Tag Archives: #atplc

Ernesto* is the Reason I Believe in PLCs.

Have you ever cried over a student?

I have.  His name was Ernesto*, and he’d been in the United States for less than a year.  He spoke no English at all — and his parents didn’t speak any English at home.  He was mainstreamed into my science classroom without any real support.  I don’t speak Spanish — and our district had no resources in Spanish that addressed our grade level curriculum.

The minute I met Ernesto, I knew that I was going to be in for a long year. 

It’s no easy task to teach the content in our sixth grade science curriculum — ideas about heat transfer and plate tectonics and the cycling of matter through the ecosystem — to kids who have spent their whole lives speaking English.  Teaching that same curriculum to a Spanish speaking student when you have no additional training or resources can feel completely impossible.

I jumped in with both feet, though, because that’s what teachers do.  I used online translation tools to translate as much content into Spanish as I could.  I reached out to district office staffers who supervised our English as a Second Language services for ideas.  I hit the ol’ Google Machine — and somehow, I even found a third grade science textbook written in Spanish.

But eventually, I started to struggle.  The amount of time, energy and effort that I was investing into finding and developing individual materials for Ernesto was honestly overwhelming.  I was getting to school at least an hour early just to pull something simple together — and those simple materials weren’t all that interesting to Ernesto.

So he became a “behavior problem”. 

He stopped coming to class — and when I would track him down in the bathroom or wandering the hallways, he’d return to class only to sit there and refuse to even try.  I’d get frustrated with him — but looking back, his behaviors were a reflection of the support he was receiving and the learning experience I was creating.  Who am I kidding:  He was acting the exact same way I would act if I were in a learning space that didn’t even come close to meeting my needs.

Have you spotted the problem in my story yet?

I was working alone to meet Ernesto’s needs.  I wasn’t working as a part of a collaborative team in a professional learning community.  The success or failure of Ernesto rested completely on my shoulders — and I didn’t have the unique set of professional skills necessary to help him.  Worse yet, if he’d been assigned to another teacher with a different set of skills in the exact same school, he COULD have been successful.  Luck of the draw — being assigned to my classroom — meant that he lost an entire year of learning.

THAT’s why I believe in PLCs.  

It’s not because I’m driven to see my school make higher test scores and be ranked towards the top of district and state level performance.  Those things mean nothing to me.

It’s because I have Ernestos in my classroom every single year — kids that I don’t have the knowledge and skills to serve well.  What’s more, EVERY year, there are Ernestos in the classrooms of my colleagues — kids that they struggle to serve well.  That’s not an admission of weakness.  It’s a statement of truth.  Our classrooms are incredibly diverse places.

If we continue to work alone — to rely on our own know-how or to draw from our own professional bag of tricks — there’s simply no chance that every kid will succeed.  Instead, the small handful of kids that have needs that align nicely with our individual strengths will succeed.  Everyone else will stall or struggle.

But if we embrace the notion that “these are our kids” and open ourselves to genuine collaboration with our peers, we can pool our talents and improve our practice.  I’ll bring MY strengths at teaching students to understand nonfiction text to the table.  You bring YOUR strengths at structuring inquiry based learning experiences or working with students who are learning a new language.  If we ever feel stumped, we can identify a few practices with promise, try them out in our classrooms, and identify those that have a positive impact on our learners.

Together, everyone achieves more, right?  Including our Ernestos.

This is an equity issue, y’all.  Plain and simple.  And I don’t care how uncomfortable that makes you feel.

If you genuinely believe that every kid deserves an equal opportunity to master the skills that are essential for success in an increasingly complex and competitive world, then you simply can’t settle for school cultures that allow teachers to work alone.  No one teacher has the professional skills to serve every student well.

Stated more simply, if you settle for working alone, you are failing children.

Are you okay with that?  

Me neither.

Find a team and collaborate.



*While Ernesto is a pseudonym, he was very much a real student.  He went on to struggle throughout his time on our building — and I can’t help but think that was because of the poor start that he got in my room.  I think of him often because I knew that I was failing him — but I didn’t do anything to reach out to my colleagues for help.  Today, I’d turn to my peers — and I know that together, we’d find a way to help him achieve because we really believe that our collective capacity is far greater than our individual ability.


Related Radical Reads:

The Power of PLCs.

Five Resources for Starting PLCs from Scratch.

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

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


New #atplc Resource: Building Consensus Around Important Decisions

One of the most challenging aspects of working in a professional learning community or as a member of a collaborative team is coming to consensus around important decisions.

The fact of the matter is that we work in a profession where we have long prioritized individual authority over collective efficacy.  As learning community expert Mike Mattos likes to say, our approach to the instructional choices that we make — and the instructional differences that we have — is most frequently, “What happens in my classroom is MY business.  What happens in their classrooms is THEIR business.”


(Click here to see original image and image credit posted on Flickr)

But if we are getting collaboration right — which means we recognize the value of using our shared knowledge to systematically study our practice in service of student learning — we are going to be forced into a thousand situations where we have to make shared decisions.

Sometimes, those decisions will center around identifying knowledge, skills and dispositions that are essential for every kid to master, regardless of whose classroom they are in.  Other times, those decisions will center around the best ways differentiate instruction or to personalize learning or to assess the progress that students are making or to sequence the content and skills we want kids to master before the end of their time in our classrooms.

Regardless of the situation, coming to consensus around important decisions — which leads to a measure of consistency in outcomes and pacing across classrooms — makes it possible for teams of teachers to engage in collective inquiry.

So how do you build consensus around important decisions?  

You have structured conversations build around three core behaviors:

Establishing Clarity — Beginning a consensus building conversation starts by developing a shared sense of the decision that you are trying to make.   

Identifying Non-Negotiables — Building consensus around an important decision also depends on having a sense of any non-negotiables that members of your team have before your conversation even begins.  By allowing all team members to state what matters most to them about the decision that you are making, you are more likely to brainstorm potential solutions that take the individual needs of your peers into account and to avoid potential solutions that have little to no chance of being embraced by everyone on your team.

Listing Areas of Agreement — Finally, building consensus around an important decision depends on finding common ground. Listing the areas where your team already agrees can give you a valuable starting point for developing solutions that everyone can embrace.  

When conversations are deliberately designed to establish clarity, identify non-negotiables, and find areas of agreement, EVERYONE has the chance to be heard and to have their core positions recognized and validated.  That’s the key to earning commitment to a shared decision.  Resistance to shared decisions happens most often when team members feel ignored.

Does this all make sense to you?

If so, you might dig this handout that I’ve put together to help teams structure consensus-building conversations.

Lemme know what you think of it!


Related Radical Reads:

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

Reflection Tools for Teachers in a PLC

New #atplc Resource:  Task Teams Tackle Document

Lead Smarter, Not Harder Tip 2: Start Asking Better Interview Questions

About a month ago, I was working with a buddy who is a principal. 

He was frustrated by the levels of meaningful collaboration happening between teachers in his school and had reached out because he knew that I do a ton of consulting around the notion of professional learning communities.

“We are set up to function like a professional learning community,” he said, “but you’d hardly know it.  Our teachers aren’t studying their practice together.  They might share a few ideas with one another every now and then, but even that doesn’t impact instruction in our building.  How do you get people to buy into the idea that collaboration matters?”

Daniel McCullough

I surprised him by asking to see the questions that he uses in interviews for open positions.

He dug out his laptop and pulled up a list of pretty typical questions.  Things like:

  1. Give me an example of how you incorporate technology into your lessons.
  2. Can you tell me about a differentiated lesson that you taught last year?
  3. What are your “go to” classroom management strategies?
  4. How do you communicate with the parents of your students?
  5. What three adjectives best describe you?

“And I double check with references to see if candidates are telling the truth about the answers that are giving in interviews,” he said.  “If a candidate tells us something that references don’t support, I move on to someone else.  I’m not just hiring anyone.  I only hire the best.”

Can you see the problem here, all y’all?

My buddy is trying to build a collaborative culture, but he’s not asking a single question during interviews that can help him spot people who are open to the notion that studying practice with peers is worth embracing.  Instead, he’s asking questions that will help him to spot teachers who are successful individuals — and hiring a ton of successful individuals can cripple professional learning communities.

For my buddy, leading smarter, not harder means asking better interview questions.

The goal for interviews in a professional learning community ISN’T to spot candidates who already have “all the answers” to questions about technology use or differentiation or classroom management.

The goal for interviews in a professional learning community is to spot candidates who are reflective, who have a growth mindset about their own practice, and who realize that personal growth is a function of collective study with capable peers.

That means if we really ARE trying to create buildings where teacher collaboration is the engine driving instructional change, we need to be asking questions like these in interviews:

Tell me about a lesson that you have tinkered with.  What did that lesson originally look like? What changes have you made to it over time?  How did those changes impact your students? Your peers? Which changes were the most successful? Which changes failed miserably?

How do YOU learn?  More importantly, who are the people that you currently learn with? How did you meet them? How do you connect with them?  What have they taught you? What have you taught them?

What well-established professional practice are you skeptical about?  What is it about this practice that leaves you doubting? Can you give tangible examples of places where this practice has let you—or your students—down?

How do you determine whether or not a lesson has been successful?  Is a successful lesson one that leaves your students energized?  Is it one that students are still talking about weeks later? Is it one that results in really high marks on classroom or district assessments?

Describe a time when your instruction was deeply influenced by a colleague.*  Who was that person?  How did you come to work together?  How did they change your practice? Did their practice change while working with you?

If candidates struggle to answer these questions, move on — no matter how good their resumes and references look.

Here’s why:  Candidates that struggle to answer these questions don’t have the right mental makeup to invest in the collaborative study of practice that is the hallmark of a professional learning community.

And every time you hire someone who doesn’t have a predisposition to learning from their peers, you make it harder for collaboration to become the social norm in your building.  Sooner or later, you become a collection of individuals instead of a community of learners.

Jim Collins called this “getting the right people on the bus.”

The truth is that many principals trying to strengthen their professional learning communities are forgetting that “getting the right people on the bus” doesn’t mean finding folks with a stack of individual accomplishments.  “Getting the right people on the bus” means finding folks who see the potential in learning alongside their peers.

Does this resonate with you?  

If so, then you might dig this handout that I made that can be used to track candidate responses to collaborative questions in interviews.

Hope it helps.


*This interview question can only be used with a candidate that has teaching experience.  Teachers new to the profession might struggle to answer it.


Related Radical Reads:

The Most Important Interview Question I Bet You Never Asked.

Out of this World Hiring Lessons for the Principals of PLCs

Lessons School Leaders Can Learn from the Pittsburgh Steelers

Simple Truth:  Collective Strength Matters More than Individual Talent

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be working alongside the super motivated educators at Solution Tree’s PLC Institute in San Diego. The goal for most of the participants will be to find ways to polish their collaborative practices in order to help kids learn.  Together, teams from individual schools will study everything from the core beliefs that support learning communities to the nuts and bolts of making collaboration more efficient and effective.

I’ll be delivering three different breakout sessions at the Institutes.  Here are the materials for each session.  Hope you find them useful:


Digital Tools Can Make Differentiation Doable

Slides for Session

If schools are truly working to ensure success for every student, learning experiences need to be customized and aligned to student interests, needs, and unique learning styles. The challenge, however, rests in making differentiation manageable. While few teachers doubt the importance of differentiating, many struggle to make customized learning spaces a reality. William M. Ferriter introduces a range of digital tools that can be used to track progress by student and standard, provide structure for differentiated classrooms, and facilitate initial attempts at remediation and enrichment.


Small Schools and Singletons: Structuring Meaningful Professional Learning Teams for Every Teacher

Slides for Session | Handouts for Session

The PLC concept resonates with most educators, but making collaborative learning work in small schools or for singleton teachers can be challenging. Participants explore four models for building meaningful professional learning teams for singletons and teachers in small schools: 1) creating vertical teams to study skills that cross content areas, 2) using interdisciplinary teams to address the engagement levels of at-risk students, 3) designing class loads that allow teachers to teach the same subjects, and 4) using electronic tools to pair teachers with peers working in the same subject area.


Our Students Can Assess Themselves

Slides for Session | Handouts for Session

In the spring of 2012, Canadian educational change expert Dean Shareski issued a simple challenge on his blog: “I’m wondering if you’re ready to let your students assess themselves. Not as some experiment where you end up grading them apart but where you really give the reigns over to them?” Shareski’s challenge resonates with William M. Ferriter, who has always been dissatisfied with the grade-driven work in his classroom. He introduces participants to the tangible steps he has taken in response to Shareski’s challenge to integrate opportunities for self-assessment into classrooms.


For more information on structuring high functioning Professional Learning Communities, check out Bill’s books — Building a Professional Learning Community at Work – A Guide to the First Year and Making Teamwork Meaningful.

And don’t forget:  You can read all of my PLC related posts on the Radical by clicking on this link.