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Reflections on Professional Learning Communities (PLC’s) and Teacher Collaboration

PLC CollaborationYou know the feeling: it’s family vacation time and you’ve packed busy bags for the kids, have enough Goldfish crackers and juice boxes to keep them in snacks for weeks, suitcases stuffed in the back and under feet, special blankie and stuffed bear freshly laundered.  Silently, you remember the last car trip which led to the discovery that Silly Putty sticks to fabric and think optimistically that this time will be better.  It has to be better.

PLC Culture:  Who’s in your minivan?

With the rise of PLC collaboration, the potential for teachers to increase student learning and achievement increases exponentially.  With our GPS set to locate and find “success” on the map, we tuck ourselves in for the trip, singing “we are family,” and the rest is easy peasy, right?

WRONG.  

What happens if we aren’t one big happy family?  What if we all have different ideas of what “success” looks like?  What if some people in the car want to discuss the philosophy of road tripping instead of actually getting on the road? What if some people complain because the busy bags have Goldfish instead of pretzels, goddammit, and don’t even get them started on the juice boxes.  What if some people aren’t comfortable and want to stretch their legs, have a bit of adventure, make the experience more meaningful?  What if some people are so obsessed with following the GPS directions exactly and fail to see that there may be more than one way to reach the destination?  What if more than one person wants to sit in the driver seat?  What if some people don’t like traveling together?    

You see, I’ve experienced functional and dysfunctional PLC’s – I’m currently a part of both types.

Sometimes there is this instant synergy, an understanding that we’re going to do this teaching thing together. This type of road trip is more like an adventure because every stop promises a new discovery. Common philosophies about teaching and complimentary teaching styles have these teachers singing “we are family,” and working together to make sure that students are engaged and learning as they plan formative and summative assessments that truly matter, and have fun while doing it. 

Other times, there is a dread, even cold-sweat, feet-dragging reluctance, of going to PLC meetings. These teachers might feel misunderstood and frustrated. Personalities and philosophies clash.  Time is wasted.  While PLC’s should be, as Richard DuFour intended, rising higher in the interest of student achievement, these teachers flounder as they try to find common ground.   

In my school, we have a “main” PLC with common plan time and a “secondary” PLC.  I spent years upon frustrated years before deciding to swap my main PLC with my secondary one and, in doing so, I’ve found myself refreshed and eager to take on new challenges. At the same time, I am still part of a very challenging secondary PLC, one that often leaves me in tears.  Every year, as the minivan starts up, I’m like that mom described above just hoping that this time the trip will be better.  It has to be better.  

In the process of navigating this world of teacher collaboration, I reflect that I have learned a lot about people and about myself.  People can be delightful, yet difficult. People can be challenging on their own or just as a result of group dynamics and structure.

Can’t We All Just Get Along?  Teacher types and how to work together.

  1. The Philosopher:  I respect a good philosophical conversation.  The danger here is that in discussing philosophy and big picture ideas, we are not on the road at all.  If too much time is spent here, the PLC becomes less practical and useful for everyone involved.  I suggest setting a timer and having a specific question or focus/goal in having a philosophical conversation in order to keep this in check.  Keep strict norms and enforce them so that a philosopher cannot derail a PLC meeting with his or her own personal agenda.
  2. The Complainer:  I understand that in teacher world, nothing is ever perfect.  That being said, there will always be something to complain about. Complaining can set a negative tone and often goes hand-in-hand with gossip.  I’ve found that I need to just flat-out avoid certain negative nellies, but if the nellie is in your PLC meeting I suggest setting a strict norm about this and redirecting negative comments or ignoring them completely.  As for complaining that so often masquerades as the “airing of teaching concerns and struggles?”  Turn the focus to be solutions-oriented vs. a venting session which never helps anyone.
  3. The Adventurer: I understand that some people are comfortable being comfortable.  It is important to understand that some teachers thrive as creators and need the flexibility to explore and try new things.  Try giving students choice when it comes to assessment, or allowing teachers to explore different types of assessment with the goal of figuring out what works best.  (Raise your hand if you’re a fellow adventurer!  Take it from me, there’s nothing worse than feeling “trapped” in a PLC because there is no freedom and flexibility.)
  4. The Rule Follower: Make sure that there is a time for crossing t’s and dotting i’s.  This time is not when teachers are “in the trenches,” but rather at the end of a unit or school year as a way to reflect or at the beginning of the school year to set goals. Make sure to set an agenda and stick to it.  This can help provide organization and focus.
  5. The Hard-to-Understand: I think that this perceived “difficulty” comes down to personality clash.  Take some time at the beginning of the year to discuss personal preferences and working styles – understanding is half of the battle to working well with anyone.  I suggest this Compass Points resource as a way to start the conversation. As a teacher, I am definitely a West-North.  Ideas and creativity are fuel, freedom is what motivates me, and I would rather have a solid idea and figure it out as I go than to talk it to death. I think that it is most challenging to work with East-oriented teacher friends because I often find the tendency to pick apart rather than construct with an open mind to be counter-productive. What is your compass type?  How can you harness your own strengths while keeping in mind the strengths of others?

Four Tips for PLC Harmony (From a “West” Compass Point)

  1. We are teachers, not clones.  Make student learning the bottom line and understand that every teacher will get there in his or her own unique way.  
  2. Don’t compromise into mediocrity.  If an assessment isn’t working, re-read tip number one, put on your big girl or boy pants and do the hard work it takes to find success.  Don’t water down the curriculum to make everyone happy.  Don’t settle.  Keep the focus on student learning and engagement.
  3. It’s curriculum, not your baby. Don’t become so emotionally attached to something that you can’t change it, drop it, or discuss it objectively. To this end, collect data so that discussion can be facts-based rather than emotions-based.
  4. If it’s not working, seek an outside perspective. Think of this as couples counseling for PLCs – ask a lead teacher or instructional coach to sit in on a meeting or two and offer suggestions and observations.  

More Goldfish, Anyone?

In the end, teaching is a hard profession and one that is best accomplished when fellow teachers are good travel companions. Before you buckle up your seat belt, take some time to get to know each other and establish the “rules of the road” a.k.a. a common vision and rules of engagement. Have difficult conversations in a respectful way.  

In the end, there is only so much one person can do.  I conclude by reflecting that sometimes a change is what it takes when a PLC environment becomes toxic. Remember to take care of yourself. You deserve to be in an environment of mutual respect, cooperation, and productivity!


I’d love to hear of your thoughts on PLC culture, teacher collaboration, or personal experiences.  What are your tips for thriving in a PLC or teacher collaboration?  What compass point are you?   

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