Based on the book Amplify Your Impact: Coaching Collaborative Teams in a PLC at Work™. This is Part 1 in a series on coaching collaborative teams in professional learning communities. To view all posts see Coaching in a PLC at Work™.
Most schools have at least one collaborative team that just isn’t cutting the mustard. They meet consistently as a team, but they just don’t seem to make any headway toward improving teaching practices, let alone student achievement. We have trained them in the fundamentals of professional learning communities, shown them videos of what productive teams look like, and have occasionally joined their meetings to help them keep on track. But still, they just don’t seem to “get it.”
There are myriad reasons as to why this might be the case for individual teams. It could be that a lack of trust keeps teachers from making themselves vulnerable, so they refuse to reveal their challenges or try new practices. It could be that teachers do not truly believe all students can learn and feel that current achievement levels are good enough. Or it could be that well-intentioned teams simply do not know what to do next. If we think about these struggling teams similar to the way we think about struggling students, we can intervene and help them improve their effectiveness.
All good teachers begin a new unit of study by clearly describing what students will know and be able to do by the time they have completed the unit. When they give a summative assessment, excellent teachers provide students with a clear rubric that demonstrates the expectations in detail. When helping teams improve their effectiveness, we must ensure that teams understand the standards they are expected to achieve. In our book Amplify Your Impact: Coaching Collaborative Teams in a PLC at Work™, (Many, Maffoni, Sparks & Thomas, 2018) we discuss the idea of building a PLC strategy-implementation guide that clearly defines the elements of effective collaborative teams. Using the five prerequisite conditions of PLCs as the foundation, schools create a continuum of descriptors that help teams identify their current state of development—and show them exactly where they should be headed. Developing a strategy-implementation guide or using the continuums in Learning by Doing (DuFour, et al., 2006) encourages teams to be self-reflective and acknowledge the next steps necessary for further development. This process is amplified when those leading PLCs guide teams through this self-reflective process and assist them in setting goals for next steps.
Once teachers have delivered direct instruction to help students achieve predetermined standards, collaborative teams deliver common formative assessments to measure students’ progress and ensure they are on the right track toward proficiency. Principals, coaches, and other leaders who have access to teams’ written products or artifacts such as meeting minutes have a tremendous opportunity to formatively assess their teams’ progress toward proficiency (as defined by the strategy-implementation guide). Closely analyzing these artifacts can show us whether teams are answering the Four Critical Questions, if they are spending too much time on a particular topic, and what kind of interventions they are (and are not) providing for struggling students. Even vague collaborative meeting minutes can tell us a lot about a particular team. At the very least, they can raise red flags, indicating a need to investigate the quality of future collaborative team meetings. Although it can be time-consuming, it is imperative that leaders use team documentation as formative data to help measure our teams’ needs for support. When this formative data is used to provide teams with specific and timely feedback, the power of coaching collaborative teams can really begin to materialize.
After collaborative teams analyze formative assessment data, they use it to determine which students need what support. They make a specific plan for intervention based on the needs of individual students, and they provide those students with ongoing feedback about their performance. Likewise, we as leaders must provide teams with ongoing feedback about their performance, and we must differentiate the support we provide based specifically on individual teams’ needs. One support mechanism for helping teams increase levels of effectiveness is the Pathways for Coaching Collaborative Teams, also found in Amplify Your Impact. Each Pathway is connected to one of the Four Critical Questions of a PLC and is designed to guide teams through a series of cascading questions. With the support of a coach (who may be the principal or any other team leader), teams collaboratively respond to the cascading questions, leading them to the actions one might see in an effective collaborative team meeting. Although we provide specific examples of Pathways in Amplify Your Impact and readers are welcome to use them, we encourage schools to create their own Pathways using their own language and processes. Just like the scaffolding a teacher could provide for a struggling student, Pathways provides scaffolding that helps collaborative teams in a PLC close the knowing-doing gap, and eventually become more productive teams.
No matter where we are in the PLC implementation process, we all have teams at varying levels of effectiveness. As leaders, it is our responsibility to identify teams’ strengths and weaknesses and provide them the ongoing feedback and differentiated support they need to improve toward specific standards. When we improve teams’ effectiveness, we are far more likely to improve student achievement.
Read the next post in this series, “Coaching in a PLC: Providing Feedback.”
Follow Tesha Ferriby Thomas on Twitter @tferribythomas.