You 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.
Professional Learning Community Culture: Who’s in your minivan?
With the rise of teacher collaboration in a professional learning community, 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?
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 professional learning community 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 professional learning community, 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 Collaboration Meets Personality Types
- 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 professional learning community 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.
- 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 professional learning community, 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.
- 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 professional learning community because there is no freedom and flexibility.)
- 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.
- 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 Professional Learning Community Harmony (From a “West” Compass Point)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- If it’s not working, seek an outside perspective. Think of this as couples counseling for a professional learning community – 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 for teacher collaboration in your professional learning community. 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 professional learning community culture, teacher collaboration, or personal experiences.
What are your tips for thriving in a PLC or teacher collaboration?
What compass point are you?
Hey, if you loved this post, I want to be sure you’ve had the chance to grab a FREE copy of my guide to streamlined grading. I know how hard it is to do all the things as an English teacher, so I’m over the moon to be able to share with you some of my best strategies for reducing the grading overwhelm.
Click on the link above or the image below to get started!
It’s interesting to read your thoughts because when I taught professionally, I was very carefully honed in to my own classroom and didn’t interact much with my fellow professionals. Difficult for others to work with, likely.
I have completed several personality tests in the past, but have noticed that generally, who I test out as in the professional space often varies from who I test out as personally. So, now it’s hard to say, since the only PLC I am a part of, is online. But I do find being able to give broad stroked labels to people can be helpful as a way to understand their strengths and weaknesses. It helps me to assess who to hand off certain jobs to: Always let the Rule Follower drive but give the GPS to the Adventurer. 🙂
Thanks for your thoughts, Christina! We are all so much more than a label, but it is a good starting place for conversation to take place and set PLC norms for sure and makes, like you said, division of responsibilities easier. 🙂 We’ve struggled so much over the years in one of the PLC groups referenced because of completely divergent philosophies and working styles. It is challenging when we’re all asked to give “common assessments” and a “common experience” to our students and some don’t want to try new things (or complain while doing so!).
I love how you connected this to a story of a road trip. I personally am not a member of a PLC but I think your points could apply to many groups, especially professional ones. I am definitely a Rule Follower and can get frustrated when others don’t agree with my standpoint! You need a little bit of everything to make it work though!
Definitely! Thank you for your thoughts; everyone has strengths that are beneficial to the group.
A great read! My current school has “common planning time” but it is really just someone presenting something that is not super relevant. I only get to meet with the other science teacher once a month! I keep pressing to make it more of the PLC you describe above (even the bad ones!!!) but it is a struggle! I am going to save this article link for a rainy day!
Linda Burns (KinderLit)
When I was still teaching, I did a two-year professional development study for my evaluation of what PLC is and should look like. My principal said she would be very supportive of using the PLC model for our new once-a-week early release time. I was looking forward to working with my teammates and other grade levels but unfortunately it turned out to be nothing more than a way for the principal to have longer staff meetings. 🙁 A year after I retired that principal retired and the new one is more appropriate!
Oh my! This sounds like great work and learning on your part; it’s too bad that it was not implemented successfully due to lack of administrative support!
Very interesting and enjoyable read. We too have common planning time (cpt) and it tends to be more focused on discussion and philosophy than setting specific goals and outlining strategies and plans for student success. I find your post helpful and plan to use the compass to self reflect and with my colleagues to help transition from CPT to PLC. Work smarter, not harder.
Coleen, I’m glad you found my post and hope that the compass points reflection helps your group to transition from CPT to PLC. PLC work can be very powerful, but everyone has to be on the same page and really focused on student learning as the ultimate outcome. I would also recommend taking the time to establish norms for your group work time; this gives you a chance to set boundaries and envision together what you want your time to be all about. Friction can actually be good as long as the group is willing to work together to remain true to the common vision and norms. We call this process “storming and norming.” Let me know if I can be of any help to you in the future!
I really enjoyed your article and loved how you used metaphors and symbolism to connect this concept to an event everyone can relate to. I am currently learning about learning communities and your article really helped me understand how I can work cohesively with others, especially those who have different personality types from myself.
I really enjoyed this road trip of a read! It would be great if there was an infographic to go with it or a PowerPoint presentation. What do you think?
This is an interesting suggestion. Perhaps in the future I’ll consider this. What is it you’d like to gain from a PowerPoint presentation on this topic?