As school divisions across the globe map out their re-opening plans, never has the importance of high-quality, high-impact teaching been greater. For many of us, this teaching will take a variety of forms from 100% virtual learning to a hybrid of face-to-face and remote learning. In my own home, Tessa (age 8) and Jackson (age 6) will spend Tuesday and Thursday at their school, William Perry Elementary, and three days engaged in remote learning. Their teachers’ will have Monday dedicated to work within their grade-level teams for planning, data teams, student conferences, etc. This may very well be the silver lining in the cloud hanging over our schools and classrooms in the age of COVID-19. Teachers may have extended time allocated for the planning and implementation of high-quality, high-impact teaching. How we use that time will strongly influence the quality and impact of our teaching.
Let’s look at Monday, or the time you have allotted for planning, as the opportunity to work within your PLC. My colleagues and I developed a new approach to PLCs known as PLC+ (see https://us.corwin.com/en-us/nam/node/1510976/). Maximizing the time requires that someone within the PLC step up and activate the processes that support and guide our decisions about teaching and learning. PLCs need an activator now more than ever. So what is an activator and what do effective activators do?
Strong activation is essential for success in all PLC settings. We will face many challenges and ups and downs through the course of the upcoming or current school year. The role of the activator is critical to the success of the PLC by moving forward the learning of both the adults and our students. Many previous PLC models and frameworks have disregarded the role human behavior plays when it comes to collaborative efforts to impact student learning at high levels. The activator has the ability to move a PLC from chaos and dysfunction into impactful action, from where team members are stagnant to where they are thriving. With all of the distractions that will compete for our attention, the activator ensures that we are focused on the learning and development of both adults and the students we teach. Whether in a classroom or from our couch, the laboratory or the living room, activators arm help us overcome any challenges we may face.
What do effective activators do?
Effective PLC activators:
- Foster, nurture credibility with their colleagues and students.
- Apply relevant skills to lead adults in their learning process
- Have the ability engage their colleagues in critical and difficult conversations related to teaching and learning.
- Truly believe that they, along with all of their students and colleagues, can learn at high levels.
- Successfully leverage the expertise of each member of the PLC in solving complex problems related to teaching and learning.
- Enhance the collaborative maturity of the PLC.
These six characteristics are designed to capitalize on the professionalism of teaching. As experts in not just what to teach, but how to teach, the work of PLCs must move beyond using this much needed to time to vent. Furthermore, we cannot avoid having critical and difficult conversations or addressing complex problems for fear of adding to the stress that might accompany the upcoming or current academic year. In fact, the work of our PLCs reduces the cognitive load by leveraging the collective expertise of the PLC. In other words, we are not going at this alone.
There is nothing wrong with being friendly and keeping the mood light, but there needs to be a transition to the work of teaching and learning. Our students are counting on us and the stakes are too high to simply leave it be. Without an activator, PLC meetings can become places where conversations are more like those at a cocktail party—and about everything except teaching and learning. When team members are very friendly, another challenge can arise: team members may be unwilling to be fully honest. They may avoid healthy but challenging dialogue about teaching and learning. Hard conversations are necessary in a well-functioning PLC+. But if no one is willing to challenge practices, PLC meetings can become simply a “land of nice.”
The most striking result is the negative correlation between student achievement and “friendship” interactions among teachers—the more friendship interactions, the lower students’ academic achievement. . . . [These] findings based on correlations . . . do cast doubt on the perception that teachers must be friends or engage in social interactions for the school to be effective (Marzano, 2003, pp. 61–62).
Activators set the tone for all PLC meetings.
Eight Strategies for Activating Your PLC
If you are reading this post, I am going to assume that you are an activator. Yet, you may be looking for ways to step into that role without walking through the door and declaring, “I am your activator.” That was meant to be funny, but is not outside the reality of what often occurs in PLCs. How can we step into our role as an activator that builds common ownership by ensuring each member has a valued role in the work that results in a cohesive PLC.
- Be prepared: Model being prepared and ready to focus on teaching and learning. If you are prepared and ready to lead the meeting, the chances your peers will be invested immediately increase dramatically.
- Set aside time for people to let it out: We need time to vent, share personal issues, and talk about our day. Sometimes their PLC meeting is the only time we get to talk with adults. Maybe we allow five minutes at the beginning of the meeting for us to share happenings in our lives? It’s important to set an external timer so there is an indicator when the five minutes are up and to signal that it’s now time to get to business.
- Establish routines and authentically stick to them: Maintain a professional tone at all times during the meeting. Suggest that we set goals and establish norms for how we will use the time together.
- Share leadership and ownership of meetings: Provide time for other members to be responsible for making the meeting a success. Prior to each PLC+ meeting, give members the opportunity to help prepare for the meeting. Create a list of choices based on the preparation needed. One strategy: develop a to-do list prior to the conclusion of each meeting. Then, sign your name next to items that you have already begun, and encourage others to sign up for the rest.
- Being businesslike doesn’t mean being stuffy: Have a sense of humor, and make sure there are times when the meeting is fun; it’s important and allows the team to let off steam. Building efficacy requires the recognition and celebration of successes within the group. Take time to use the data and evidence generated by the guiding questions to feed the individual and collective belief that we can and do have an impact on student learning.
- Be comfortable with wait time: As the initial activator, you may try to do everything, to provide answers and solutions to every challenge that comes up in the PLC. Be comfortable utilizing wait time when the team is digging into important questions and issues during PLC dialogue. This will require practice. Letting the conversation, or silence, occur may be the process needed at that moment. If the conversation or silence begins to lead towards an issue not related to teaching and learning, that is the time to render action by returning to the routines (see #3 in this list). However, being able to nudge the group back toward these requires that, as activators, you are familiar with the focus and goals of the PLC meeting.
- Be a servant leader: Do more than others can ever expect of you. As the initial activator, be prepared to let your own commitment to the process do the “talking.” Early on, you may have to add a few more items to your own to-do list that include developing a high level of comfort and familiarity with the work of the PLC.
- Take your role, not yourself, seriously: Be willing, more than anyone else on the team to be humble, acknowledge mistakes, and ensure team members see you as an activator of their team and a member of the team at all times. As the activator, you should be willing to put your data out for discussion first, modeling the process of reflection and thinking aloud.
This year will bring challenges to our teaching and students’ learning. Yet, with those challenges come opportunities. What we do with those opportunities will determine the impact we have on our learners. This post only scratches the surface of how we can step into the role of activator and serve as a catalyst in our PLCs. If you find that time has been allotted for you and your colleagues to collective approach virtual or hybrid teaching and learning, seize the opportunity. Be an activator!
For additional resources on PLC+, a a comprehensive method of engaging educators in a cycle of learning through inquiry, visit https://us.corwin.com/en-us/nam/node/1510976/. This Corwin Connect post is adapted from The PLC+ Activator’s Guide (https://us.corwin.com/en-us/nam/plc-books).
Nagel, D., Almarode, J., Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Flories, K. (2020). The PLC+ activator’s guide. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Marzano, R.J. (2003). What works in Schools: Translating research into action. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.