weren’t able to moderate their own conversation. I knew what I would do if the outer circle looked bored and I knew what I would do if kids started to argue or share information that was inaccurate.

But none of those things happened!

My students greatly enjoyed our seminar and were able to do all of the things that I was convinced that they wouldn’t be able to do.

They engaged each other in meaningful ways, questioned their peers and worked together to examine content and create knowledge WITHOUT ME! In the past month, we’ve done two additional seminars with even more success, and I’m officially a self-professed Paideia convert!

I’ve taken some friendly abuse from my co-teachers lately. They love to remind me of my ardent anti-Paideia position any chance they get.

And I’ll admit, I’ve been humbled. I’m not used to being wrong, you know.

But what I’m most amazed by is the realization that if I had not come to my current school, Paideia would never have become a part of my instructional practice because in the traditional schools where I spent the first 11 years of my career, teachers were isolated.

While they might occasionally share ideas and talk about what they are doing in their classrooms, there is no formalized expectation that teachers will work together to identify and amplify best practices. Each individual makes decisions, over time falling into predictable patterns using strategies that they are comfortable with.

Professional learning communities are different. Teachers agree to work together to examine and to reflect, collaborating in ways that are often foreign in our profession.

The focus of teacher learning teams is on identifying what works for students. Shared knowledge is valued above all, and teachers have to be willing to open their practice to review and revision.

This collaboration leads to growth and to change — even in those of us who know that we’re right — and holds great power to reform what happens in our schools.

If PLC’s have the power to improve the instructional practice of our most accomplished and experienced teachers, hasn’t the time come for all schools to begin functioning as professional learning communities?

4 thoughts on “The Power of PLCs. . .

  1. CISHSPrincipal

    Bill, great post. Thanks for sharing. Being in a HS setting, it makes me think that just seeing different teaching and learning strategies, even if in different subject areas, can be good PD.

  2. Tess Ausman

    Bill, thank you for sharing this article. This is my first time reading it and I appreciate your honesty. What a great story about PLCs and their power!

  3. Skip Offenhauser

    Thanks for the re-post. I plan on sharing this with my staff so they can see how you made the leap to put student learning first and not what works best for you and your teaching preference.

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