Category Archives: PLCs

Why This? Why Now? Why Bother? The PLC Edition.

Blogger’s note:  I’m going to start a new series here on the Radical called “Why This?  Why Now?  Why Bother?”  The purpose of the series is to give some rationale for major projects, ideas, or initiatives in education that I really believe in.  Hope you dig ’em.


Why This? Why Now? Why Bother?  The PLC Edition.

One of the questions that I am often asked by classroom teachers is, “Why should we care about PLCs, Bill?”

And as the self-proclaimed “why guy” on my faculty – the curmudgeon constantly asking, “Why this?”, “Why now?”, and, “Why bother?” any time administrators introduce initiatives to our school – I totally understand where they are coming from.  Veteran teachers have learned that the professional development planned and delivered in schools rarely makes a significant impact on student learning because it rarely stays around long enough to become a part of a school’s culture or driving philosophy.

The result:  We are almost always skeptical when our bosses bring something new back to our building and try to convince us that it is worth investing in.

So why should classroom teachers care about PLCs? 

Because when they are done right, they answer my three why questions better than anything I’ve seen in over 25 years of full-time teaching:

Why This:  Teachers should care about PLCs because they inherently value the knowledge and expertise of practitioners instead of the knowledge and expertise of presenters or heavily scripted programs developed by outsiders who know next to nothing about our kids or our classrooms.

When a school or a district commits to restructuring as a professional learning community, what they are REALLY saying to their classroom teachers is, “We believe in YOU.  We believe that the answer to improving learning in our community rests in the hearts and the minds of the people sitting in THIS room.  It’s YOUR knowledge and skill that we are willing to invest in.  We want to empower YOU to find solutions to the challenges that are keeping our kids from becoming their best academic, social and emotional selves.”

That kind of confidence in the ability of teachers is just plain refreshing in a world where our credibility is questioned at almost every turn.  If we can prove that working together, we can develop strategies and solutions that have a positive impact on kids, we can also reinforce our argument that teaching is professional work that deserves professional compensation and respect.

That’s a challenge we should embrace.

Why Now:  Teachers should also care about PLCs because today’s classrooms have become incredibly diverse places, filled with students who have a wide range of academic, social and emotional needs.  As a result, it is almost impossible for any one person to have the “know-how” to move every student forward.

Heck, if we are being honest, each of us could easily name the type of students that we struggle to serve well.  For me, it is students with learning disabilities.  Scaffolding my lessons to meet their individual needs is something that I’ve never been very good at.  And I know it.  It’s a gap in my professional skillset – and it’s preventing some of the students in my room from succeeding.

But here’s the thing: I work on a learning team with a colleague who has spent countless hours polishing her practices in this area.  She knows a TON about how to effectively differentiate her lessons for students with unique learning needs.  If I’m willing to open myself up to her – something that happens naturally when teachers work together on professional learning teams – my bet is that my practice will improve.  And I’d also bet that there are gaps in her professional skillset that I can help fill.

Knowing that we don’t have to struggle alone is a relief, y’all.  When meaningful collaboration becomes a part of our work patterns, we gain a set of thinking partners that we can rely on to find solutions to our greatest professional challenges.

Why Bother:  The moral 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.”

But there’s a selfish answer to this question, too: “PLCs give teachers a chance to relentlessly question their practice together – and relentlessly questioning practice is professionally rewarding!”

That’s the thing we forget sometimes.  PLCs aren’t just about the learning of students.  They are also about creating a stimulating learning space for the adults in a schoolhouse.  So, if you lean in to your collaborative team, identifying important questions to study together and then working through continuous cycles of collective inquiry in service of student learning, YOU will be more motivated by the work that you are doing each day.

The people drawn to teaching are deeply creative and reflective by nature.  The work of high-functioning teams feeds those traits and will leave you professionally jazzed in a way that teaching alone could never do.

Now don’t get me wrong: Learning communities aren’t all sunshine and daffodils. 

Early on, you are likely to experience frustration.  That’s what happens when folks who have spent most of their careers working in complete isolation come together to collaborate for the first time.  Until your team develops the skills and processes necessary for working together effectively, there’s going to be some “storming” in your weekly meetings with one another.

But I’ve never been more energized or more effective in my entire teaching career either.

I look forward to meeting with my colleagues because I know that I’m going to get to explore my practice with people who are just as capable and passionate as I am about improving. 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 — and that commitment brings us back year after year to work together again.

THAT’s why you should care about PLCs.



Interested in learning more about establishing Professional Learning Communities?  Then check out my first book – Building a Professional Learning Community at Work:  A Guide to the First Year.  I promise you won’t hate it!  ; ) 


Related Radical Reads:

I Finally Drank the Kool-Aid!



Using Tangible Products to Reinforce #atplc Processes.


Five Resources for School Leaders Starting PLCs from Scratch



Using Tangible Products to Reinforce #atplc Processes.

Recently, I had a long conversation with a client who is working to support several professional learning teams in a middle school.  One of the questions that she asked was, “What’s the best way for me to know how to move each of the teams that I work with forward?”

My answer was a simple phrase that I heard my mentor and friend Rick DuFour use over and over again when coaching the leaders of learning communities:  You can use tangible products to reinforce core processes that you believe in.  

Here’s what Rick meant:  Teams that are engaged in collective inquiry around practice with one another should always be working together to answer four critical questions of learning:

(1). What is it that we want our students to learn?

(2). How will we know that they have learned it?

(3). How will we respond when students don’t learn?

(4). What will we extend learning for students who are highly proficient?

(DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, Many & Mattos, 2016)

To encourage teams to answer each of those questions, school leaders can require teams to produce tangible products.  Here are some samples:

Teams that are answering critical question one might create overview sheets for every unit in their curriculum listing small handfuls of outcomes that are essential for every student to learn.  Here’s a sample.

Teams that are answering critical question two might use a tool like this one to create a common formative assessment.  They might also use a data reflection template like this one or this one in order to identify both students in need of remediation and extension OR gaps in their instructional competence that need to be addressed.

Teams that are answering critical questions three and four might create tiered lesson plans that detail specific strategies for addressing the needs of students who are approaching, meeting and exceeding expectations.   They might also keep lists of students organized by need that can be used to plan next actions.

Requiring teams to create tangible products that are tied to core PLC processes accomplishes two goals.  

First, it focuses the work of your collaborative teams.

Saying, “I want you to engage in collective cycles of action inquiry around your practice” might leave your teams confused about exactly what it is that you want them to do together.  But saying, “I want you to make a list of three to five objectives that are essential for every student to master for your upcoming unit” is super easy to understand and complete.

Better yet, it gives teams a tool that they can use when it has been created — which makes time spent collaborating feel more productive.

Second, it gives everyone who supports teams — administrators, instructional coaches, specialists and special education teachers — a transparent “look” into the work of the learning team.

Unit overview sheets can help those folks to figure out which teams have a clear sense of the strengths and weaknesses of the students that they serve.  Common assessments can help those folks to figure out which teams have a clear sense of how to develop assessments that are accurate indicators of student learning.  And data analyses documents can help those folks to figure out which teams need help with which instructional skills.

Do you see how valuable products can be?

They give teams a direction and make it possible for everyone working around a team to find entry points for providing differentiated support and guidance.

That’s a #winwin, right?


Interested in other steps that you can take to support collaboration within your building?  Then check out Bill’s two PLC books:  Building a Professional Learning Community at Work and Making Teamwork Meaningful.  


Related Radical Reads:

Using Unit Overview Sheets to Help EVERY Student See Progress.


Five Resources for School Leaders Starting PLCs from Scratch


I Finally Drank the Kool-Aid!


New #atplc Resource: Identifying Common Mistakes on Assessments

One of my closest professional friends is assessment expert Chris Jakicic.  Recently, Chris wrote an interesting bit for the Solution Tree Blog that I think is worth checking out.   

In it, Chris argues that common formative assessments only become powerful when learning teams deliberately track the kinds of mistakes that students are making on the assessments that they are giving.  

By tracking common mistakes, teams can (1). Identify the misconceptions that are preventing students from mastering important outcomes and (2). Plan targeted interventions for students. 

Chris Liverani

That’s important thinking, y’all:  Assessments of any kind — but particularly the common formative assessments given by teachers working on professional learning teams — should be designed to do more than just identify students who are struggling or students who are excelling.

Assessments should also be designed to provide teachers with tons of information about the specific conceptual misunderstandings that students are struggling with — and generating that information depends on teachers thinking deliberately about the mistakes that they expect to see on each and every question that they ask.

By identifying and planning for common mistakes while developing assessments, teams set themselves up to gather the kind of targeted information that they can use to spot gaps in their instruction and to get the right kids into the right intervention groups at the right time.

How can you help learning teams to think more deliberately about mistakes when developing common assessments?  

These worksheets — which are inspired by Chris’s thinking — might help:

Worksheet – Defining Common Mistakes on a Common Formative Assessment:  A planning tool that teams would use while writing a common formative assessment to articulate the kinds of mistakes that they expect to see.

Worksheet – Common Mistake Tracking Tool – Individual Teacher:  This worksheet is designed to be used by an individual teacher while scoring an assessment.  It encourages teachers to track the kinds of mistakes that individual students are making and results in a targeted data set that can be used to plan next instructional steps.

Worksheet – Tracking Common Mistakes – Team Tool:  This worksheet is designed to help teachers on a learning team to spot patterns in the kinds of mistakes being made by students across several classrooms.  The resulting data can help teams to spot individual teachers who have discovered high-leverage instructional strategies or to identify instructional gaps that spread across an entire team.

Can you see what’s going on here?  

My goal is to remind teachers that you can sometimes learn more from the mistakes that students are making on a common formative assessment than you can from the questions that they are getting right.


Related Radical Reads:

Common Formative Assessment is about Improving INSTRUCTION

Ten Tips for Writing Common Formative Assessments

Need a Form for Analyzing CFA Data?  Try This One.

New #atplc Resource: Tasks Teams Tackle Document

Over the past decade, my professional work has been changed for the better by members of my collaborative teams.

I’ve tried new strategies as a result of my exposure to the ideas of my peers.  I’ve become more systematic about documenting my practices.  I’ve become more deliberate about intervening and extending learning for my students.  And I’ve become more confident about my ability to meet the needs of all students because I know that I’m not tackling that challenge on my own.

(Click to enlarge.  View original image and credit on Flickr here.)

Since then, I’ve started consulting a bit — helping other schools to strengthen their collaborative practices.  

In that work, the most common struggle that I see are teams that are open to collaboration but unsure of exactly what it is that they are supposed to be doing with one another.  It’s easy to imagine that we are more powerful together than we are as individuals, but without direction and clarity, collaboration feels like a waste of time.

As my friend and mentor Rick DuFour used to say, “Collaboration is only worthwhile when you are collaborating around the right things.”

So I’ve developed a resource to help teams determine if they are doing the right things in their meetings with one another.

I call it the Tasks Teams Tackle worksheet.

You can check it out here.

It is designed to be used like a checklist that teams can use to evaluate the work that they are currently doing and to identify collaborative practices worth pursuing.

Hope you can find a way to use it in your work.


Related Radical Reads:

Note to Teams:  It’s Time to Complete Your Mid-Year Checkup Together

Is Your Team Flunking Unsuccessful Practices Together?

Five Important Roles for Collaborative Teams


Five Important Roles for Successful Collaborative Teams

So here’s a simple truth:  On the highest functioning professional learning teams, there’s no real need for formal titles and roles. 

Teachers work seamlessly for and with one another through recurring cycles of inquiry around their practice.  They inherently acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses of one another, stepping forward to lead when necessary and willingly following when others have the skills necessary to tackle individual tasks.  As a result, their work is efficient, effective and incredibly rewarding.


But here’s another simple truth:  Many teams wouldn’t describe their work as “efficient, effective and rewarding.

Sometimes, that’s because they have no clear sense for how to take ideas and turn them into realistic action.  Identifying the right person to fill the right role at the right time isn’t something that happens inherently — and the results can be frustrating.  Some members feel overwhelmed because they are being asked to tackle tasks that they aren’t personally or professionally prepared for.  Other members feel frustrated because work never seems to get done — or to get done well.

For those teams, formal roles that are assigned to individual members are a relief. 

By defining a set of roles that members will fill for one another, teams are developing transparency around just what the core work of a learning team really is.  By defining a set of roles that members will fill for one another, teams also create opportunities for members to identify places where they can contribute to the collective work of the group.

Those conversations — where members openly share their strengths and weaknesses while volunteering for or shying away from individual roles — are essential for building trust with one another and for sending the message that to do our core work, we have to rely on one another.

So what roles should a novice learning team have?

Check these five out:  Leaders, Encouragers, Challengers, Producers and Realists

I think that each of those roles are essential for the long term success of a learning team.  We SHOULD be challenging and producing and encouraging one another during every single meeting.  It’s impossible to collectively inquire around our practice together if those actions don’t become a regular part of our collective behavior — and those practices won’t become a part of the collective behavior of novice learning teams until we name them and define them and figure out who is best suited to bring them to each conversation.

A few tips on using team roles:

(1). Remember that people should fill roles based on their personalities.  That means roles won’t automatically rotate to every member on a team.  For example, I’m great at creating documents and materials on the fly — so I’m a terrific producer.  But I’m also a pessimist, so if you ask me to be the encourager, we are going to be one seriously miserable group!

(2). Remember that roles can be situational — particularly on experienced teams:  Take the role of the challenger for an example.  To fill that role, a member has to have strong professional knowledge about the work the team is trying to complete.  That means some members might be better suited for filling the challenger role about some topics and other members might be better suited for filling the same role about different topics.

Or think about the role of the encourager.  Our levels of enthusiasm vary depending on the topics that we are engaging with.  That means different people might bring encouragement to the team at different times depending on how motivated they are about the task that the team is trying to tackle.

That’s okay.  In fact, it’s better than okay because it allows individuals to step forward and lead at different times over the course of a team’s collective study together.

(3). Remember that the same roles teachers fill on their learning teams are essential for students to fill in the collaborative learning groups that we run in our classrooms:  So whatever roles you settle on for your team should ALSO be used with students.  That accomplishes two goals.

First, it provides constant reinforcement for team members about the importance of each role in a collaborative group.  When we are coaching student groups about the role of the realist, we are reminding ourselves about the need for realism in our own team meetings.

And second, it provides an easy hook for convincing skeptical teachers that roles are essential.  If you say, “Every team should have roles,” you will have some teachers who roll their eyes and think, “We are all adults here.  Why do we need to define the work we are going to do together?”

But every teacher knows that it is important to teach students about what good collaboration looks like — so start there.  Pitch the notion of defining roles as something that we need to do for STUDENTS — and then suggest that you use the same roles with your collaborative team.  Say something like, “Let’s use these roles ourselves.  It will help us better understand what we are asking our kids to do.”

Everyone will buy in.  And your work will be more structured and productive as a result.


Related Radical Reads:

Lead Smarter:  Understand Teacher Approaches to Change

Note to Teams:  It’s Time to Complete Your Mid-Year Checkup Together

Is Your Team Flunking Unsuccessful Practices Together?