For decades, education leaders have recognized the value of teachers engaging in professional learning communities. Time and training have been allocated for teachers to come together as teams at regular intervals to focus on student learning. The purpose makes sense, because after all, who doesn’t want to improve student learning? However, some teams perform at high levels, and in turn, demonstrate stronger gains in student learning, while others fall flat. Often this issue can be traced to how teams prioritize their minutes during PLC meetings. To gain some insight, let’s look at the priorities of congenial teams and collaborative teams.
Many teacher teams are comprised of educators who care deeply about their students, their craft, and their colleagues. The teachers we know work really hard, often late into the evening and they’re at it again early the next morning. They frequently attend their students’ soccer games on Saturdays and answer email on Sunday. Clearly, the problem isn’t that teachers don’t care or don’t work hard enough. It’s possible, however, that when teachers get together during PLC time, they prioritize comfort over change. In other words, being congenial with each other is the shared goal.
It’s not to say that PLC teams shouldn’t be friendly; in fact, we advocate for ongoing team building opportunities where teachers develop friendships because relational trust is bolstered by social interactions that reinforce fellowship and camaraderie. The challenge for many teams is not in developing social networks, but rather revising their understanding that congeniality during PLC time isn’t the end goal. It’s an essential component, but the outcomes we expect for students won’t be realized unless teams craft a shared goal around students’ learning needs.
One example of a congenial team is the 5th grade team at Sunshine Elementary. These teachers genuinely care about each other and pride themselves of always being “on the same page.” However, during their 30-minute PLC meetings, they usually discuss student absenteeism and behavior issues for the first 20 minutes, then quickly, and half-heartedly, complete the PLC forms required by their principal for 5 minutes, and spend the remaining 5 minutes chatting about a more pleasant topic such as the newest release on Netflix. They return to their classrooms, no wiser for their time spent together.
Congenial teams focus on their own comfort. Their top priorities are getting along and getting through the day. While we certainly want teachers to have social connections with their colleagues, the problem with congenial groups is that no one dares to make waves. The bar is set at ‘getting along’, and typically doesn’t include investigation or discussion of student, and adult, learning needs. In essence, the ‘team’ maintains individualism, and possibly sustains weak teaching practices.
Without analysis of student learning in relation to instruction, group functioning and student achievement is stagnant.
On the other hand, collaborative teams elevate their levels of functioning by shifting from getting along to articulating a shared commitment to student learning as their purpose for getting together. Collaborative teams use their PLC time to plan, monitor, and adjust instruction. They collect and analyze student work samples as a team on a regular basis. They discuss their instructional practices and are open to learning about how to customize for individual students’ and groups’ learning needs. Collaborative teams earn their successes by working together effectively and efficiently; and they use artifacts as proof of their impact on student learning.
Teams that are both congenial and collaborative don’t just happen; rather, they are cultivated by adhering to structures designed to assist teams to focus on the right things. The five PLC+ Guiding Questions are one such structure, as are developing team norms, and looking at student work (LASW) protocols. When these structures become part and parcel of a team’s regular PLC time, students and teachers learn more and feel more joy while doing so. One method many PLC+ teams have used with success is the Collective Efficacy Cycle.
The Next Step for PLC+ Teams: A Collective Efficacy Cycle
One approach that helps teams shift from being congenial to being collaborative is to use the five PLC+ Guiding Questions to structure their team meetings. Some teams are adept at identifying a student learning need, the common challenge, as described in the PLC+ framework, but may not know where to go next. Other teams say, “We know the five Guiding Questions, but what do we do now?” A Collective Efficacy Cycle is one method for helping teams to move their learning, as well as students’ learning, forward.
A Collective Efficacy Cycle (CEC) is a form of an inquiry cycle. It’s also the next step for teams who wish to build collective teacher efficacy while increasing student learning. This cycle typically lasts from 6-8 weeks and focuses on one area of student need the PLC+ team has identified. For example, a team at Mountain View High School focused on improving students’ study skills. A group of teachers from different content areas identified this as a priority and believed that implementation of study skills would allow them to move students’ learning forward. They used evidence from students to identify their common challenge, intentionally learned with and from each other, and then implemented their ideas. They brought evidence to their meetings, showing how students were using study skills and the impact of those skills on learning. As a chemistry teacher said, “we were looking at student work from history, and it really hit me. I needed to focus on note-taking because I saw how much more students remembered and were able to apply it.”
It’s important that PLC+ teams regularly self-assess so they can be aware if their team meetings are leaning more towards the congenial side than the collaborative side. Social connections are essential for building relational trust, which often is a catalyst for true collaboration if teams are willing to take that next step. Collaborative teams identify a problem and take action; in other words, they don’t admire or ignore it. When teams own a problem, and conquer it, the success is sweeter and contagious.
Collaboration is more than activities; it is about producing results by acting together.
Collaborative teams share all aspects of teaching and learning; they don’t shrink away from issues. They know that the trust they’ve built together equips them to face a challenge together, not alone. Healthy, productive tension can inspire teacher teams to challenge previously-held assumptions and expand their instructional expertise. When a team stretches themselves out of their comfort zones, they prioritize student learning over adult comfort. They let go of ‘good enough’ in order to pursue ‘best.’